Jesse Fischer Looks Ahead
Posted 8/27/2012

Many musicians struggle with pushing boundaries and looking ahead while honoring the past. But for electric pianist Jesse Fischer and his project Soul Cycle, that has never been an issue. In fact, itís a challenge that this Brooklyn-based group has been up for since the very beginning. With the groupís 2007 independent release Urban Organics, thereís a blend of soulful covers like The Isley Brothersí ďFootsteps in the DarkĒ with funk-jazz grooves and almost otherworldly sounds you canít quite peg—and wouldnít want to.

On Retro Future, the groupís debut release on the ObliqSound label, Fischer balances past and present influences with more futuristic sounds that are heard less on his earlier efforts. DownBeat sat down with Fischer to discuss his journey with Soul Cycle, the newer direction he takes on Retro Future, and how this album mirrors much of his own personal and professional transitions.

When did you first form your group Soul Cycle?

Itís been about 10 years, but itís gone through a lot of changes. It actually grew out of a band that played at a weekly breakdance event—b-boys and b-girls. We played a lot of Latin songs, breakbeats and 1970s instrumental jazz. It was so much fun playing that kind of music because I always loved those records [from] Head Hunters, Weather Report and Donald Byrd & the Blackbyrds. It was like the perfect combination of rhythm, melody, cool harmonies and sounds. I took that band [from the] weekly party and started writing my own music in that style but more for a concert setting. So thatís how Soul Cycle started. Itís gone through so many different phases because weíve gone through different members [and] different periods where Iíve been focusing on different types of music. Each record that comes out has a slightly different bend to it. Whatís been consistent over the years is that thereís always some type of collective improvisation and a focus on melody.

I have an amazing band, [and] Iím always honored to be playing with these guys. Thereís drummer Gabe Wallace, Solomon Dorsey on bass, David Linaburg on guitar, Shawn Banks on percussion, Brian Hogans, whoís an alto [sax] and flute player, trumpeter Jean Caze, Corey King on trombone and then a few different featured vocalists like Rachel Eckroth and Chris Turner, who arenít that well known yet but are going to be. Theyíre all are doing different things. Rachel is getting ready to put out a record, Chris Turner sings with Bilal, Gabe Wallace is now touring with this huge Korean pop group called 2NE1 and Solomon Dorsey tours with an Italian pop singer [Pino Daniele]. They all are very open to what Iím trying to do and theyíre just open to music in general. I love being on the road with them because I find out so much about different music from them and we all share ideas. Weíre all just very nonjudgmental when it comes to combining different ideas or creating new sounds. Theyíre all monsters on their instruments but theyíre also just thinking about the group. Nobody in the band is trying to make themselves look good; everybodyís trying to make the group look good. Thatís really the key thing for me. With a band that big, you need to have people that are willing to sacrifice for the group.

How did your latest release Retro Future come about?

Before this album, I had done five albums with Soul Cycle. The last album, Homebrew (Soul Cycle Music, 2011) was the first album that I was actually happy with and I could actually listen to it for pleasure. That was what I had been trying to achieve. Iíve been getting better at writing and playing. I thought that was going to be my last Soul Cycle record. And then suddenly, Michele [Locatelli] from ObliqSound, who I had really never met before, offered me the opportunity to do this record for his label. Iíve always wanted to do something—not necessarily with a big label but with someone that understands music, gets what Iím trying to do and will really support it, which he does completely. But at the same time, I was creatively in a place where I didnít know what to do with Soul Cycle because I had planned out this whole electronic record where it was going to be no musicians—just totally electronic. I was going to program it and it was going to have this spacy, psychedelic, almost ambient thing to it. So what happened was I ended up doing a record that in my mind was satisfying my own plan for the next record but at the same time, it was going to be a record that Michele was interested in pushing because he had loved Homebrew so much and I could see that that was something that people are just starting to get to know. Even though I have done five records, most people had only heard one. Retro Future was a chance to do something that was a little bit more electronic but at the same time have this live energy of the band. Everything that I do has that energy of people playing music together as a social activity, not being locked in a recording booth or a studio. With two sides to this record, itís kind of like the two sides of my brain—the very calculated side and the very free and spontaneous side. Itís not like ďside AĒ or ďside B.Ē When you listen to it, you can kind of see how those two strands are woven through the record.

Youíve always worn different hats—keyboardist, composer, arranger—and now your last two albums list you as the groupís leader. What has that added role been like for you?

Iím such a shy person. It was hard for me to realize that I have to put my name on the record and be in the front. When it comes down to it, itís my music. Part of the reason that I love composing is [because] I want to write something thatís fun to play. But I often joke that for a Soul Cycle record, I would be happy to hire a keyboard player. Itís more about me composing and me hearing the music that Iíve imagined in my head hearing it played by these guys. Iím approaching it as a composer, as an orchestrator, as a producer and as an engineer, too. This is the third project where Iíve engineered and produced the whole thing myself. Iím very much approaching it from all these different angles. Itís hard to separate the engineering from the composing and playing because itís all sort of together in my mind. When I conceive of the piece, Iím already thinking about how itís going to sound and the actual textures of the sound, which is part of what instruments Iím using but itís also part of what mics Iím using and how Iím mixing it. Itís this cool feeling of being able to write, being able to play what Iíve written and then being able to engineer and mix it. It really takes me to another level, so I like that.

Since all of your previous efforts have been independently released. Whatís it like to now work with a label like ObliqSound?

Iíve always been very ďdo-it-yourselfĒ in every aspect of my life. If you come to my home, youíll see that my bookshelves are all handmade. Everything is like that with me. I would rather learn how to do something because itís educational, and thatís what I really enjoy. I taught myself how to do video editing, graphic design, even music. Being my own label, I had to learn how to do publicity, booking and all these other administrative tasks that arenít exactly music but are still very creative. It was tough but I actually love that part of the business. And now that Iím fortunate to be with ObliqSound, DL Media and a radio promoter, it helps me understand where theyíre coming from. Itís also been very challenging because Iím not used to making decisions with someone else.

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Jesse Fischer (Photo: Isabelle Selby)

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