No Jazz have fun in Hollywood

French Superheroes back with a new album


29/11/2005 - 

Three years after their debut album, zany French outfit No Jazz are back in the news with a follow-up album, Have Fun. And this is exactly what the group have done, teaming up with an all-star cast including Stevie Wonder, Mino Cinelu, Claude Nougaro and Wayne Vaughn. The result? An uplifting album infused with soul-funk and catchy electro beats.

Not many French artists can pride themselves on having recorded with Stevie Wonder, but the group No Jazz now rank among those privileged few! The group, who have been playing together for five years, recorded their new album Have Fun in Los Angeles where they got to work with one of the all-time greats from Motown, Stevie Wonder himself. What's more, Wonder, the undisputed king of soul, complimented the French fivesome on their sound, declaring "What you do is amazing!" Add to that the fact that the credits on Have Fun also include Wayne Vaughn, from Earth Wind and Fire, and you have an album that can be rightly hailed as a major event in the French music world.

No Jazz are renowned for wacky live shows where they take to the stage dressed as superheroes. But when we hooked up with DJ Speeder Mike and Bilbo the drummer in a Paris café they had left their Peter Parker and Clark Kent outfits at home. Looking back on their career to date, Mike and Bilbo evoked memories of their early days jamming in a garage where they "played music the way we might have played 'pétanque' (French bowls)". A few years later, the group ended up not only meeting their idols, but actually recording with them in a prestigious American studio. And the question burning everyone's lips is: How did they get there? Bilbo makes no attempt to suppress his mirth, chuckling as he explains that "When our producer Téo Macéro turned round one night in 2001 and announced that Maurice White from Earth Wind and Fire was coming to one of our concerts, Mike practically passed out!" Mike does not deny the charge, adding simply "Can you imagine? If I ended up playing music today, it's all down to Earth Wind and Fire!"

Three years later playing a showcase in Hollywood, all five members of the band were trembling in their shoes – and understandably so! Maurice White, who had by that stage become a "mate", had invited a very special guest along to the show. "We were due to go on stage around 10.30 at night," recounts Bilbo, "and we were only doing a 20-minute set. Anyway, the minutes were ticking down to our curtain call and Stevie Wonder still hadn't arrived! We got up on stage feeling absolutely sick and the moment we struck up the first chord in he walked!" Mike and Bilbo are still blown away by memories of that Hollywood night when the musician they "rank above everyone else" came back stage and suggested they work together. "After our set, he invited us to join him in this Thai restaurant in LA. And I can honestly say we're still getting over how kind and modest he was. And he's a guy who's got absolutely nothing to prove to anybody!" Mike and Bilbo were equally touched by their meeting with the late great French singer Claude Nougaro. They have particularly fond memories of the moment Nougaro, "speaking in that amazing gravely accent," turned round and said "Boys I have to tell you, I really like your stuff!" The French star gave them a mark of his appreciation, recording the rap Le K du Q with them.

Messing around in a garage

Nothing in the group's history appeared to predestine them for such illustrious collaborations one day. Bilbo, Mike, Slam, Balat and their original trumpet-player were just five mates hanging out together "with no particular ambition to form a band!" "We were all caught up with other things when we started playing together in 1999," says Mike, "We didn't take it seriously at all. We were just messing around, coming up with different sounds for a laugh. And then, much to our surprise, we discovered people actually liked what we were doing." No Jazz went on to play their first live show at Le Sunset in 2000 and their electro-jazz sound proved an instant hit with the audience. Chaperoned by Yannick Noah's manager, they went on to appear at leading music festivals such as Les Eurockéennes and the Montreal Festival. The fivesome then went into the studio to record their debut album (produced by Téo Macéro and released on Warner Jazz). "That album was recorded in a big rush," admits Mike in retrospect, "If we'd really sat down and thought about what we were doing and matured it gradually over time - we'd have come up with the album we've made today: Have Fun!"

No Jazz albums are, in theory, all about having fun, but they are not merely about individual members enjoying themselves. The group's albums also draw inspiration from their live shows, their travels and their encounters with other musicians. No Jazz certainly have plenty of material to draw on, having performed over 350 dates in 29 different countries over the past three years! The secret of their ongoing success? According to Mike "although there's a definite jazz connotation to our work in the way we use brass instruments and experiment with improvisation, No Jazz are managed like a rock group!... The way we see it, talent is also expressed through energy and cohesion. Things may get a bit wild and all over the place at times, but at the end of the day the main thing is that we enjoy ourselves and never sink into routine." "We change the order of the songs around for each concert," chimes in Bilbo, "It's like we keep the basic skeleton, but we stick his arms where his legs were every now and then!"

The band have developed other effective strategies to fend off boredom over the years. (These include elaborate stage decors and the afore-mentioned superhero costumes). It is as if the fivesome are adamant about marking their difference and refusing to be pigeon-holed in the "French electro-jazz" category. "We don't hang out with French electro-jazz acts. In fact, we've never met any!" they insist, preferring to build an international image. (This intention is confirmed with a forthcoming tour of Germany and regular trips to the U.S). "We could have developed a typical 'French' sound, which would maybe have got us a lot more airplay. But the fact that we've created this very open style means we could just as easily work with Bjork as an African 'griot.' And isn't that what Paris is all about? It's meant to be a multi-cultural melting pot, right?"

Asked about their attitude to their career to date, No Jazz declare they take a "mitigated" view of their success. "We've got to work with some brilliant musicians, but our coverage in the French media is still very limited. As for Stevie Wonder appearing on our album, our label were actually pretty blasé about it all." And what might the future hold for the zany fivepiece? "We're not going to wait three years before we bring out the next album," they assure fans, "And we're going to do all we can to keep working with other artists. Our big dream right now is to play with Meshell Ndegeocello." Given No Jazz's track record to date, this is surely only a matter of time!

No Jazz Have Fun (Up Music) 2005

Anne-Laure  Lemancel

Translation : Julie  Street