Ambitious Project Ties Together Jazz, Electronic, Soul, Classical, Psychedelia, and World Music
What did the future used to look like? The space-age exploration of the Mad Men era? The free love and flower power of the hippies? The technological utopia of the early Internet pioneers? The promise of today’s era of global interconnectedness? With each new generation of dreamers, a new future is imagined, and when the future actually arrives, it ends up both stranger and more interesting than we could have imagined.
On his new album Retro Future, Brooklyn-based keyboardist, composer, and producer Jesse Fischer weaves together many different strands of futuristic sounds from the past to create a brand new sound that is ahead of its time yet incredibly cemented in the present.
“I love the music of the late 60′s and early 70′s, but the fact of the matter is that I was born in 1980 and have been influenced by so much music and culture of the past three decades,” explains Fischer. “I wanted to make a record that goes beyond paying homage to the styles of the past, and create something new that resonates with where we are today as a society – we’re still organic beings but increasingly living in an electronic world — and at the same time give you an intimate view of what I’m going through in my life.”
Following up 2011′s independent release, Homebrew (which featured turns from Gretchen Parlato, Stefon Harris, and Sean Jones), Retro Future marks Fischer’s label debut with ObliqSound, and features his tight-knit working group Soul Cycle, consisting of alto saxophonist and flautist Brian Hogans, trumpeter and flugelhornist Jean Caze, trombonist Corey King, guitarist David Linaburg, bassist Solomon Dorsey, percussionist Shawn Banks, and drummer Gabriel Wallace. Emerging vocalists Rachel Eckroth and Chris Turner are also featured on one song each. The album includes seven originals along with compelling new takes on The 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius”, Jimi Hendrix’s “Electric Ladyland”, and Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”.
Retro Future is an offbeat, curious blend of jazz-funk, electro, hip-hop, psychedelic soul, various African influences, as well as classical, romantic and impressionistic music. Once again commanding a rich arsenal of textures, Fischer expands his palette to include kalimba, glockenspiel, a variety of analog synths, sweeping electronic pads, 8-bit video-game sounds, vocoder, movie samples, cavernous echoes mixed with flutes, blistering horns, kinetic world percussion, as well as piano, Rhodes, and organ.
Regarding the broader concept of Retro Future, Fischer explains his goals: “I wanted to explore themes of technology and change. How does technology change us? How can we keep up with the way the world is changing? How can we use technology to change ourselves and the world for the better?” Born only months after the Apple II came on the market, Fischer is old enough to remember life before computers and the Internet, but young enough to consider them an integral part of his life. Throughout the album, his experiences with technology and change are portrayed musically, lyrically, and texturally in various ways.
Culturally omnivorous, Fischer takes inspiration from an unlikely array of sources with Retro Future: “I’ve been influenced by so much new music – artists like Hudson Mohawke, YMCK, King, Evan Marien, Mister Barrington, Thundercat, and Snarky Puppy, who are finding new and exciting ways of integrating electronic and jazz sounds – as well as going back and listening to a lot of Chopin, Beethoven, Debussy, and Ravel.” He also cites William Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk novels, Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi stories, as well as cult films like WarGames, Sneakers, and Pi as setting the philosophical, cinematic tone of Retro Future.
“With my new tunes, I was really looking for a way to combine the precision of electronic time with the exhilaration of human imperfections.” Throughout the album, Fischer explores various methods of balancing the spontaneity of organic group improvisation with meticulously constructed digital pre and post-production. On some songs, the band performed live over a pre-programmed electronic track aligned to the computer grid. On other songs, software was used in post-production to digitally alter and enhance certain human elements. The result is a scintillating symbiosis of man and machine.
Religiously D.I.Y., Fischer not only composes, arranges, and plays on Retro Future, but the polymath also produced, engineered, and mixed the record. “I grew up around the punk-rock D.I.Y. ethos which is still deeply ingrained in me,” Fischer says. “Best way to make something happen is to learn how to do it yourself. Not only do you save money and time while educating yourself, but the fewer people that are involved in a piece of art, the more authentic, coherent, and intimate it can be.”
Three years ago, while subletting a medium-sized studio to record his own projects, Fischer found himself becoming an in-demand engineer and producer. “I found all my contacts who knew me as a musician suddenly started calling me to record their projects! It was a no-brainer. They knew that I understood music and they were finding out quickly that I knew the sound they wanted and could get it for them with no stress.” Since then, Fischer produced and engineered Atlantic Records soul songstress Laura Izibor‘s latest EP, The Brooklyn Sessions: Vol.1, at Electrik Indigo Studios, his own recording space. Izibor is best known for her Billboard R&B Top 40 hit “From My Heart to Yours” as well as writing “What More Can They Do” for Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls.
Retro Future is as much a showcase for Fischer’s producing and engineering chops as it is a vehicle for his composition, arranging, and keyboard playing. “I love engineering and producing just as much as I love composing and performing,” enthuses Fischer. “They’re just two different sides of the same musical coin.” While previous albums saw him shying away from the front man role, Fischer steps out into the spotlight on Retro Future, featuring himself prominently on searing synth solos as well as his deft classically influenced touch on acoustic piano.
From the video game strut of “Cyberphunk” to the dubbed-out Afrobeat of “Digital Savanna” to the psychedelic soul of “Aquarius” to the summertime house-party funk of “Tanqueray & Tonic”, Retro Future is definitely not for the faint of heart. Fischer admits, “There’s a lot to take in – so I always made sure to have some type of hook, either a simple melodic figure or some type of repeating rhythm – to make sure you don’t get lost. Then if you come back a second and third time, you discover all the intricate layers below the surface.” What holds the project together is Fischer’s unwavering sense of groove and timeless devotion to melody.
The child of a math teacher and a science teacher who both loved music, Fischer ended up developing strong passions for both the sciences and the arts. At Rutgers College, he was a computer science and linguistics double major with minors in math and cognitive science, while still finding time to study piano with Stanley Cowell. After school, Fischer dabbled in web design, construction, and restaurant jobs before moving to New York in 2005 and quickly establishing himself on the scene.
Since then, he has performed with Stevie Wonder, Freddie Jackson, Black Moon, Laura Izibor, Ryan Shaw, and Lakecia Benjamin, and self-produced and independently released five albums with his group Soul Cycle. His television credits include Conan O’Brien, Craig Ferguson, The Mo’Nique Show, Good Day New York, BET’s Rising Icons, Jools Holland, 90210, and One Tree Hill, and his compositions have been heard on Centric’s Model City as well as the independent film Hush.
With Retro Future, Fischer offers up a cinematic vision of the not-too-distant times to come that are both inspirational and cautionary.