Is this the sound of music to come?
You can explore many flavours of the 28-year-old’s music through numerous hours of YouTube video. For example, a Mozartian ABBA Dancing Queen with echoes of McCoy Tyner’s Debussian fingering on piano in Stockholm last year. Or Sleeping on my Dreams, with Jacob’s explanation of how it’s done.
Chances are, you’ll want more, to judge from YouTubers’ reactions among his 1.2 million subscribers.
To hear him in Montreux cost you CHF105-500. But if you don’t mind an open-air stadium instead of a concert hall, Collier brought a six piece group to the Théatre Antique of Vienne, near Lyon, on 29 June for €30-60 ($4 for under 15s). Also on the Vienne programme: the young jazz duo of French pianist DOMI and Texas-born drummer JD Beck, who were Grammy nominees in both 2022 and 2023.
In Montreux he played the first set ahead of the Jon Batiste group, and reminded his enthusiastic participating audience that only 8 years ago when he came to Montreux for the first time it was his first ‘gig’. Batiste, a Juilliard alumni and five-times Grammy award winner, too, got top billing, I suspect, because he ended concert set by trooping with his musicians and a melodica through the audience and leading them out of the concert hall, where the celebrations continued.
Jacob performed several standards, all in completely new and fresh versions, performed in an amazingly athletic and joyous fashion.
What Jacob has brought to concert recitals, apart from his originality, is audience participation. He is able to turn the audience into a choir with multiple parts to make any football stadium envious: one has collected together 100,000 voices. In Montreux he even got the audience singing half-tones.
Jacob is the best explicator of his extraordinary history, aims, music and processes. So it is worth exploring these on your own, and this article will just offer a short summary.
Jacob was only 19 when his split-screen videos of popular songs, recorded with one mike and his laptop, started going viral on the Internet, particularly Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t you worry ‘bout a thing” (200,000 views in a week).
Jacob’s arrangements of “Flintstones” (3.5 million YouTube Views) and “You and I” won him Grammy awards in 2017. They featured on his 2016 debut album, “In My Room”, recorded, arranged, performed and produced in a back room of his family home in Finchley. The title is a Beach Boys number but Jacob has said the room where he learned to walk is where he learned music and made the album. It still features in many of his improvisatory videos.
Jazzwise magazine wrote in 2015, when Jacob was still at the Royal Academy of Music (where he studied jazz piano for two years): “His hybrid style is equal parts post-classical Take 6 gospel rhapsodies, Django Bates-ian melodic whimsy, Zawinul-esque keyboard solos with a dash of soul and dubstep on the side.” Well, yes. But…
A Guardian article by John Lewis about In My Room stated: “He has recorded dozens of dazzling videos on YouTube: staggeringly complex versions of jazz and soul standards in which he multi-tracks himself singing multiple vocal harmonies and playing multiple instruments. Since posting the first film when he was 17, they have been viewed millions of times, earning him a call from an impressed [Quincy] Jones (who ended up signing him to his management company, Qwest), along with rapturous praise from artists as diverse as Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, kd lang (‘The most talented kid on earth today,’), David Crosby, Raphael Saadiq and Leslie Bricusse.”
The Guardian’s longtime and knowledgable jazz columnist John Fordham said of In My Room: “Collier’s exuberance is very infectious, and his virtuosity […] often stunning, as is his jazz-rooted fearlessness in skewing melodies and displacing beats. […] What he does next with all this talent is a fascinating prospect.”
What he will do in 2023 is equally enticing. We are all waiting for the fourth album of his exploration of “musical universes” entitled Djesse (a play on his initials). And he has become a master of newly invented instruments such as the harpejii (developed in 2007), a cross between a piano and a guitar.
Wikipedia has a good summary biography with links. Jacob’s mother is a violinist, conductor and professor of music and has two younger sisters. His grandfather and Chinese-Canadian grandmother were also classical violinists.
He remembers his mother, recognizing infant Jacob’s musical ability, running the vacuum cleaner and asking him at two years old to say what the sound felt like. He said G and was right. He has perfect pitch.
At 10 Jacob played Tiny Tim in the 2004 film of Dickens’ Christmas Carol. A couple of years after, he toured internationally as a treble in Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw.
Jacob says Britten heavily influenced his use and understanding of harmony. He apparently refused his mother’s offer of piano lessons, but took singing lessons from age 8 and earned a gold medal at 14 for the highest mark in the country for his Grade 8 singing.
When his Stevie Wonder-inspired video went viral, U.S. music magnate Quincy Jones got in touch and presented Jacob at Montreux in 2014, saying Jacob’s singing contained “the most modern, hip, chord substitution: he’s going to take us into the future.” Quincy wanted to sign 19-year-old Jacob up to a management contract immediately, but he wasn’t sure he needed a manager because he didn’t know what he wanted to do next. His mother, in a sentence that became legend because of Quincy’s fame, suggested: “Can’t you just be friends first?”
For that Montreux appearance Jacob received some bad reviews: “Sorry but that really was not very good … he also needs to work on his voice a lot more.” And: “This did absolutely nothing for me. The chords were for a different song than the one he was singing. The vocals sounded dead like a computer lyrics, completely unbelieveable (unless he was singing into a mirror). The substitutions were an incoherent mess of styles badly bodged together.”
Wonder what these critics would say today.
In any case, he was back at the festival in 2017 with Jonah Nilsson playing “cheeky” piano to Stevie Wonder’s Do I Do on Quincy Jones’s “Secret Show”. At one point Jonah yells out in joy at their playing together.
His Djesse Vol 1 production, released in 2018, and featuring the Dutch Metropole Orkest on every track, earned him his third Grammy for his arrangement of Lionel Ritchie’s All Night Long (5.1 million YouTube views).
He won another for Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s Moon River from Djesse Vol 2 (4.6 million views), an album using more acoustic instruments. Moon River has “hundreds and hundreds of Jacob Colliers” featured singing acapella, along with vocal contributions from countless others singing “Moooon”. In his unpretentious relationship to his audience, Jacob has produced a simple explanatory breakdown on YouTube of how he created the Moon River arrangement.
His genius at teaching and enthusing others was obvious at MIT when he was only 23. The resulting 35-min documentary about his time there, Imagination Off the Charts, won a regional award.
“Jacob’s mixing of an extremely intellectual and an extremely emotional approach to music is exactly what I want to achieve,” commented a fellow musician. Another said: “He is one of the most generous musicians ever.” And these were by no means the most laudatory. For example, compare this comment: “This whole performance made me cry, laugh, get chills and stare in awe.” The MIT participants are equally dithyrambic.
He told the MIT group: “What my Mum did is, recognize that I had some kind of weird brain that was very thirsty and very inventive and quite emotionally mature and presented lots of different things to me [Bach, Stravinsky, Britten, Earth Wind and Fire, Bobby McFerrin, Sting] – These are a lot of my heroes growing up. And I wasn’t told to do anything with them. I was just told to enjoy them. […] Really, the biggest gift I was given as a child was a space and the affirmation to create in it. I was never, ever taught to practice, ever. People have an idea, how to teach, that I think is horrifically out of date.”
Asked three years ago for his major influences, Jacob explained why he puts Stevie Wonder in the top two positions: “It wasn’t until I was 15 or 16 I realized Steve Wonder recorded all the instruments on the album, or most of them. I hadn’t considered before then that it was possible” and “He’s one of those musical masterminds that can concentrate on multiple facets of what’s going on.”
He also added Jonie Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Becca Stevens (a regular guest in his group) to the list. “I can’t say that I have ever rejected anything I’ve ever heard. I have always been super thirsty for all sorts of stuff.”
Jacob’s third Djesse volume earned him his fifth Grammy for “He won’t hold you”. Jacob’s 5-minute video features animations directed by Daniel Bruson, with each frame hand-painted, requiring 1200 paintings and 80 days for production.
The Stevie Wonder video led Ben Bloomberg at MIT to Facebook Jacob suggesting they work together on a harmonizer that would offer five simultaneous loopers of his voice at different registers. He later worked with a 360-degree camera, projectors and similar devices for his videos from the small back room.
But Jacob spent three years touring after his first albums. “I’ve kind of fallen in love with touring a bit,” he said. “I love meeting people, after the show, and I love experiencing the feeling of sharing the music with the room.”
“As far as arrangements are concerned, the most important thing is just to have a song you really love,” he said. “Often those are old songs because I love old music very much. A song which is repetitive is great because of arranging potential. A song which is simple is great because of the amount of complexity that I’d like to layer over the stuff. A song with a good simple background is important. And really that’s it. If something captures my ear, then I’ll tend to give it a go, and I won’t be afraid to give up if it’s not working.”
One common reaction: his arrangements and creations are so approachable that some people do not realize the breadth and depth of his creativity.
But, as Lucas Labarassiat found, like so many others: “If you just arrived here, if you’re not used to Jacob, if you don’t understand the hype around his music, please don’t stop at your first listening. Take some time. Sit on your couch, get good headphones. Listen to this [piece of art] not once, not twice. Listen to it ten times […], even more, even if you have no musical knowledge like I do, until you get a grasp of most of the voices, most of the musical parts. […] Once you’re here, you get it. You can feel it in your bones. You get the chills. You get the hype. You can feel all the links created and underlined by Jacob’s music. I must warn you though; once you’ve been here, you’re hooked. Nevermind the place or time, this piece will have your soul bounce and leap above what you imagined was possible. This is art. This is love. This is links. I’m hooked, please get onboard.”
And Jacob’s “Tiny Desk Concert” for the U.S. National Public Radio with his band (6.5 million YouTube views) from 2020 is regularly plugged by fans as a good 20-minute introduction to his music. It includes his compositions, Make me Cry and Feel.
One reaction: “I realize the reason I don’t play his music as background noise whether it be working out, getting ready to work or my commute, etc… is due to the fact that his music commands attention. It captivates you and takes you on a journey of feeling and thought. It’s not mindless. I just finished this video and it was exhausting, it was so good.”
Inevitably, perhaps, he has been heralded as “the millennial Mozart”, but think The Magic Flute rather than Amadeus for Jacob’s unfailing good humour. Jacob describes his rise to superstar as largely accidental.
His voice might seem like the weakest instrument in his repertoire (he sounds like a velvety Sting in lower registers and a boyish soprano in his upper registers) – until you hear what he does with it on the Logic-controlled computer, overlaying his treble to bass vocalizations to harmonize with others, as well as all the other voice harmonizations he produces.
In a 2017 interview in Ottawa with Peter Hum (no relation), Jacob described himself as “100%, definitely” self-taught in music. He used the Logic controller from age 11 (after starting with Cubase from age 7). “Logic enabled me to create sounds in stop-time that I was hearing in my head — so things at that age that I wasn’t capable of playing, I was capable of conceiving. […] From a young age I was enjoying the process of what a MIDI controller could get me, the areas it could get me creatively speaking.”
He also revealed how long his songs take him to create and arrange: “I’m not great at reading music. Just because having never learned classically, other than with singing, I can’t really do much with reading music. So it’s more helpful to me just to record it because I can visualize it all in my head at any one time so it’s just like reading it through like that. One of those a cappella videos, from the beginning to the end of the arranging process, I think my record is four days. That’s really an intense four days because you’re singing all day long and arranging and filming.
“For example, You And I, that song on my album that won a Grammy in February, that was four days work […] Georgia On My Mind was like six days, but then Hideaway took me six months to record the audio for that because I came back to it and went away from it and gave it space. PYT was about one month of solid work, because that video was so insanely complicated and there were so many things that are going on in that video, my computer couldn’t render it. That took a while.”
As for his working schedule, “it’s probably 12 and 16 hours (a day), because I’m naturally a bit of a night owl, I probably go to sleep around two or three and if I’m really on a process I’ll wake up around 10 or 11…And other than eating, which has to happen, it’s a very intense process, I’ll just dive in, it’s such a vivid world to me.”
In making In My Room, “sometimes I had to just go and spend some time with my girlfriend or with my family or have some food, take a weekend out or whatever and then come back and revisit the process,” he recalled. “But I absolutely trust myself. I trust myself so deeply, and that really is one of the most important values I was brought up with — that process of trusting my own gut feeling about things and trusting that my intellect will serve my emotionality and not the other way around.”
His mantra: “The only way to do it is with a sense of humour. Because the moment you start taking yourself seriously, the whole thing is ridiculous.”
As for his many-thousand-voiced choir singing pop standards, Jacob says: “These covers have lifted my idea of what music can do – it’s almost spiritual,” he said with a smile. “Everyone is giving voice to the musician within them, like we’re all showing up for music-making together. I’ve made each crowd sing in harmony around the world and it has never once failed.”
Jacob played Dancing Queen as part of the DJESSE world tour, with him performing a unique song for every show. He said they had never played the song before and they had not rehearsed it beforehand. Sample YouTube comments: “This is a Masterpiece version of a Masterpiece of an ABBA song.” “Best audience sing along I’ve ever seen.” “Crowd harmony just stole the show.” “Jacob celebrates a new age in music and its presentation. He also shares the spirit of mankind. I think he’s a genius.”
‘Mundane, for obsessives’
Don’t expect the same recognition from sections of the mainstream press. Jody Rosen in The New York Times in 2021 wrote: “He’s a staggering musical prodigy — with strangely mundane songs,” without considering why a virtuoso composer might want to concentrate on accessible music when involving audiences in performance.
A Guardian piece in November 2022 complained after an interview: “Collier’s answers can come across as soundbites” (maybe it had something to do with the questions) and “His complex music can feel like a niche pursuit for obsessives”.
The reporter did acknowledge: “a fidelity to restless creativity and eccentricity”.
But what this meant to the journalist was: “When we meet […] he comes across as a physical embodiment of his music. Just as his tunes are bright and often playful, in person Collier sports a pair of neon pink trousers, a bright green jumper and clunky Crocs, while his brown hair is spiked into a towering frizz.”
But listen to the professionals
Perhaps readers would do better to follow the assessments of professional judges:
A voice teacher on In The Bleak Midwinter: “Mindblowing: his ear is so amazing. He also understands how vowels work.”
A music producer on All Night Long:: “The man, the myth, the legend. So much to digest there. That mix is phenomenal. Ain’t much need to be said about this.”
A jazz pianist on The Flintstones: “What! Yeh! Oh my God! It’s so different. This dude is a musical prodigy.”
You can also hear and see Jacob talking technical if you want, for example, in this interview.
Nevertheless, he has never had a song in the UK top 40.
I can’t resist this one final comment on his adventurous dressing from a fan nearly a decade ago: “I’m just amazed that someone so young… can own so many shirts!” (I think they are often gifts).
One fan wrote: “You can tell this is early Jacob because he didn’t have the money to buy so many shirts… he only had 3 outfits and he had to just not wear anything for one of them.”
He now has a merchandise store that sells a few Jacob-themed T-shirts, hoodies and a crewneck as well as his music, but not the technicolor garb.
Rolling Stone. Jacob Collier is your favourite musician’s favourite musician. (LINK)
Lau Noah and Jacob Collier: If a tree falls in love with a river. 3 min 41 seconds. June 2023 (LINK)
Nu Deco Ensemble & Jacob Collier. Don’t You Know. 9:43 min. 2019 (LINK)
Jacob Collier, aged 20, on melodica, with Snarky Puppy and noisy London audience.Quartermaster. 11:04 min. 2015. (LINK)