Bassist Jonathan Michel Blends Influences from Jazz, Hip-Hop, R&B, Gospel and his Haitian Heritage on Debut Album
Available December 4, 2018 via Orrin Evans’ Imani Records, Jonathan Michel: MDR features Michel’s trio with drummer Jeremy Dutton and vibraphonist Joel Ross, with special guests Josh Lawrence and Melanie Charles
A lifetime of influences can be heard on Jonathan Michel: MDR, the debut release from bassist Jonathan Michel. From his upbringing in Connecticut as the son of Haitian immigrants to his apprenticeship on the soulful and eclectic Philadelphia jazz scene, from formative experiences touring the world with Grammy-winning R&B legend Billy Paul to his always-surprising residency at NYC’s thriving Smalls Jazz Club, Michel has honed a sound that is thrillingly modern without losing the thread of the tradition.
Jonathan Michel: MDR, due out December 4, 2018 via Orrin Evans’ newly revived Imani Records label, features the taut yet spacious sound of Michel’s trio with drummer Jeremy Dutton (Gerald Clayton, Bobby Watson) and vibraphonist Joel Ross (Herbie Hancock, Ambrose Akinmusire). The three first came together as one of many combinations assembled for Michel’s long-running Smalls residency, catching fire with a unique sound and a deft ability to navigate sudden shifts in mood and direction.
Long attracted by the resonant, ringing sound of the vibraphone, Michel set out to put together a small band that could feature those qualities while drawing from his varied tastes, which range from acoustic jazz and gospel to hip-hop, R&B and house music. His intention on his first-ever album as a leader was to put together a collection of concise, melody-driven tunes akin to a pop album; where some of these pieces might stretch out to 20 minutes of blazing improvisation in a live setting, in the studio the trio focused on making tight, memorable statements.
“When you’re growing up listening to Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, they have plenty of hits that are under four minutes long,” Michel explains. “When you come see us live, the chances that we’re going to have an under four-minute song are very slim. But in the studio, we’re trying to give a snapshot of the live experience. My intention was to present a piece of work that’s within the improvisational Black American Music paradigm and is just full of good songs.”
That paradigm, Michel continues, is an expansive one, but most importantly one that refuses to look solely backwards. So while the core of the album is an acoustic jazz trio, several pieces feature cutting-edge remixing by Matthew K. Evans, son of the album’s executive producer. While there are tunes on the album that swing, they do so in a way that would make today’s audiences move.
“We don’t dance to swing anymore,” Michel says. “So what’s the intention behind it in 2018? My hope is that the music comes across as something of this time as opposed to a swing feel from 80 or 90 years ago. My intention is not to sound like Jimmy Blanton or even like Paul Chambers in my beat. I’m trying to sound like Jonathan Michel in 2018, saying, ‘This is how we feel about swing.’”
Michel’s full-spectrum approach is evident from the album’s opening tune, an update of a traditional Haitian folk song called “Lót Bó.” Featuring vocalist Melanie Charles and trumpet player Josh Lawrence, the song pays homage to Michel’s Haitian heritage while grooving with an urgent house music feel. It’s followed by “Little B’s Poem,” perhaps the best-known tune by legendary vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, who had passed shortly before the recording session.
Both “Haze” and “It’s Me!” are brief improvisations extracted from a performance of drummer Victor Lewis’ composition “Hey, It’s Me You’re Talking To.” The first consists of Dutton’s solo intro, while the latter isolates the solos of Ross and Dutton, essentially reshaping the piece as a percussion showcase. A similar dissection was undertaken on the trio’s rendition of the Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley ballad “Pure Imagination,” which becomes three pieces on the album, each named for a reference to the song’s source film, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: “Pondicherry,” “Shopkeeper” and “Gloop,” all transformed via Matthew Evans’ atmospheric electronic touches.
The airy pace of Joe Henderson’s “Punjab” allows the trio to bask in the reverberant throb of the vibes, while “Wade in the Water” takes the familiar spiritual at a propulsive simmer. Michel’s “Not Goodbye” forefronts the sweet soul feel he learned at the side of the late, great Billy Paul, for whom Michel worked for several years as Musical Director. Charles returns for the album’s sultry closer, pianist James Williams’ “Alter Ego.” Finally, “The L.E.J.” was written by Orrin Evans, who not only oversaw the album’s production but has been a key mentor for Michel since the bassist arrived in Philadelphia.
Born and raised in Waterbury, Connecticut, Michel studied music at Central Connecticut State University. He discovered music through his father, a gifted singer and guitarist who regularly led his family in songs and prayer at home. Beginning on guitar at the age of 4, Michel also tried his hand at piano and trombone before settling on the bass at 9. He moved to Philly after college, drawn by the sound of the city as filtered through many of his strongest influences: jazz bassists Christian McBride, Reggie Workman, Jymie Merritt and Percy Heath as well as hip-hop artists like Schoolly D and The Roots. He moved to New York City in 2010, where he’s led a monthly residency at Smalls for the last three years.
He’s since worked with a number of influential artists, including Orrin Evans, Aaron Goldberg, Andrew Cyrille, Terrace Martin, ELEW, Spike Wilner, Gil Goldstein, Dominck Farinacci, Bilal, and the Revive da Live Big Band. Having worked with singer Billy Paul as bassist and musical director for five years, Michel has formed a tribute project that highlights the jazz, social justice and hit-making aspects of the great singer’s career. In addition, Michel explores the sounds of his Haitian heritage through his ensemble L’Ouverture. He has taught at Philadelphia’s Clef Club of Jazz and the Litchfield Jazz Camp and led workshops for Experience Ayiti and Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Founded by Orrin Evans in 2001, Imani Records released the pianist’s own debut, Déjà Vu, as well as albums by the neo-soul ensemble Luv Park and the collective groups The Band (with Evans, JD Allen, Sam Newsome, Nasheet Waits and Reid Anderson) and The Trio (with Evans, Madison Rast). He revived the label in 2018 following a decade of dormancy, with a newfound focus on releasing music by the young, innovative musicians with whom Evans regularly collaborates.