Brian Jackson, Gil Scott-Heron Partner, on His Recording Past & Present

All images provided by BBE, used with permission.

I first discovered Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson's music by rummaging through my dad's cassette tape collection around age eight or nine. I remember, very vividly, coming across a black cassette case with neon lettering. The album was Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson's 1980.

Both are seen on the cover sitting in front of Malcolm Cecil's legendary TONTO synthesizer system, a gargantuan array of keyboards, modular, and semi-modular gear. While staring at this album cover all I could think was, Wow, these guys are cool. Perhaps my fascination with synthesizers started right at that moment.

Album cover for This Is Brian Jackson
This Is Brian Jackson, Jackson's new record, is out now.

As I grew older, I became a fan in part because the songs were direct when it came to race, political, and social issues—without the need for veiled lyrics. These raw and thought-provoking lyrics were accompanied by musical numbers that drew inspiration from lots of sources.

When Gil and Brian's work first hit record stores in the early '70s, nobody knew how to categorize them. Their records could be found in the jazz section, R&B, or the bin simply titled "Other." It became evident as the years passed that their music was beyond categorization.

Thankfully the duo's music has withstood the test of time, partly due to sampling. Kanye West, Knxledge, Madlib, and J Dilla are just a few of the hundreds of producers who have utilized Jackson's music in their own. While much of the listening public's focus fell on Gil, Brian was the duo's musical bedrock, its keyboardist, songwriter, and musical director—an irreplaceable half of one of history's great musical partnerships.

Brian's musicianship aided Gil's songwriting, allowing Gil to concentrate on his poetic performance, while Brian kept the band tight. Gil and Brian parted ways in the '80s, and since then, Brian has stayed active working as a producer and session musician for a variety of artists.

He recently kicked off the Jazz Is Dead album series with Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad. And as of May 27, he's released his first solo album in over 20 years: This Is Brian Jackson. It's a reintroduction to his solo artistry, and to songs he started to write and record four decades ago.

I got the chance to sit down and chat with the legendary keyboardist while he was on a European tour. We dive into stories about working with Gil in his younger days, along with a several other legendary musicians. We touched on his long-standing tenure in the music industry and how things today, while different, are still pretty similar to how they were when he started.

Stay up to date with Brian Jackson at his website. His new album, This Is Brian Jackson is out now.

Educate me and our readers on where your musical life begins: how, where, and when?

In the crib, man. My parents—they were those kind of people, when you go to their house, there's always music on, no matter what. There's always going to be some music.

Their music of choice was usually jazz. You'd be hearing some Ella or some Sarah Vaughan, or you'd be hearing some Miles or some Clifford Brown. You'd be hearing some Duke Ellington, or some Count Basie, or Frank Sinatra, or sometimes they would switch it up and they would play some Bach or some Beethoven, or whatever, but usually, it was pretty much steady bebop, because that's what was happening… That's what I remember. My memories are of the bebop that was going on in the mid-'50s.

Was piano your first instrument growing up?

No. Well, it was my first instrument, but it wasn't my first choice. I lived in a small apartment in Bed-Stuy. Because I was in love with Max Roach—I wanted to be Max Roach—and that involved playing the drums, which in a small apartment in Brooklyn, that's just not going to fly. My mom nixed that idea, and so we moved to the next one, which is trumpet. Miles, Clifford Brown, Dizzy [Gillespie]. Again, for the same reasons.

You see, the thing about a piano is, it's really not hard to make a note sound good, because all you do is press the key, and it's a good-sounding note, as long as the piano is in tune. Not so with the trumpet. You gotta go through a painful, painful, painful process of trying to make sounds.

And it's not just painful for you; it's painful for everybody around you. So option number two was canceled, and we settled on number three, which was the piano. I loved the piano, also. I was a big fan of Ahmad Jamal and Bud Powell, and Red Garland, and Horace Silver, so I didn't have any problem with that.

When's the first time you met Gil? How'd that happen?

We both went to the same college. And one of the main reasons we went there was that we felt, "OK, it's an HBCU." We wanted to be somewhere like that. We wanted to be somewhere where people like Kwame Nkrumah had passed through, and Oscar Brown Jr. and Thurgood Marshall and Langston Hughes—especially Langston Hughes.

We thought if the soil was fertile enough for him, then it obviously would've been the kind of place that we might have flourished in also. That wasn't necessarily the case, as we found out, but we did meet each other.

Jackson on stage with Scott-Heron in the '70s.
Jackson on stage with Scott-Heron in the '70s. Photo provided by BBE, used with permission.

Did you guys hit it off instantly? What was the first jam session like?

The first time we ever met, we wrote a song together. First time. After that, we decided we wanted to write some more songs together. It just so happened that there was a group of students who had a band with singers, like five singers. Joe was one of them, Victor Brown was another and David Barnes was another one. There were two more—Jackie Brown and Reggie Williams—so five singers. The rest of us were musicians: piano, bass, percussion, drums, and flute.

Could you talk a little bit about that songwriting process with Gil? How did it evolve over the years? Did it start with you having some music first, or did a lot of it start with Gil's lyrics?

The music always started first. The music was always first. Our reasoning behind that was that music [was] like a manifestation of a higher plane, a higher plane of belief and thought. As music helped to define that higher plane, we felt that words helped to define the higher plane of music. We wanted to follow that hierarchy. We would always allow music to generate the message that needed to be brought down to the next plane of words.

Like Gil once said, "Words are for the mind and notes are for the soul." That's a simplification of it really, because words are often for the soul, music can also be for the mind. But music, if done right, is wordless poetry, and poetry is like music without music. If you put them together, they're just more powerful.

Even from your earliest recordings with Gil, it was very clear that both of you had lots of influences. What drove you to put all your influences into those first albums? Was there any backlash in those early days, because it was hard to categorize you?

I still get that. We couldn't categorize ourselves, because we had so many. We drew from so many influences. As you correctly stated, we were both into avant-garde jazz, we were both into bebop, post-bop, we were both into rock, R&B, soul. We had so many different influences that you couldn't sit down and write a song and say, "Oh no, I don't want to include this element that's coming through me right now, because it's not part of our wheelhouse." We couldn't possibly do it.

We caught a lot of flack for that, because especially in the '70s, when everything seemed like it had to have a box. Literally, it had to have a box because there were record stores, and record stores had to put you in a particular bin; they had to put you in a particular category.

What happened with us, if you were to go to some of those old record stores, you would see that you'd find our album in the R&B bin, and then you would go to the rock bin and you'd see us in the rock bin. You'd go to the jazz bin, and you'd see one of the same albums in the jazz bin, and so on. I don't know. Is that success? I'm not sure if it is. We succeeded in confounding the experts.

Gil Scott-Heron - "Pieces of a Man"

I also understand that you've worked with Ron Carter, particularly on the first album. How was working with that legend of a bassist?

Man, it was the scariest thing that ever happened to me. I was 18 years old. When we went in there—what did I know about music? How much could you possibly know, at 18, next to Ron Carter? I was terrified, just straight up.

Not only was it Ron Carter, but it was also Hubert Laws. Not only was it Hubert Laws, it was Bernard Purdie. You're sitting there saying, "Wow, I hope I'm harmonically sophisticated enough. I hope I'm funky enough."

I looked at each one of these guys and thought to myself, Wow, I can't do anything. I didn't have anywhere to turn, so I just went inside of myself. Thinking back on those sessions, I don't really remember. I don't remember the actual playing. I only remember the in-betweens.

Were there any key moments, where you felt like they were testing you out, with you being so young?

Oh yeah, man. Ron, this cat, man. Ron, we have this one song we're doing, "Pieces of a Man." It's got a chord in it that is often written in two or three different ways. Sometimes it's written as a Csus4, and sometimes it's written as C11, and sometimes it's written as C9sus4. It's one of the only chords that can be written in three or four different ways and mean the same thing. He picks that one chord that everybody knows is ambiguous. There's really no real standard notation for that one chord. The only chord, I think, in the musical language, that has that characteristic.

He starts asking me, "You say it's a C11," because it was written as a C11. He says, "You say it's a C11, but do you mean it's like the C11, the kind of one that everybody talks about, or is it the other kind of C11?" I'm like, "I know what you're talking about, but I think that I want it to be the one that everybody usually means when they say that." He goes, "Oh, OK. Cool, cool, but you're sure it's not that other one?"

This goes on about two or three minutes. By the time he's finished with me, I'm asking him, "Well, what do you think it should be, sir?" By this time, I was ready to accept whatever he said it was. Who am I to argue with Ron Carter? Then he stops for a second and he looks at me and he goes, "Oh man, I'm just kidding." He's like, "I'm just messing with you," and all three of them start laughing. Trial by fire. That's it.

I can only imagine what that feeling was like. I'm sure that was just as memorable as maybe the first time you sat down with the Fender Rhodes.

The first time I sat down to a Rhodes was actually in that session, in Pieces of a Man. I'd heard it being played. Obviously, I'd heard Herbie Hancock playing. And I'd heard Stevie Wonder play as well. It was Herbie who made me want to stay away from it, to be honest, because I felt like, What could I do for the Fender Rhodes? What could I do on a Fender Rhodes that could possibly stand out? If I wanted to make a mark, I felt like I should probably play some other electric piano. That's what I did. I tried to, but I kept gravitating towards it.

It's what they had at RCA studios, where we recorded. It was right underneath Bob Thiele's office. It was in the same building. When we did Pieces of a Man, it was OK. I didn't really connect with it in that moment.

When we came back to do a song on the album Free Will called "Speed Kills," and I turned the tremolo on, on this Rhodes, and the sound just swirled around the whole room... If you listen to that song, especially if you put headphones on, the sound just swirls around. It's a very magical, magical sound. I just got caught up in it. I got caught up in that vortex of sound. It was something that has stayed with me. That feeling has stayed with me for forever.

Gil Scott Heron - "Speed Kills"

It's the tremolo effect on the Rhodes, right?

That's it. I just found out not too long ago, how that works. There are four speakers. Two of them face you, and two of them are on the other side of you. This is only on the model called the Suitcase model, that the piano sits on top of this huge box of four speakers, as wide as the keyboard itself. What happens is, when you put the tremolo effect on, it switches speakers, but it doesn't just switch from left to right, which when you first hear it, you think that's what's happening. In reality, what it's really doing is it's switching from the left front and the back right, to the right front and the back left. That's what creates that swirling effect. I never even thought about it.

Going forward past the '70s a little bit, you worked with Malcolm Cecil. On the 1980 album, you got to use the TONTO on that album. What was that like?

Yeah, [by then] I had already bought a Minimoog. First thing, when the Minimoog came out, I was all over it, mainly because of Stevie Wonder. I was like, "Man, you mean I can bend a note now?" You can't bend a note on a piano. I was like, "This is the first time I'll actually be able to bend notes, like a guitar player."

I got one of those, those Minimoogs, and I played it on a couple of songs. I played it on "Johannesburg" [from From South Africa to South Carolina]. I played it on "Possum Slim." I was trying it out and I was getting comfortable with programming it and everything. Then Clive Davis drops this thing on us where he says, "Look, you guys, you can go out to California, to Santa Monica, and work with—"

First, California. That's number one, all right? Because we were from the East Coast. California, that was already... I was already sold. Then he says, "You can work with Malcolm Cecil at TONTO Studios. I was like, "You mean the one with that thing that Stevie Wonder plays, and Billy Preston, and Weather Report, and the Isleys?" He said, "Yeah, that's the one."

Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson - "Shut 'Um Down"

We went out there and I've never seen anything... I was immediately enraptured by that whole idea, but didn't know what to do with it. We started recording and we started doing a song called "Hello, Sunday! Hello Road!" We had our whole band out there, bass player. I had the bass player try a couple of things, and it just wasn't clicking.

That night, after everybody went home, I just stayed around and I asked Malcolm to dial me in some bass sounds. Basically, I was trying to figure out what part that could work for the bass player to play, and I came up with it. The problem is that it wasn't something a bass player could actually play. It just wasn't going to work with a bass player playing it. When we finished it, I said, "Let's lay this down. Just keep it. Just hold onto it." Then once we laid it down, we realized that's it. There's no reason to reinvent the wheel. If you have it, you have it.

From that point, I got really excited because I started thinking Music of My Mind, All Over Again, Talking Book, Innervisions. I said, "Wow, you think I could do this?" Basically, I think there were two songs on that album, on "Bridges," that were not synth based. The same thing with Secrets. I just got into the whole bass player's mentality.

Going back to Ron Carter, I said to him years later, I said to him, "Man, I know that when these synthesizers came along, everybody started doing bass. I'm sorry, man. I happen to be one of them. I just want to apologize, but I'm just really a frustrated bass player." He said, "Yeah, so am I." [Laughs].

I didn't really realize when I first started hearing about the TONTO that Malcolm had managed to basically combine Moog stuff with Buchla stuff. Was that your first time even coming across Buchla and the West Coast style of synthesis?

Man, I didn't know what it was. I recognized some of the dials on the Moogs because he had actually combined all of them. He had combined the ARP modules with the Moog modules, with the Buchla modules, and it all just ... it was just a mess of wires. In the back, it was even crazier than that, but it took up a whole room. He was able to program the most amazing things in there.

The one that always stands out to me is a song called "Song of the Wind" on Bridges. If you listen to it really... you really have to listen to it, but at the very beginning you hear the sound of a beach, of the wave lapping quietly on the beach and softly on the beach.

Gil Scott Heron feat. Brian Jackson - "Song of the Wind"

Then you hear the rustle of leaves. It sounds like palm trees maybe, and you hear birds. We were doing this song, and I thought, "Wow, this has got such an island flavor to it. Can we do something like that?" Malcolm said, "Yeah, we can find some. I think we can find some recordings or something like that." I was like, "No, no, no, I want to do it with the synthesizer."

He said, "Yeah, okay. He gets to work. Two hours later, he actually came up with that. When you press one key, all of that happens at the same time, the waves, the trees, the birds. It was so cool that we just decided to use it throughout the whole song. But yeah, Malcolm—he was a genius.

You've been a musician throughout multiple technological eras.

That's true.

You started at the height of what some called the golden era of recording with, with what y'all were doing in the '70s. Then it's in the '80s and '90s, when everybody seemingly threw away their tape machines, and went all to digital and ADAT and stuff, right? But in working with Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge, you went back to analog.

Oh yeah. Adrian is, in particular, a stickler for analog gear. He was heavily inspired by some of the music of the Motown and the '60s vocal groups and the R&B of that time period, the balladeers. He has put together a studio that is capable of reproducing any of that, and even more. He can do orchestral arrangements in there, strings, horns, whatever it is. He's capable of doing all of those things in the studio.

Of course, Ali also comes from that frame of mind where he's looking for analog cleanliness, analog goodness and fatness. If you're familiar with his drum sounds in particular—his snare sounds—I've never really experienced anything that comes as close to satisfying as his were with A Tribe Called Quest. That was something unique.

I think it's unique to a lot of artists who, maybe they don't have the resources to do it, or they're not inclined to do it. It's very difficult to maintain all of that equipment, but the results are amazing and they're clear. It's very obvious, the difference between an analog style of production and digital.

What about your own current processes? Do you have a home studio? Are you also taking advantage of digital recording as well?

Oh yeah. I'm all digital. I'm all digital all the time. I don't have a problem with using the tools that will help me to get where I need to go. I guess I'm not as much of a purist as that, because to me, the music is my goal. My main goal is to get it down. I'm not going to wait until I have $150,000 or $200,000 to get a studio like that. I gotta do it now. That's what I've been doing. I've been doing that all along. I have nothing against anybody who wants to go that route. In fact, it's admirable, but I just don't have the resources or the means to do it.

Did you always have a home recording space, even back in the early days when it wasn't so common?

No. Do you know how much studios caused back then? [Laughs.] A real tape that you could get 15 minutes of music on cost $200. The engineer, for an hour, could cost $200. The studio could cost $200. I'm talking about for one hour. That's why the budgets back then were hundreds of thousands of dollars. No, I couldn't. No. I wanted one, yeah. But I was lucky—back then, you were lucky to actually get in somebody else's studio who had all that stuff.

Jackson at his Rhodes.
Jackson at his Rhodes. Photo by Christopher "Puma" Smith, used with permission.

What kind of synthesizers and instruments are you using with some of the new tracks that you're working on?

Well, the thing is that Daniel Collás [producer for This Is Brian Jackson] is caught in between the digital and the analog world. His preference is for analog synths and analog instruments.

He's got a Wurly up in there. He's got a Clavinet in there. He's got a lot of drums. He's got vibes. He's a percussionist, so he's got a lot of percussion instruments. He's got a [Roland] Juno. He's got some Korg stuff in there. We had fun.

If we didn't have it, then we would go to... Well—'cause he was maybe going to try and find another way—but I would just pull up my laptop and I'd say, "Come on, man. I got this. I got this sound right here. Nobody's going to say this sound doesn't sound good."

Me? I'm all plugins. I'm all plugins, musically, as far as that's concerned, except for live shows. When I'm doing a live show, I have my Suitcase. I got to have my Suitcase Rhodes there, and hopefully an acoustic piano. It doesn't always happen though.

Have you been able to do any live shows with the pandemic and all? Things are kind of opening back up now, but what you got in store for going back to the stage?

I just started. We started touring in April. We've been to ... this is probably the longest tour that I've done in maybe 35, 40 years. It's still going on, actually. We wound down, but we were in Zurich, Mannheim, Germany, and Berlin, Paris. We were in London, Bristol, Manchester. We hit Warsaw, Poland, Madrid, and we still have to go to Newcastle and we're ending up in the Cheltenham Jazz Festival.

Nice. Who you got in the band?

I got all UK guys. My buddy Lex Cameron, who is the musical director for Omar Lye-Fook. He is on keys. He's a great singer, great keyboardist, plays flute and guitar, just an all-around man. I have Steve Walters on bass, and I have Paul Jones on drums. These guys are top live and session players, very well experienced and very, very funky, very funky. We've been having a great time.

Stay up to date with Brian Jackson at his website. His new album, This Is Brian Jackson is out now.

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