Written by Sophie Wyatt
Over the past three years there has been an undeniable resurgence of Jazz music, with a number of young singers and musicians reclaiming the genre and putting their own spin on it. Enter Jack Stephenson-Oliver. When Jack isn’t playing keys with rising singers such as Charlotte Dos Santos or Poppy Ajudha, he is performing at shows with his three-piece jazz group Vels Trio, or working on beats in his duo SAUL.
As we started our zoom interview, Jack explained that his now shaved head was a result of lockdown-curiosity, and divulged that if there was ever a time to shave your head, it was now. We also discussed Jack’s set up in London. Whilst Jack is locking down in his flat with his girlfriend, he also has a second flat where he keeps his piano, meaning that he can escape the disruptions and distractions a lot of us have been facing whilst working from home. Although his forte is now playing jazzy beats on the keyboard, Jack’s passion for creating music started with a gifted guitar.
‘I got a guitar for my fifteenth birthday, and I was just really into Jimi Hendrix, I thought he was God basically. So I got super into that for a couple of years, and then super into singing actually, which I wish I had kept up I really do. And then I started piano when I was twenty-four. And I feel like piano is my thing now, I’ve found it. It took me a while to get there. I always really loved music, ever since I was a kid. I had the odd piano or guitar lesson when I was really young, but I didn’t really stick to anything until I was about fifteen’.
Starting guitar at fifteen meant that Jack’s influences were very much centered around the rock bands that we all remember nostalgically from our teens, e.g. Sum 41. But he explained that as he started to explore different musicians within different genres, he was inspired to try playing other instruments and genres.
‘To begin with my influences were like classic fifteen-year-old rock and roll. And then I guess when I was 22/23 I started getting more into jazz music. In particular Robert Glasper and Cory Henry. And they’re both keys players, so I was like ‘oh shit this is actually kind of cool, I prefer the sound of what they’re doing. I think I’d rather do this’. So I think those two people and the whole vibe of jazzy music is what inspired me to play keyboard’.
Like most of our music tastes, Jacks developed from rock songs on the guitar to jazzy beats on the keyboard. While Jack mainly plays jazz, he explained to us that one of the beauties of his job is that he can dabble in any number of genres.
‘That’s the cool thing with what I get to do. Because I wouldn’t say Poppy Ajudha is that jazz. And the same with Charlotte Dos Santos, I mean there’s definitely jazz influences in different ways but they’re much more a pop thing. But then I have other bands, like my group Vels Trio, and that’s definitely more on the jazz spectrum. And then I also get to do a lot of my swing gigs in hotels or wherever really, in places around London. There’s this place I play every Monday night in Soho called The Vault, and that’s just swing and jazz, that’s got to be one of my favourite things I think’.
Jack also works within a collective project called SAUL, where he plays alongside producer Barney Whittaker (aka Footshooter). After they both moved back to the Brighton area once they’d finished studying at uni, the pair started meeting up to create tunes together.
‘It was a relaxed thing at first, just to make some jazzy beats or whatever. And then as we went on it just got more serious and we realised we wanted to record an EP. I kind of had my heart set on Rhythm Section because I really like them as a label. And luckily because of Vels Trio I already knew some of the guys running the label, so when me and Barney had finished the record we just put it to them and they were into it and wanted to put it out’. (You can check out Jack and Barney jamming out on SAUL‘s EP here: https://open.spotify.com/album/5a6NMvwErPVADOcH7FFfLI?si=fUYwsSL2ScyV82tpTm8Dzw ‘So it’s been a nice chilled project really, where I can get together with a producer, which is a whole new thing for me as well. Because usually I work with people on instruments, whereas with this I’m vibing with a guy who’s on a computer making beats. It’s a whole different process that I’m really into’.
After being part of so many different groups of his own as well as bands playing with upcoming singers, Jack has played an uncountable amount of shows all over the world. Which obviously made it very hard to narrow the list down to his favourites.
‘It’s so hard to pick a favourite. I mean my first tour with Charlotte was in Norway, I think it was only like four shows, it was quite a small one. But that was sick because it was one of my first proper tours away, and Norway is such a cool country so that was a really fun tour. Then I had a really fun one with Poppy when it was just the two of us going around Europe. We were interrailing so going to Holland and Belgium and France and Germany. And going on tour with my band Vels Trio, we always just have such a laugh. We went to Spain in September last year and that was a lot of fun. So yeah, it would be kind of hard to pick a favourite though. I mean hopefully there’s going to be many more once all this gets back to normal’.
As Jack began to speak about all different groups he works within, including two of his own, it was clear to see that he was very busy with a number of different projects. He explained to us how he came to playing for people like Poppy Ajudha and Charlotte Dos Santos.
‘I met Poppy at a night called Steez. Sadly it’s not really a thing anymore, it ended about three years ago. But it was this sick jam, where everyone would come down from different art forms. You had music, spoken word, loads of rappers would come down and we’d always have just this huge jam, and it would just always go off every time. So I met a lot of musicians through that, and Poppy was one of the people I met.
And then with Charlotte I had got recommended to her. So sometimes it’s quite an organic thing, where you become friends with this person and then you start playing together, and then sometimes you’ll get approached and then the friendship forms through that but afterwards. I guess either way it can be quite organic. It’s probably harder to get gigs by approaching people, I feel like a lot of the time you have to put yourself out there and be open to life and then stuff will come to you’.
The process of creating music is different for every artist, especially within Jazz where a lot of the creating comes from improvisation. While Jack plays music with upcoming singers, they usually create it themselves and he then learns the pieces, however he also gave us a window into how he goes about composing music within his groups.
‘But then say with Vels Trio, anyone of us could bring something in and then we’ll all work on it together. Sometimes it can take up to six months, and we’re pretty hard on ourselves, so it’s a rigorous process but we always get to this point where we’re super happy with it. I don’t think there’s any singers I’ve worked with yet where we compose together, but it’s definitely something I’m up for because I really enjoy it.’
Jazz music is constantly evolving and changing, and over the past few years there has been a revival of jazz musicians appearing within the music scene. A lot of musicians have started to combine jazz with both pop and hip-hop, and as a result have created popular hybrids of the genre.
‘Yeah it’s been great. There’s so much good stuff out there now. I don’t know why or how it happened, but it’s just sick. Maybe the internet has something to do with it because there’s all this stuff coming over from America like Snarky Puppy, Robert Glasper and Thundercat. It’s just all super inspiring. Maybe it’s just a certain group of people at a certain time all happen to be in that same spot. I wouldn’t put it all down to South London, but London in general has had a massive impact on it. But then you don’t want to take away from the other cities like Leeds and Manchester that have got great scenes themselves. It’s a really good thing’.
With the genre continuing to evolve within the industry, it’s hard now to pinpoint exactly what jazz is. So we asked Jack to explain what jazz music means to him.
‘When I was at uni this was something I was always thinking about. I realised that there’s no point in putting a label on it, it means something different to you as it does to me. In the technical sense it’s music that contains improvisation, heavily. But what it means to me I guess is freedom in music. Because I guess the whole idea of jazz and where it comes from is that it’s an evolving art form. So, like what’s going on right now is sick because jazz has taken on an evolution in this new thing. I mean all music has evolved but I feel like jazz is a pioneering genre, just by its own nature’.
After creating his own music, as well as playing with several rising artists, Jack explained that he had no specifics on people he would choose to work with in the future, other than that they take their work seriously.
‘All the people that I’d want to work with are people I would consider way out of my league. But I am looking to work with anyone that just wants to write music with integrity, and just have fun doing it. I think the main thing for me is that I like to be pushed as a musician, so someone who takes their own craft seriously. I think you push people around you if you take your own craft seriously’.
We also got to ask Jack if he had any advice for younger musicians who were starting out in the industry, and aspired to go into a career within music. He explained that while it’s easy to get caught up in the surface of the job, practice is of course one of the core dynamics in not only becoming successful, but also enjoying your work to its fullest.
‘It’s definitely easy to focus on a lot of external shit, but technique and stuff like that needs to not be a hindrance to you. But also with the music industry there’s a whole social side, so you need to not practise too much so you can still socialise with people. So there’s a fine balance of being just a nice open person, having passion for it because it’s tough, it’s not always easy.
A lot of the time you will get knock backs, so you have to have perseverance definitely, discipline and I’d say do it for yourself don’t do it for the gram. You’ve got to want to do it, not for validation from other people but because you really want to do it. If you choose to embark on music as a career it’s not an easy thing, not in terms of making money but in doing something creative almost because when I was younger I would play music because it was nurturing, it was like an escape but now it’s almost not that. I still love it and enjoy it, but it’s something that I have to take really seriously. So I do get those feels from it but not in the same way. So discipline, passion and just being open, an open person, open to new experiences’.
Like most other musicians, Jack has felt the force of the lockdown with all of his upcoming shows being rescheduled to later in the year. However, being part of several different groups means that he has taken a positive spin on the current situation and is making the most of the time he has to practice.
‘I mean everything’s been rescheduled. I was going to be doing a tour with Charlotte Dos Santos and we had a head-line show with Poppy which I think might be in December now hopefully. But i’m currently finishing an album with Vels, it’s our first proper album, so that’s on hold at the moment but as soon as we can get in the studio again we’ll be getting back on that. And me and Barney are working on a new record for SAUL, so hopefully that should be out at the end of the year. And then there’s this solo project that I’m working on, and I want to be singing for that. Now is a good time for that actually, like who knows what will happen in the future but right now I’m just trying to write and practise as much as I can. If you’re a new musician I think right now is a perfect time to find your thing, just practise as much as you can because we may never have this again. I’m not saying this is a good thing, but I’m just trying to see the positive’.
Obviously we are unable to watch Jack play live whilst we wait for our beloved gigs and festivals to return, but in the mean time check him out jamming with Vels Trio for their Boiler Room performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2wcOf08JF-w&t=410s
Written by Sophie Wyatt