“I Know Jazz Can Be a Dirty Word for Some People:” An Interview With Josh Kelly

Will Schube speaks to the Melbourne saxophonist about being inspired by J Dilla and the formation of the 30/70 collective.
By    August 16, 2020

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Melbourne’s jazz scene has quietly grown to rival those in LA, Chicago, New York, and the UK. At the center is a label called La Sape, which hosts a variety of artists bending the limits of jazz more explicitly and aggressively than some contemporaries. Horatio Luna is a world class bass player who merges deep house with electronic jazz, and Josh Kelly’s been a powerful force in the scene since he joined the 30/70 Collective as a saxophonist. That group rode the international acclaim of Hiatus Kaiyote to regional success, touring across Australia thanks to their deliriously psychedelic blend of jazz, pop, electronic music, and jam band aesthetics.

Kelly has spun that project into his own group, The JK Group, and has brought along 30/70 members Matt Hayes and Ziggy Zeitgeist in addition to Lewis Moody on the Rhodes and a host of additional contributors. The album is a swirling, intoxicating combination of straight ahead jazz that sounds like a small orchestra with synth-heavy breakdowns and funk eccentricity. In Kelly’s estimation, it’s not far from what artists like Kamasi Washington, Makaya McCraven, and Kamaal Williams are touching on, but the “idiosyncrasies” are apparent from the outset. It’s a twist on nu-jazz formalism, diluting the diving lines even stronger than more traditional jazz mainstays, hoping to foster a new generation of Australian jazz. Growing up, Kelly was obsessed with the Mirabi style of jazz, which blends South African styles with more traditional big band sounds. That influence is apparent on JK Group’s debut, The Young Ones, although every influence encountered here is a mere jumping off point for Josh Kelly’s near limitless imagination of what modern jazz can be. — Will Schube

Normally, when you put out a new record, are you touring around Melbourne and the surrounding areas promoting it? How much has that changed now?

Josh Kelly: I’m pretty bummed because I had bold ideas to tour this one all around Australia. It’s best to start on the East Coast because this country’s enormous and cities are so far spread. In Europe, you can travel for nine hours and you’ll cross five or six different countries in that time, and you can do a gig in each one of those cities and sell out rooms. But in Australia, the distance between Melbourne and Sydney is about 500/600 miles, and there’s nothing in between. There are all these small towns, but you can’t really play there – there’s no band rooms, there’s no economy to support doing gigs in most of those small towns. Touring here is crazy. With 30/70, we’d fly mostly – we used to drive, but we’re fortunate enough that at the point we can jump on a plane. We travel that distance in an hour, but plane tickets are expensive, so it’s tricky to tour here. I had ideas that I would tour this record and do this big gig in Melbourne that I was super excited about, but that was the first thing to go the when Corona Virus hit in March.

Can you outline what the jazz scene is like in Australia, and what it was like growing up around it, in Melbourne especially?

Josh Kelly: I’m fortunate because I actually moved here. I was born in South Africa, and I lived and grew up in New Zealand for 10 years of my childhood. I moved to Melbourne specifically for music. I finished up high school in New Zealand, and I heard so much about the music scene over here, and this was even before Hiatus Kaiyote made a break. I was checking out this band, The Bamboos, a lot, as well as Cookin’ on 3 Burners and The Cat Empire – these associated bands that were all coming out of Melbourne making international waves. I just thought, “I’ll move there and see what happens.”

I came over here when I was 18, studied at uni, and met a whole lot of jazz musicians that way. I started checking out more niche jazz, more music that was happening in the smaller clubs, and I was exposed to this crazy scene. I had never really heard music played like this before, and I never knew it existed. The Melbourne jazz scene at the time was pretty experimental, pretty avant-garde, lots of heavily improvised music. There were also people playing more groove-oriented stuff, but it wasn’t quite like it is now where those worlds have meshed. I was going out and seeing a lot of this experimental jazz, and after those gigs, I would go out with my friends to clubs and check out some electronic music. In my brain those things were separate, but slowly over time, they started melding. I started bringing more of these electronic influences into music, and I started collaborating with producers more. In the position we’re in now, Hiatus Kaiyote made international waves, and a lot of people started playing music that was more influenced by neo-soul, coming out of that soundscape-y world.

With 30/70, we were kind of doing that, but we felt that the scene was saturated, so we were like, “How can we break out of this?” So, we started incorporating more house-influences and broken-beat influences. With my band, JK Group, I was taking all those influences and all those various playing experiences, and I wanted to make a jazz project that was really modern in terms of production – taking production influences from broken-beat, house, and contemporary albums in the way they’re made. I wanted to keep true to the raw improvisation and the live band interaction of the jazz band – the things that are so exciting about it. I tried to keep both of those things happening in this record, and I think I got it right.

It’s crazy how this mix of jazz and electronic music has sprung up at the same time, all across the world. In L.A., you’ve got Kamasi Washington and his band, Chicago has a scene, New York has a scene, London has a scene, and Australia has a scene now too. Do you feel you’re part of a global conversation in that way, or is what you guys are doing out there different in some way?

Josh Kelly: All of those scenes have their idiosyncrasies, but I think the overall idea is pretty similar. A lot of us are trying to (consciously or not) reimagine what jazz means for us, and our generation. We’re growing up listening to all this music, and taking all these different influences, and it’s about being true to your influences. Coming out of this world where you’ve studied jazz, and you’ve grown up being obsessed with that too, you’re trying to find a way to navigate those influences and to navigate a path in this new world that you’ve created for yourself. I think that’s something similar that’s happening in all of these scenes, but at the same time, all of these scenes have their own things that make them unique. They all have their own culture and tastes and different ways in approaching the medium. Overall, it is pretty similar.

How did you get introduced to jazz in the first place? Was it through your family?

Josh Kelly: It’s a pretty freak occurrence actually. My family had some jazz albums – my dad gave me some Charlie Parker albums when I was younger that I really loved. But, the one thing that really changed it for me: We were walking down the street, this is when I was living in South Africa as a kid, and it is such a musical place there. There’s music in the street everywhere, there’s buskers everywhere, and we’re walking down the street and there’s this guy playing saxophone. It’s just me and my mum – she’s going grocery shopping, and she’s taking me with her because I was a 4-year-old kid. There’s this guy playing saxophone, and I’m floored. I stopped in my tracks, and I was like “That is the coolest sound that I’ve ever heard.” Apparently, she says I was just transfixed and just stood there for half an hour and didn’t want to go shopping. I kind of remember it, and it was really crazy. That was my introduction.

My dad was a bit of a jazz fan, not enormously, but he had given me some Charlie Parker albums and a few other jazz classics (Miles’ stuff). Cannonball Adderley was someone else who really appealed to me. I was listening to a lot of Mirabi music as well, which is South African township jazz, and that would be playing on the radio all the time, and my parents would be playing that in the house a lot. I feel like that’s embedded in there since a young age – that Mirabi style in South African jazz.

How did 30/70 come about, and what was the idea and intention behind it?

Josh Kelly: We all met at uni, a lot of us were music students, and Allysha, the singer who joined the band a little later, we met her through jam sessions. There was this Whole Foods Café, which is like a hippie hang at uni that was really fun, and we would have jam sessions there. That’s how we met Allysha and started playing with her. Ziggy, myself, and Tom were all at the same uni, and we were all similar in the sense that we were studying a more traditional jazz course. We all listened to heaps of different music and wanted to play heaps of different music.

We started jamming, and playing more with hip-hop ideas, with J Dilla beats (everyone was obsessed with Dilla back then). I was peripherally involved in the early stages – as a sax player, I would jam with these guys and we would play all the time. When the band formed, it was just a trio of Tom the guitarist, Henry the bass player, and Zig. The initial idea was to play instrumental versions of J Dilla beats and other producers that they really liked. It evolved out from that. None of us knew what would happen in five years with the band; we never ever imagined that. It just started as, “Let’s play these beats we like in a bar.”

When did you first start getting the idea to lead your own jazz group and compose for your own band?

Josh Kelly: I’ve always done it. There was a brief period when I decided I just wanted to play with other people, play with other people’s bands, and learn that way. That was maybe a year or two in my mid-20’s, but other than that, I’ve always written music, I’ve always run my own band, even in more casual set ups like jazz trio-type situations. It’s always been important to me, the writing process. It’s always been a part of practice and development. I’ve always written music and it’s always evolved. The idea for this band was all new.

We were playing with 30/70 a lot, and improvising has always been super important to me – having a personal voice when I’m playing sax. When I’m playing, I want to be individualistic and sound like myself and express myself. When you’re playing in collaborative groups like 30/70, there are heaps of amazing aspects about being a democratic, collaborative band. But sometimes, you’re just like, “I’m hearing this sound,” or “I want to do it this way,” so you tamper your expression a little bit, which can sometimes get better results, but sometimes you just have this hankering that you’re hearing this sound in your head that you really want to get out. With JK Group, I was, over time, starting to hear what a raw jazz band with interaction would sound like in this sound world. I was getting this hankering, this idea, and this sound, and I really wanted to express it. That was the impetus for getting this band off the ground and writing all this music.

When did this new album begin to come together and you figured out you had an album on your hands?

Josh Kelly: It was a crazy process. In 30/70, every December we do these Christmas parties where we fundraise, usually for a refugee group, and we’d get the whole collective together and raise money at night and have all the bands play. It’s pretty wild. It was at one of those gigs where Lewis Moody, who is the producer and keys player of Zeitgeist Freedom Energy Exchange, and I were having a chat and hanging out in December 2018. He was like, “Man, I’m looking for a studio space,” and I have a studio space that I share with my partner Maggie, who’s an amazing artist. We have a little shopfront and a little studio space behind it, and it just so happened that I had a space come up.

I said, “Oh. Just move into my studio if you need it for a few months, I’m looking for someone to share it with.” He just needed it for 2 months, and he moved in. We were already friends, but we got really close in that time, and we really bonded over our shared ideas about music and jazz and what it can be today. He was like, “You have to record your group.” I was thinking it was too early, that the band wasn’t quite evolved. He said, “No, man. You have to do it now. Strike – that’s the hottest shit. Make it happen.” I also had Maggie, my partner, who was 36 weeks pregnant at the time, and she was like, “Fucking do it! I’ve been telling you to record your own music for ages, and now’s the time to make it happen.” Lewis was going to be moving countries to London in March, so Lewis, Maggie, and I all sat down with our calendars and we were like, “When can we actually do this.” Three days popped up in February 2019, and we were like, “These are three days. Let’s make it happen.”

Lewis was moving into this recording studio for that month, before he moved to London. He was with me for December and January, and he’s moving into this recording studio, and we’re like, “Cool. Let’s do it at that recording studio.” It’s a primo space – a beautiful recording studio, so we’re lucky we got access to that. We got access to all the microphones there and the beautiful room, but we were aiming for, “Let’s make it live and raw, but let’s produce it a bit as well.” It was really Maggie, my partner, and Lewis, the producer, who both kicked my ass into gear, into “Let’s make an album.” We got in the studio, we set it up, we hit record, and then within those three days, everything was tracked. Everything was done live, and then there were a few synth overdubs and a couple sax overdubs, and on some of the tracks I doubled the lines a little bit or added harmonies.

I then had Audrey, a trumpet player, come in and play some stuff; she plays on “Jazz Trip” predominantly. We did the overdubs in the following week, and because we had all of this time pressure with Lewis moving to London on the 6th of March and our baby due on the 8th of March, we had to make this fucking happen. We were in the studio most nights producing it, mixing and producing it together, and from the time we hit record to the time we were exporting the final files was the 18th of February to the 6th of March. Then it was done. A crazy turnaround. It sat for almost a year before I could finally get it out, just because these things seem to take forever, like putting the artwork together and dealing with the label and finding a good release time. We were also putting stuff out with 30/70, and the label then didn’t want us to put out side-projects at the same time, so we had to time that, and then Zeitgeist Freedom had an album out. These things just take ages and can blow out pretty quickly with manufacturing, with different artwork concepts going, so by the time everything was ready – it was like the recording and all the creative/artistic side took like a month, and to actually get it on record and release it, it took over a year.

Was that frustrating, by the end of it?

Josh Kelly: It really was, to be honest. I was just like, “I really want this out. I really want to share this music with people, and I feel like I’m almost past it – I’m doing new things now.” But revisiting it now, having released it a while back and getting all these messages from people I’ve never heard of before, it opened it back up for me. I’m like, “Yeah, cool! I’m happy with that record.”

How did you originally meet up with Kurt from La Sape Records? Have you known each other for a while?

Josh Kelly: We had a great connection the first time we met. He came on tour with 30/70 – and this was when I had just joined the band formally myself as a sax player. It was as the band started doing interstate tours and started getting attention. He came on board and managed a tour with us, and we all went to his folks’ place. They have this beautiful property in rural, close-to-Brisbane but an hour out, countryside, and we all stayed there, he cooked us all breakfast (he’s a really good cook), and we all had the best time. Kurt and I had a really good connection, and he basically said, “If you ever put something out, let me know. I’m going to support you,” which was crazy to me. I had a few ideas at that time, of music I was working on, that were starting to eventuate, and it ultimately turned into this band. When I was ready, I said, “Kurt. I think I’ve got something for you.” I sent him the demos, and he said, “This is amazing, let’s make this happen.” We had a really good connection from day one.

What do you hope people who have never heard your music before take away from this album, and understand about you and the project you’re trying to put out into the world?

Josh Kelly: I know “Jazz” can be a dirty word for some people, and it’s such a weird term because it can have so many different meanings depending on who you’re talking to. When people check it out, I don’t want them to bring any preconceptions about jazz, any connotations they already have, I just want them to hear the music and approach it with an open heart and open mind. I want it to reimagine jazz for people in a way that is relevant to our time. I want people to be inspired.

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