Xantoné Blacq

Xantoné Blacq and the Paul Jackson Trio’s new album

“Basically the way that Paul operates as a human being is – this is his belief, it’s either groove or death… Or you can be safe and do the stuff which worked at the last gig – so we’ll play those exact same things, just being comfortable and say, “Okay I’m comfortable and I’m stable, so I’ll stay there.” It’s either groove or die!” Xantoné Blacq

Paul Jackson (bass) Wax Recording Studios
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

With a new album from the recently formed Paul Jackson Trio due out on Whirlwind Records at the beginning of autumn, ukvibe was granted exclusive photographic access to the live recording session. Michael “The Dood” Edwards caught up with their enigmatic keyboard player and vocalist, the Magnificent Xantoné Blacq to get feedback on the trio’s recent European tour, full details on the new album and his thoughts on his talented cohorts, drummer Tony Match and bandleader and bass player supremo Paul Jackson.

The Dood: You’ve had a busy couple of months since I last saw you at Ronnie Scott’s in November of last year as part of the Paul Jackson Trio featuring Randy Brecker.  I believe the trio have just returned from European tour that correct?

Xantoné Blacq: Yes with the Paul Jackson Trio featuring special guest Pee Wee Ellis. And it’s been amazing, because it was a really full-on tour in the sense that basically I think we only had one day off over the two weeks.  And the one day off was really near the end. But we were fortunate enough to go to great clubs and some great places.  We started off in Stockholm and then we went to France and then we went to Germany.

Xantoné Blacq
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

The Dood: How was Germany? The Hanover Jazz Club is a very intimate venue isn’t it?

Xantoné Blacq: We played three different places in Germany, we played in Cassell, we played in the Hanover Jazz Club and he also played the Minden Jazz Club as well. And each of the Jazz Clubs we played in Germany were fantastic! Oh! We also played at the Bix which is in Stuttgart, which is another fantastic venue. I have to say that the thing that I walked away from Germany with, and I told the guys whilst I was there – no disrespect to our guys in the UK here – was that the sound engineering at the venues was excellent. I mean he turned up the sound check and the sound was like already ninety-five percent there! It wasn’t like where you had to argue with somebody… It was already there! So the experience in Germany was actually amazing, it was fantastic!

The Dood: The record deal with your new recording label, Whirlwind Records, was that signed before, during or after the tour?

Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

Xantoné Blacq: That was before; so basically Tony Match, the drummer, he handles a lot of the business to be honest. He was the guy who pulled together this project in the first place; saying, “I’d like to reach out to Xan, I’d like to reach out to Paul and form a trio.” Anyway he found out about Whirlwind Records and the funny thing is I wasn’t aware of Whirlwind Records at all, but I know the guy who owns and runs it, Mike Janisch. So it was an interesting coincidence, that’s when Tony contacted me and said, “Have you heard of this label Whirlwind? I like the look of them and as we’re doing the tour it would realy be nice to have something physical for people can walk away with as well, it would be good and I’m thinking of this label.”

So that came about prior to the tour, and it made good sense straight after the tour to get straight into the studio. It takes a week or so to really get your stuff together, so it’s best to do it straight afterwards.

The Dood: As Paul Jackson would say you had your chops already warmed up after the tour, ready to go?

Xantoné Blacq: We had the lamb chops already prepared and in the oven (Laughs). We knew which songs we were doing and you have a very good shape of what’s going on already.

The Dood: Where was this album recorded?

Xantoné Blacq: It was recorded in a fabulous studio, which is shifting its position now; it was at Wax Recording Studios, run by a friend of mine and also a great sound engineer, Robert Strauss.  I’m sure you’ll know of Robert because he’s also the head honcho with Personal Life the band. So he’s a great engineer as well as a bandleader and bass player. So it was recorded at Wax Studios here in London.

Robert Strauss
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

The Dood: Is the album compiled of tunes that were played on tour and which received favourable feedback from your audiences?

Xantoné Blacq: Yes, I mean to be honest pretty much most of the songs that we performed live on the tour, which were originals of Paul’s and some of mine, they’ve made it on this album. The thing which the touring gave us was, it gave us a really clear idea of how to shape the tunes – so okay fine, we’ll put a solo on this part, or this part is too short, or this is the part that is really catching people’s attention… So it was very very useful. At the same time it was different coming into the studio to record, because on tour we had Pee Wee Ellis. So that added a completely different dimension in the sense that you have a trio, plus you have a sax, where as in the studio it was just the trio. And that was great, but it just meant that you had to shuffle things slightly differently just to make it sit right for a straight trio.

The Dood: Would that be the same as when you had Randy Brecker as the extra horn player, as it were?

Xantoné Blacq: Yeah! I remember when Randy came in; I’m gonna put my hand up… It was quite daunting the idea that we’re going to go and play on stage with Randy Brecker. I remember prior to going to the gig at Ronnie’s thinking, “Okay what I need to do in this case, for me personally to add something to this group is I need to figure out what my role is here with Randy.” I know what my role is when it’s just the trio basically – I’m the primary soloist and support Paul with background vocals and all those sort of things. But in this case it was like when Randy is playing, what is my job? And my job as I saw it, I needed to listen to Randy. Actually that was the biggest thing, I needed to listen like crazy, listen, listen, listen, listen, listen and interact.

The Dood: Do you wait for a natural opening, or do you segue your keyboards and vocals into the mix?

Xantoné Blacq
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

Xantoné Blacq: When it’s just you on your own, or you’re in the trio and you’re the main soloist, you’re listening to the other guys anyway, because you’ve got to do that, but you can push things in this direction or that direction. If you were to look at the trio as a triangle…I am the point at the head of the triangle, so you can push things in different ways. But when Randy comes on board now it’s like I’m not going to be the featured artist, which is completely cool. So randy is the main guy, so what can I do to augment what he’s doing and what can I do to make myself useful; that’s really primarily it. So how can I listen carefully, make sure that I do fulfil the kinda interactive role that I have with Tony on drums and Paul on bass. There is also another dimension with Randy doing his thing that I’m really really really listening hard and trying to process this in my brain as quickly as possible, “Okay, this is where he is and this is the colour he’s trying to create, how can I augment that or how can I stress that.”

The Dood: Reverting back to the recording session, what’s the title of the album going to be?

Xantoné Blacq: It’s called “Groove or Die”. And I’ll explain that, I know that one or two people who initially heard it were like,” The word die in the title of an album, is that really happening.” And after a period of time, even without explaining it to people, it started to make sense. Basically the way that Paul operates as a human being is – this is his belief, it’s either groove or death. And you can expand that into you either live your life to the fullest and groove basically – You really try to do new things and experiment, you get out of your comfort zone – challenge yourself and leap off the cliff and see how you can contort and twist in the air, so that when you land on the ground you land on your feet. Or you can be safe and do the stuff which worked at the last gig, so we’ll play those exact same things, just being comfortable and say, “Okay I’m comfortable and I’m stable, so I’ll stay there.” It’s either groove or die!

Paul Jackson
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

And from a musical point of view Paul is known as a groove master, a groove legend. Groove – or you’re going to die on stage. So you better groove! So that’s where the name “Groove or Die” came from.

The Dood: What’s the dynamic with the three of you when you’re playing on stage as opposed to recording live in the studio?

Xantoné Blacq: The thing which is cool about us is that one of the things that Paul really espouses already goes for is the concept of a round table… It’s a round table where everybody is influencing things, and everybody has a voice and can say how they feel about things, which I really respect, because as we all know Paul’s a legend, he’s been doing music for over fifty years. And for him to allow – not even just allow, but to encourage us to come forward with ideas, to let us younger guys also have a say is very cool. So on stage is it is very fluid, and we try everything we can… Even between this tour and the last tour, Paul had ideas about what he wanted to do.

Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

People, who have a musical background or musical knowledge, know that if you play a cord, the two keynotes that really help define what kind of quality of cord it is are the third and seventh notes. And he was like I really want us to try and avoid playing the third and seventh notes, I want things to be much freer, I want things to be more – not ambiguous necessarily… But what other kinds of sounds can we pull-out, how free can we be, how interactive can we be. It’s kind of like playing a game of ‘tag’ or ‘you’re it’ or whatever and one person does something and other person hears it and says, “Oh! I see, so you’re going off in that direction, how about if I do this?” Then the other person reacts and so on and so forth. So it was that kind of situation; very much when live.
But in the studio, the challenge is, and I’m gonna speak for myself personally, because I know that Tony (Match) is very very happy in the studio, and he’s very happy live as well, but he’s very very happy in the studio. I’m still trying to get more comfortable with the studio because there’s something kind of artificial in the sense that – especially when you’re doing live takes, which is what we did, it was literally a case of over three days we recorded this album!

The Dood: How many tracks on the album?

Xantoné Blacq: There are ten in total, so it’s like two takes on this one, two takes of that one – it’s not like we spent four days doing one track!

The Dood: But that keeps it fresh does it not?

Xantoné Blacq: Yeah! But for me the case is I want to be free like I was on stage, but I also have to be mindful that we have a period of time that we need to fit this stuff into and I need to hit the parts that I need to hit as well as trying to still be free – so that was interesting. In the studio it was very intense I’ll be honest with you… because we are all equals in this trio. We speak our minds, so it doesn’t mean that we’re running around fighting each other but we are very clear about things at the roundtable. People say. “Oh Xan, you should do it this way?” And after a while I’m like, “No, guys please, can everyone just get the hell out of my way and let me do what’s coming out of my spirit; if it’s wrong or if you hear an improvement after that then please make your comments, but prior to that I can’t think !” We worked through it, It was interesting to do that and we did it really successfully and everyone was happy so let’s go!

Xantoné Blacq
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

The Dood: There’s a track called “Midnight” that Paul told me at Ronnie Scott’s was receiving a lot of positive feedback on tour and I wondered if you included it on the outcome?

Xantoné Blacq: “Midnight” yeah! Actually I’m glad you said that, because of course I like all the tunes, but “Midnight” is one of the highlights of the album for me. And the first take was just really really good! So yeah, “Midnight” is on there and it sounds really lovely – it sounds great!

The Dood: There’s another ballad on there as well which comes across really well in the live arena?

Paul Jackson
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

Xantoné Blacq: You might be talking about “Pain”.

The Dood: “Pain” that’s the one; that is pure Paul Jackson would you agree?

Xantoné Blacq: Yes. That’s another one that gets to me, and the way that it’s been laid on the album I think you’ll enjoy it. All the stuff that you appreciated from that tune live, you’ll hear it, but because one of the beautiful things about being in the studio is the over-dubbing, and the layering, and the putting on of loads of textures, which live you don’t always have the chance to do, there are some other wonderful things laid onto that. So yeah “Pain” Sounds Great! With the recorded version you just close your eyes, listen to it and it will take you somewhere else and it’s wonderful!

The Dood: Any idea what singles you are going to lift from the album?

Xantoné Blacq: To be honest we haven’t talked about that yet, because we only finished the recording last week, the final bits of editing and overdubbing and things like that. So that would have been last Friday, 11 April.
The Dood: Have your record company, Whirlwind Records given you a deadline date that they would like to release the album?

Tony Match
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

Xantoné Blacq: This is another one we’re in the middle of speaking about. I would imagine you’re looking at the end of summer. Because you know how it is, August is a dead month, everyone goes on holiday and nobody wants to release anything. So it was either the late summer, as in July, or very possibly September. So it’s going to be either side of August.

The Dood: But overall you said it was an intense process, was it an enjoyable process for you?

Xantoné Blacq: Yes, it was very much an enjoyable process. Speaking for myself personally I had the opportunity to just drag the whole of my own home studio across to Wax Studios Recordings. Things like mono-synths … I brought my Congo’s, bongos, shakers, I just bought everything. It was a blast! It was great to be able to experiment and play with these two guys that I had already been living with pretty much, touring for the last two weeks. And also for us to capture what we’d been doing on the road and put it out on record perpetuity.

The Dood: Your views on Paul Jackson as a man and a musician?

Paul Jackson
Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde

Xantoné Blacq: I would say of Paul – he’s an innovator and a pioneer, because when you factor in him coming onto the scene and what the headhunters achieved; I mean that thing has just been copied to death, including by myself and so many people. So he’s a pioneer, he’s an innovator, but in the same way as much as he is very knowledgeable about many many things and he’s had so many experiences, he still maintains the really youthful, funky outlook on life. Paul can tell you funny stories for years, for days and days he‘ll talk to you about, “Oh! There was this time when we did this and that.” So he’s a generous, funny, talented person who is very open to new ideas and he’s constantly open to trying out new things and going “out there!” It’s a real pleasure and an honour to be working as a member of his trio.

The Dood: Xantoné Blacq thank you very much for taking time out to talk to ukvibe. We’re looking forward to the fruits of that recording session later this year.

Xantoné Blacq: It’s a pleasure. Thank you, thank you very very much.

Michael J Edwards

Essential Websites:

Photo: Courtesy of Carl Hyde