Black Frequencies: An Interview with Jahmal Nichols
Jahmal Nichols has just released his second solo album entitled Black Frequencies, which examines and celebrates different aspects of Black culture. The bass-forward album is also partially a celebration of the bassist’s hometown of St. Louis, as he tapped an amazing cast of musicians from the city to fill out his songs.
Black Frequencies is a project that has been in the works for over four years. Nichols was able to finally finish it in part because of the music industry’s grinding halt due to COVID-19. The wait was totally worth it, as the music’s textures and grooves come together for an amazing listen. It was also totally understandable, as the bassist has spent the last six years crisscrossing the globe in vocalist Gregory Porter’s band. Porter also has a new album that is graced by the bassist’s smooth lines.
We caught up with Nichols to get the scoop on Black Frequencies, his musical process, and how he keeps up with both electric and double bass.
How are you handling the pandemic situation?
There have been some cool things. I’ve gotten a chance to reflect on life and work on music. I’ve gotten projects like Black Frequencies finally done. It’s been bad that there’s no work, but otherwise, it’s been really good for me. I’m getting my health in order. So it’s a blessing and a curse at the same time.
How long have you been working on Black Frequencies?
It’s been about four and a half years. I’m on the road with Gregory Porter a lot, so the majority of my time goes to that gig. We do about 200-plus dates a year all over the world, so I got to work [on Black Frequencies] when I could. One song I wrote in Sardinia, one I wrote in Paris, and of course after I get the ideas I have to figure out how to get the other players on it. We played everything pretty much to a click track except one song.
What is the concept behind Black Frequencies, and was it there from the beginning?
Yes, it was. For me, “black frequencies” are a vibe that we as Black people experience all throughout our lives. It’s the food we cook or the clothes we wear or the way we do our hair. The way we actually feel as a people and things we grow up with. There are a lot of different frequencies in the world, and with our people, there is something special that others have tried to replicate over the years. It’s a beautiful thing.
I can hear that, because the title track is so beautiful.
That’s what I was going for. I wrote that in Paris while we were recording Gregory Porter’s new record, All Rise. We were doing 8 to 10 hour days in Paris. After one of those days, I went back to the hotel, but I wasn’t really sleepy. I said, “Let me try to write something.” I was hearing some chord changes in my head, so I started playing them on the bass.
It was actually slower when I first wrote it. It was a ballad when I first sat down that night and I said, “That’s it.” It’s also an odd bar form. It’s 21 bars from the beginning of where the music starts.
I first put it into Pro Tools and liked the vibe. It didn’t have drums or anything like that in there. I sat down with my brother Cory James, who is the co-producer of this record, and told him I wanted to bring it up a few clicks and add some new elements to it. He programmed the drums so beautifully and all the other textures of the track. At that time, I didn’t have a bass line, either. Once he put the drums and the keys on, I came up with the perfect vibe to round it out.
I didn’t have any vocals in the beginning, either. It was just bass playing the melody. I called up my friend Eric Roberson because I could hear his voice fitting in perfectly. He liked the song and asked me what I meant by “Black Frequencies” and what I was thinking of when I wrote it. I told him the same thing I just mentioned to you. He said, “Awesome. I just wanted to make sure I’m on the right path.”
Listening to “The Journey” with Malcolm-Jamal Warner’s spoken word portion in the current social climate is pretty heavy. Did that collaboration happen recently?
That happened about four years ago. I was in Toronto and we were checking into the airport. After we checked our bags, we ran into him. I think he was recording a TV show or something like that. He said, “Anytime you want to work together, just hit me up.” Maybe six months later, I sent him a text saying I had a track for him. He said, “Shoot it my way.” Our schedules were both so crazy that it worked out he sent me the track back about a year later. He sent it back to me and it perfectly meshed with everything. The band on that track is actually the same band I play in with Gregory Porter.
I told him from the beginning there was no rush. I didn’t want to rush this project because it means that much to me. I just wanted to take my time with this.
Since this is your second solo album, what did you learn from the first and what did you do differently?
For 2 Worlds 1 Mind, I feel like I rushed it. That’s me being really honest. I rushed it a bit production-wise and I was really nervous. I was doing it all myself and getting everyone together to bring my ideas to fruition. I ended up… This is something that a lot of people don’t know, but I meant to replay all the actual bass lines from the first album. I forgot to do it and didn’t realize it until a couple of days after the CD release. I was in Dubai and realized I never re-recorded them. Oh well, it’s out there now! Maybe down the line, I can do a reissue of that. [laughs]
What made you do a cover of “Everybody Wants To Rule The World”?
That’s actually an arrangement that the piano player, Adam Maness, created. I did a gig here in St. Louis with him. It was just a bar gig so we were just hanging out. He said, “Hey man, you want to read something?” I said, “Yeah, no problem.” He pulled this chart out for me to look at and I saw the time signature switches to seven. [laughs] He said, “Don’t worry, you’ll hear it.” It was the same exact trio that’s on the album version – me on bass, Adam Maness on keyboard, and Montez Coleman on drums. It was just an instrumental. I fell in love with the arrangement and from that first day I asked Adam if I could record it.
Who is the singer on that? Her voice is gorgeous.
Her name is Zida Lioness. She’s from St. Louis, as well. There’s a lot St. Louis on this record.
I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but I don’t know a lot about the St. Louis scene.
That’s one of the things I want to change with this record. There’s a lot of talent that comes out of St. Louis, but you’d never know they were from St. Louis. There are so many guys who worked as sidemen and then branch out to have their own group. As a collective, we need to get more out there. You have Montez Coleman who played with Roy Hargrove on his Earfood album and in his big band, Keyon Harrold the trumpet player, Terreon Gully, Russell Gunn, Marcus Baylor, John Hicks… Miles Davis was from East St. Louis, which is right across the river. Clark Terry. It’s an endless list of people from St. Louis individually, but I want it to be more collective with a sound.
How would you describe the St. Louis sound?
Since we’re right in the middle of the country, we get a little bit of every style. North, South, East, West. It’s all melted into one, and that’s our sound.
The mix of sounds is great on this album. “Let’s Go Back Home” is almost like a straight-up Parliament groove.
That was the song I wrote in Sardinia. It was hot as hell one day, and if you’ve ever been that far down south in Italy, you know what I mean. I was in the room burning up and needed to get my mind off the heat. I came up with the idea for the groove and it came out to be more a vibe instead of me playing a melody. It’s me soloing and vibing through the whole thing with the wah. Later on, I added Mike Pugh, who from this area too, to do the vocoder. I told him my idea for the hook and told him to do his thing.
Do you have a way you like to set your envelope filter?
I do have a certain way I do that, but on the album, it’s actually a plug in. I tried to duplicate the ideas from my demo, but I just couldn’t get the vibe. I ended up just getting a raw bass sound. I went into Pro Tools and added the autowah plugin. It’s amazing, but I normally use the MXR Bass Envelope Filter. I like to keep everything at 12 o’clock, but it depends on the bass that I’m playing. Every bass doesn’t get the same response from the filter.
As evidenced by both of your albums, you’re equally amazing at both upright and electric. What tips do you have for keeping up on both?
I would just say to practice on both equally. Maybe spend a day on one, then a day on the other. Sometimes when I’m sitting at home, I’ll keep my electric around to practice while I’m watching TV or anything around the house. I’ll mess around just to get my feel back, because they’re two different instruments, to me. They’re two totally different monsters and you need TLC for both. The upright is a more physical instrument. You know when you’re rusty: your hands cramp up or you lose your callouses.
When we’re on the road, I don’t bring my own upright bass so I have to deal with whatever they have there. It can be good and bad. It’s not fun when you’re on a horrible instrument and you have to do a two-hour show straight through. You can get blood blisters pretty quickly.
That can ruin a whole weekend of gigs.
Yes, but that can be a personal thing. It’s doesn’t necessarily mean that the audience will hear [what you hear]. As a musician, you can say to yourself, “Man, I could have played way better. My hands are jacked up, but I fought through it.” Then an audience member can come up and say, “Man, you sound amazing.”
It’s always a battle in some way. It’s all emotion. If you’ve had a bad or a good day, it will come through you and come through the music.
When did the new Porter album recording take place?
That took place last year in two different spots. Half we did at Capitol Studios in L.A. and the other half we did at a studio in Paris. It was good times.
Are there any bass spots we should watch for?
The new song, “Mr. Holland,” has a bass intro that I did. It’s basically something funky on electric bass. I’m actually playing upright and electric on this one. All the previous records with Aaron James on them, plus the live album I did, it was only upright.
When I started with the band six years ago, I was strictly playing upright. After a year, I started incorporating the electric bass on just one song, called “Free.” He normally uses that song as an encore or the last song. At the end of the song when everyone else walks away, the drummer and I keep playing and just go crazy. I do a little slap thing and then we go into “Come Together”. We would play off of each other, then I’d do a little thing, then Emmanuel would finish off the show.
What do you want people to get from Black Frequencies?
I want them to get a feeling of happiness and a feeling of understanding of who we are as Black people. It’s my interpretation of a small journey. Enjoy the music and go for a ride.