Exchanging Ideas with The JuJu

Nico Segal's Chicago quartet is exploring what jazz music can and should be in 2017.

MEMBERS: Nico Segal (trumpet), Julian Reid (piano), Everett Reid (drums), and Lane Beckstrom (bass)
FOUNDED: 2016
FROM: Chicago, Illinois
YOU MIGHT KNOW THEM FROM: Segal’s previous work as Donnie Trumpet, cohort and foil to Chance the Rapper
NOW: Releasing their written-in-the-studio debut, Exchange

“You can’t write music right unless you know how the man that’ll play it plays poker,” Duke Ellington once said, codifying a jazz-specific ethos that places as much emphasis on personality as it does on technical acumen. It’s a worldview that goes a long way toward explaining the collaborative work done by The JuJu, whose debut album—called Exchange—is all about the possibilities of co-creation.

The group includes horn player Nico Segal, whose work should be familiar even if his name isn’t: Formerly known as Donnie Trumpet (until the reality of Trump’s presidency made the moniker too much to bear), Segal has jammed with Chance the Rapper, recorded with Paul Simon, and toured with Frank Ocean. Yet he’s neither the star soloist nor the first among equals in the JuJu quartet, which is rooted in egolessness and egalitarianism.

“I didn’t want all the melodies people sing along with to be played by the trumpet,” Segal says, and although his characteristically warm, welcoming tone is key to the success of Exchange, the album’s pleasures stem just as much from the varied textures of keyboardist Julian Reid, the hip-hop breaks of drummer Everett Reid, or the understatedly pliable work of bassist Lane Beckstrom.

It was Julian who co-founded the group with Segal after the two of them—former high school buddies—got together to create some music for Julian’s wedding; although they bonded over jazz records, they didn’t head into the studio to cut a “jazz record” per se. Their only aim was to make music with each other, inspired by their personalities and their chemistry rather than by the guiding concerns of genre or tradition.

What’s important about The JuJu, Segal says, is that the four musicians are “cooperative, collaborative people who value each other’s opinions.” Julian Reid adds that the “ideal jazz combo” is characterized by a lack of ego, and by its thriving on “interchange and exchange.”

Thus all the songs on the album were born of improvisation, with some of the material evolving through spirited jamming, while others—including “Patients,” the ballad that closes the record—emerged fully-formed.

The resulting album is built on many of jazz’s pillars—listening, individual expression, group unity—without ever sounding like a jazz record in the traditional sense. Its guiding characteristic is its sense of play, best heard on the childlike whimsy of the (almost) title tune, “The Exchange.” Julian Reid plays a fanciful piano figure that sounds like it belongs to the Vince Guaraldi lineage, brother Everett bringing a light touch to the brushed percussion—right up to the part where he kicks into a boom-bap rhythm. Segal noodles and trills through the first half of the song, countering the jaunty piano rhythm, but he lays back after that, briefly ceding the spotlight to finger-popping percussion and bubbling electronics à la The Robert Glasper Experiment.

The goal, Segal says, was to make an album informed by classic jazz conventions, but relevant to listeners in 2017—instrumental music people would listen to on their commutes and sing along with in concerts. At a tight twenty-seven minutes long, it is generous in spirit and stacked with memorable tunes, excessive jamming trimmed out. It’s both the product of and the soundtrack to getting lost in the possibilities of group play and idea exchange; it’s literally an album that only these four guys could have made. FL

This article appears in FLOOD 7. You can download or purchase the magazine here.

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