Josh Rutner

saxophone, etc.

Episode 33: In My Room (Jacob Collier, 2016)

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By the time we reach the end of the first track of Jacob Collier’s debut solo record, In My Room, we’re left a bit dizzied. In the four and a half minute track, called “Woke Up Today,” we hear playfully punchy and tight synth hits—shades of bands like KNOWER and Dirty Loops abound—singable melodies laid atop ever-changing reharms and interlocking rhythmic grooves, a melodica solo that would force any jazz nerd’s jaw to floor, nods to Brazilian music, dense multi-voice a cappella, and tons more—I’m pretty sure I saw the kitchen sink flying by at one point.

I can imagine an past version of me—one I’m not proud of—hearing this first track and thinking to myself, jealous and embarrassed in my defensiveness, “OK OK, the kids got chops”—did I mention he is playing every instrument on the record and produced the damn thing himself?—“But there’s so much going on! It’s showy! Bet he couldn’t play a ballad…” Blah blah blah.

Collier is young—21 at the time of In My Room’s release—but he’s been soaking in and, importantly, soaking in music for his entire life, and, you know, he’s pretty freaking great at it. Oh, and if playing ballads would’ve satisfied ol’ petulant past me, I’d’ve only needed to stick around for track two, an incredibly patient and funky and sensitive arrangement of Brian Wilson’s song “In My Room.”

In fact, the album as a whole has a maxamilist touch to it—everything in moderation, even excess—which is interesting given the road to grace Collier chose for recording the thing: holed up in his music room at home; the medieval via negativa of the monk’s cell and the hermit’s cave. Of course, his cave had tens and tens of instruments lining the walls and the floors, an internet connection, and a mother on the other side of the door encouraging him to come for a bite every now and then so he doesn’t starve.

Writer John Barth, another maximalist, would often recall an anecdote in which his friend and colleague in the so-called “postmodern,” Donald Barthelme, visited a seminar Barth was teaching, and a student asked Barthelme how she and her seminar-mates might improve as writers:

"Well, for one thing," Barthelme answered dryly, "you might try reading all of philosophy, from the pre-Socratics up through last semester. That might help." And when the young woman gently pushed back, noting that Barth had already advised them to read all of literature, from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom up through last semester, "That, too," he replied. "You're probably wasting your time on stuff like eating and sleeping. Cease that, and go read everything."

Collier—a British singer, songwriter, arranger, pianist, guitarist, bassist, drummer, percussionist, etc., etc., etc., etc.—in a way, lived that Barthelmaniacal advice. Recalling his two years in the jazz piano program at the Royal Academy of Music, Collier says, “Every day I’d listen to an album on the way in and on the way home. That’s like 1,500 albums. I just kind of drank them in. From pop music to classical stuff and music from India and Africa.”

When asked in another interview if he could remember the first album he ever bought with his own money, he pegged it as Stevie Wonder’s 1972 record Talking Book, which, as it happens, contains on it a song that Collier covers wonderfully in his record—the song “You and I.”

Collier made a name for himself posting on YouTube six-part singing-head videos featuring a cappella arrangements of songs like Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” and Rogers & Hammerstein’s “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” Over the next few years he would start biting off and chewing more and more in his videos, arranging for a multitude of instruments, and editing them to show you bits of vid for everything that’s going on as it happens.

Those roots in a cappella and reharm are clear in the aforementioned arrangement of “You and I” as well as the hard-to-deny-despite-every-urge-to-do-so arrangement of the "Flintstones" theme song. The song has been an unfortunately aren’t-we-clever addition to the jazz world for decades now—I remember playing a big band arrangement by trombonist John Fedchock at a high school festival in the '90s—surely due to the fact that composer Hoyt Curtin wrote the tune over the oft-used chord changes of George Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm,” so the fact that Collier picked it to go wild on is less funny than it could have been, but, you have to admit that tearing to threads and sewing together again so spectacularly an otherwise throwaway piece of cultural cloth has its appeal. 

There’s a lot of novelty in this album, though, believe me it’s not empty calorie novelty—but the meat of the thing comes out in songs like the ode-to-his music room, “Hideaway,” and the spare “In the Real Early Morning,” where his full voice stretching—as opposed to the gentle control of his falsetto we hear on most of the record—really lets loose deep emotional resonance. 

In a 2004 essay by Michel Delville and Andrew Norris called “Disciplined Excess: The Minimalist / Maximalist Interface in Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart,” the authors begin the section called “Minimalism into Maximalism Will Go” by quoting the first four lines of William Blake’s poem “Auguries of Innocence,” which I think are a fitting close here, not simply because, yes, Collier created expanding and exploding worlds all from within his room, but also fitting because these very words, I came to discover, were set to music by the English composer Benjamin Britten in his song cycle, Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, Britten being a composer that changed the way Collier viewed harmony. Collier, at the age of 13, before his voice broke, performed in an English National Opera production of Britten’s chamber opera called The Turn of the Screw, in which he sang the high treble part of “Miles.” “The harmonies are so, so cool,” he says about performing Brittain’s music, “that my mind was shattered outwards.”

Here’s the quotation from Blake’s poem:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.