Taylor McFerrin will (literally) close out this year’s Indy Jazz Fest as the last act at the Saturday Block Party, McFerrin goes on at 11:45 p.m. inside the Jazz Kitchen. I couldn’t think of a more poetic way to end this year’s festival than to nod at the future possibilities of jazz music which has shape-shifted through 100 years of musical evolution and revolution.
Taylor McFerrin grew up a hip-hop head inside a jazz house. His father is the famed jazz vocal wizard Bobby McFerrin and Taylor’s music both reflects and challenges that background. Mixing live instrumentation, samples, beats and beatboxing in a thoroughly individual sound. It’s no surprise he was signed to Brainfeeder, home to forward-thinking artists like Thundercat and Flying Lotus.
If you love innovative electronic sounds, don’t miss McFerrin’s debut Indianapolis performance.
Kyle Long: Your debut EP Broken Vibes came out in 2006, I love that record, and I used to play the track “Georgia” in my DJ sets all the time. At that time, I knew nothing about who you were, or how this music was made. But I’ve since learned that all the rhythms on that project were created through your own skills as a beatboxer. Has beatboxing played a significant role in your music making?
Taylor McFerrin: It did at that point a lot more. It was a really big part of live show. When I was in high school I really wanted to be a hip-hop producer and beatboxing was just something I did in my circle of friends. I was the designated beatboxer, if there was a freestyle or anything like that. It was something I did out of habit, it was never something I tried to perfect.
When I ended up moving to New York at 19, it was my introduction to being a performer. There were a few bands I would play out with, and I realized I could beatbox onstage and that was something people would be into. Whereas my whole life up to then I was just a shy kid making beats. So beatboxing introduced me to the stage.
When I did that Broken Vibes EP it was during the height of my beat boxing onstage. So it was a natural way for me to build rhythms on a track. I did try to layer them in a certain way to make them sound more like a production and less like beatboxing. I thought it was cool when that EP came out that people didn’t listen to it as a beatbox project. I thought that was something of an accomplishment for me at the time.
Kyle: Do you still incorporate beatboxing into your live performances?
Taylor: I usually do some things that incorporate it. Since most of the time I do a straight-up solo show, I try to start tracks in different way so it says interesting. I’ve been to a lot of shows with electronic music producers and there can be a disconnect with the audience because it feels like the artist is just pressing buttons and you’re not quite sure what they’re doing. Usually at my shows, in the first two or three songs I do a beatbox thing to create a live song and that helps break the ice with the audience.
Kyle: You started out making music as a beat producer. Did you want to be a DJ Premier who was producing tracks specifically for an MC to rhyme on, or did you always picture your music standing on its own merit?
Taylor: I really just wanted to be a straight up hip-hop producer. It’s funny, there were a lot of subtle things that opened up and led me into a different direction. I wasn’t really up on researching stuff, so when I decided I wanted to make beats I just went to Guitar Center and asked what was the newest beat machine I could obsess over. They convinced me to get a Roland SP-808. It was a sampler that wasn’t really great for making hip-hop beats. I really should’ve gotten an MPC. If I would’ve gotten an MPC I probably would’ve gone in more of a hip-hop direction over my career, because the MPC is the definitive beat making machine.
So, on the SP-808 I ended up chopping up all these samples that were meant to be played live with a live band. That really opened me up to playing with other musicians live. So I became a weird combination of beat maker and live musician. I was slowly learning to play keys, but I had all these sounds and samples I could play in a band context. I think that opened me up to being more of a live performer than I would’ve if I had bought an MPC.
Kyle: I love your debut album Early Riser, which came out in 2014. The record is filled with some fantastic guest appearances including Robert Glasper, Thundercat, and Nai Palm of Hiatus Kaiyote.
I wanted to ask about “Invisible / Visible,” which features both your dad Bobby McFerrin, and the amazing Brazilian jazz pianist César Camargo Mariano. In 1977 César and his band Cia made a brilliant record called São Paulo • Brasil. I know that record is a big influence for you, how did you get the chance to work with César?
Taylor: He’d become one of my heroes. My old roommate, who is a producer under the name Hayden, he put me on to a lot of great music. He played that São Paulo • Brasil record once when we lived together, and I was like, “Oh my god, what is this?” It quickly became my most played album of the year. It was one of those albums I played so much that I knew all the parts and moments and sounds.
César really accomplished something on that record that is one of my ultimate goals, to create something that sounds and feels so amazing the first time you listen to it, but it doesn’t feel like they’re trying to be overly showy or complex. But then the more you listen to it, the more you can discover all these amazing little flourishes. He immediately became one of my musical heroes off that record.
I actually ended up working with César because I would always talk about that record in interviews. There’s a lot of interviews where I’ve referenced how much that record meant to me. His son told him that I was doing that, and sent him an interview I did. So he reached out on Facebook to say thank you for showing props to that record, and then he was like, “Oh, by the way, I live in New Jersey now.” So he invited me over and I hung out with him and his wife. I played him a bunch of stuff off my record.
At that point the track was just a loop that I let him do a long solo over. So I had this crazy long solo, probably a ten minute solo. Then I did the same thing with my dad, I brought the loop over to him and let him solo over it for like 20 minutes. So both of their solos are in there, I think César’s are at the beginning and end. My dad’s is all chopped up, he was being super goofy at the studio that day and kind of ADD. His solo was all over the place. So I chopped it up quite a bit.
It was a complete honor to get César on the record. Obviously, I wanted my dad to be in the record. I always want him to be part of my projects. I don’t know if you know, but my dad was the one doing the vocals on “Georgia.”
Kyle: Yeah, I figured that out eventually. You’ve been on some of your dad’s albums too. Your even credited on his first album Jubilee, which came out in 1982.
Taylor: I was technically in the room when they recorded it, but I was like one year old. There was a chorus of people on one track singing the hook, and my mom was holding me while they were doing that. So, I was there.
Kyle: Early Riser was released on the Brainfeeder label, which is home to artists like Kamasi Washington, Thunder Cat, Flying Lotus and other musicians working in this space where jazz, hip-hop and electronic music are kind of freely circulating together. I’m curious if you view your music as existing within the within the continuum of jazz music?
Taylor: I have a hard time saying I’m a jazz musician. I never really focused on mastering an instrument in a jazz context. Keyboard players put in over 10,000 hours easily just to be a decent jazz player. I couldn’t really sit in on a jazz gig on keys and be like, “Hey guys, let’s do this standard in this key. Let’s go.”
The part of jazz that’s ingrained in me is that I grew up around a ton of jazz and improvisation through my dad. Then the music that got me interested was the fusion era with Herbie Hancock and George Duke and Stevie Wonder. They all started using Moog synthesizers and ARP Odyssey and all those early analog synths. That era of sound and sonics is what really got me into music. Almost all the hip-hop I loved growing up was from producers who were sampling that era of jazz.
So, it’s the sonics of that era that has really influenced me the most. I’ve spent my life trying to collect analog synths and getting my studio to the point where I can have that vibe. I think on Early Riser you can hear the sonics of that era.
I feel like I’m part of that lineage in the sonic range, but I couldn’t jam with any of these jazz cats for real. Though I do fit in with a lot of amazing jazz musicians. Someone like Robert Glasper has incorporated this feel where it’s like he’s playing hip-hop loops live. I can definitely vibe on that level, but there are so many degrees of mastery when it comes to jazz. I’ve got my foot in the door, but I’m doing my own thing with the production.
Kyle: I know you’re working on a new LP. Any idea when we might see that?
Taylor: I don’t have a release date, but it’s not going to be too far off. I’m getting pretty close. So, I would expect people to hear something very soon.