Soulful Toronto-based singer/songwriter/guitarist Jordan John is a popular regular fixture in local clubs. He has earned kudos from Aretha Franklin and George Clinton, scored a short-lived record deal with Verve, and remains a talent to watch. He has a fascinating family pedigree too, as outlined in this Conversation With.. Bill King.
Bill King: My partner Kristine and I were there the night (2011) you opened for Aretha Franklin doing our usual photographic job for the Toronto Jazz Festival. I’ve caught Aretha on several occasions and some shows were short and “just get the night over” events, but not this concert.
Jordan John: She was on; she was electric and just put on a clinic for everybody. Several people I know, my father included, have seen her many times and echoed the same sentiments as you. Sometimes it’s hit and miss. I can’t say from personal experience because it’s the only time I’ve seen her live and had the great experience that night. This night she was everything I dreamed of her – she was spectacular.
B.K: I also think it was the venue. It was a tent – small crowd inside, not a concert hall or arena, but quite intimate.
J.J: I think it was festival director Pat Taylor who mentioned that outside the tent there were about 20,000 people looking on. Hats off to the people of Toronto for coming out and showing their support for the Queen of Soul.
B.K: When she moved behind the piano and hit those first chords to “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” the night changed. She got comfortable.
J.J: What a moment. You had to have been there. When she did “Bridge Over Troubled Water” she took everybody to church. There wasn’t a single person sitting down.
B.K: She was so pleased with the night she stuck around for an hour backstage and signed autographs then took the band to McDonald’s.
J.J: That’s epic!
B.K: What was it like for you? You’re opening for her. How did you get on the bill in the first place?
J.J: I had heard in her contract there were to be no opening bands but I believe it was Pat and a number of other people who pitched the idea to Aretha’s management and they said send something, whatever you have. I didn’t realize there were people doing this on my behalf. Apparently, she heard and said she would like to have me open at her request; it was a dream come true.
What Aretha means to me is that she is the undisputed Queen of Soul and most recently that Kennedy Center Honors Carole King – if that’s not enough proof right there. Some of the biggest moments in contemporary history belong to her. You think back to the 2008 presidential inauguration and her association with all these heavy, heavy moments. For me to be in a small way a part of one of Aretha’s concerts is a dream come true.
B.K: Coming through a family rich in music tradition – your dad is bassist/bandleader Prakash John (Edgar Winter, Rick Derringer, Bush, Parliament/Funkadelic, Lou Reed, The Lincolns) – you know you are going to be schooled in rhythm & blues. Give me an idea what was going on at home.
J.J: I’ve always admired my father’s high standards and it applies to everyone including himself. What I really love about my parents is, they are great parents who encouraged a lifestyle of open-mindedness and education. I grew up in a household of many forms of music; actually, on my father’s side it is quite musical in the classical idiom. I grew up listening to classical music, hymns in church – so I had a healthy dose of that and on the other side, the rhythm & blues, soul music, - my mother’s a huge James Taylor fan, the Eagles. It was actually my mother who turned me on to Jimi Hendrix. There was also Vince Gill, Ray Charles, James Brown, Sam Cooke; quite a variety for sure.
B.K: Your dad and I go back to when Toronto was evolving – immigration, diversity, ethnicity. It was challenging for him. There were incidents he had to confront.
J.J: Absolutely. When my father’s family first moved to Scarborough, they had moved from Bombay (Mumbai) in the early sixties and they were the only Indian family out there as some would say, it was “lily white.” The city has really changed, especially when you start traveling around the world and you see how multi-cultural and embracing we are of this today. As you mention, it was in that changing phase. I’m proud to be Canadian and like you see in the news, we as a country embrace refugees and people from other places. I think that’s what Canada’s renowned for. That’s our background – immigrants coming to this country – we know how to take care of them, integrate them, and that’s a great role in the world and a tradition we should continue.
B.K: I’ve got to hear about the family dinners. Just the thought..
J.J: I’m very fortunate. On both sides of my family all my aunts can cook and that is just fine with me. My aunts are four star chefs. The Indian food - I can go anywhere and it just doesn’t get any better.
B.K: Have you ever been to India?
J.J: I have not but I’ve got the itch having traveled in Europe, South America and other places. I’m really getting up the courage to retrace my history.
B.K: Have you ever thought about back-packing, taking your guitar and just getting away from everybody?
J.J: Yes. I love traveling – I like getting to see the world like everybody else; appreciate and explore it.
B.K: My game – check in hotel, take a stack of front desk cards, stuff in the wallet, unpack and then just go out and get lost. When done, pass a card to a taxi driver.
J.J: That is so much fun. Just get lost in old neighborhoods, old structures, in those pockets of adventure.
B.K: What have you devoured musically that has shaped your style?
J.J: The more I listen to it – the Marvin Gaye recording What’s Going On is my desert island disc. That’s just one of those records right off the top of my head. Obviously, the albums of James Brown and Ray Charles, on the whole, have made an impact in terms of flavors, arrangements, and intensity. But certainly, the Aretha Franklin, “Live at the Fillmore West” …
B.K: “Love the One You’re With?”
J.J: Yes – “Don’t Play That Song for Me You Lied” and of course the King Curtis Live at the Fillmore West – the opening act - just incredible. Bernard Purdy, Cornell Dupree, Truman Thomas, Bill Preston and Jerry Jemmott. Does a band get any better than that? I’ve got tons. I’m such a lover of country music – folk too. The great singers, writers, band leaders. I gravitate to the complete aspect of music. never listening to one thing specifically. There are a lot of things that make up a great album to me. What’s Going On for example. It's complete: the band, the compositions, the arranging – the singing.
B.K: The track “What’s Goin’ On” is actually near thirty minutes in length – radio version was seven plus..
J.J: It is – it’s a whole concept and as absolutely relevant as when it first came out.
B.K: You are a super fine singer, guitarist and actually went on the road as bassist with Wide Mouth Mason – and I must say an amazing drummer! I’ve got to watch all you young guys through the years especially at the Beaches International Jazz Festival – drummer Larnell Lewis currently with Snarky Puppy – going back 15 years and you on the main stage. You have that pocket like Buddy Miles, Quest Love that just smacks..
J.J: That was music lesson #1 from my father.
B.K: Were you playing together a lot?
J.J: Truth be told, I actually picked up the guitar as an instrument at home to play with my dad – mentor and protégé. He made sure I was schooled in all the elements and lesson #1 was, make sure you have great time and feel. If you can play in the pocket everything else will work its way out.
B.K: Your first music moment with dad.
J.J: Exciting and terrifying! He gave me no breaks – didn’t molly coddle me – and I’m so glad he didn’t. He wanted me to be good for the point of being good – age not a consideration or enthusiasm. He wanted me to earn my position on stage or in a band because I qualified.
B.K: You’ve got to help me understand this David Foster situation. I know everyone was pushing you that way and know he’s a big step to international success, or maybe not.
J.J: When David asked me to come to Los Angeles it was based on seeing some of the footage from the Aretha Franklin show. He called my father, they go back to the early seventies in Toronto and said he’d like to fly me down and speak with me. I flew down and he said he was a huge fan of my talent, my artistry and wanted to work with me. It was really great to spend a couple days with him – talk and play music. I got to meet Kenny Edmonds “Babyface” – we talked about music and hung out. They wanted to sign me to a record deal so they gave me a five album deal – a tremendous honor especially, with Verve Records. As with record companies they will at times leave things in charge with less qualified people.
B.K: Did it leave his hands?
J.J: Yes. When we originally agreed it was David in full control and some other people had different ideas and wanted me to fit a mold that just wasn’t me. It wasn’t acrimonious, it wasn’t like any of those stories where he hated this person or this guy didn’t want to do this. They had a vision more, according to them, like the Josh Groban pop kind of thing. This isn’t what we talked about in the out-set doing.
It was a mutual and favorable buy-out. I had a bunch of songs in the can and thought, well I’ve got this far with these ideas I had been working on for a couple years and thought why not put it out and have something to show for the experiences.
Certainly being debt free and out of control of a record company that didn’t know what to do or had different ideas was O.K.
B.K: Few are as fortunate as an Adele. Many are chosen and signed to replicate what’s worked in the past.
J.J: I think for Adele she has people around her that know what she really wants to do and they can find a way to do it. It’s a tremendous advantage and someone who really deserves it.
B.K: Kendrick Lamar – D’Angelo - they do what they do and that’s them!
J.J: Absolutely! My background in music didn’t stem from me being a three-year old kid looking in the mirror with a hairbrush and dreaming of being a Hollywood star. I came to music with a love for the sounds and textures – the musicians playing. I come from the sideman background. This whole front man thing is still relative new to me. It was very fresh at the time of the David Foster – Verve Records deal.
That doesn’t mean I don’t aspire to have success but I feel success is how you define it. There are many other elements that come with it.
B.K: What is the ideal situation for you?
J.J: I think I’m getting to a point in my life where I can fixate on a specific thing. I spent my twenties developing – being mortgage free – kid free – going to school and all those things and had the opportunity to practice log the hours. Play regular gigs, play with different people. Play different instruments.
B.K: I haven’t forgot when you played drums with my trio, with Colin Barrett on bass – at TD Jazz – I kept looking over and smiling – that was one of the finest grooves I’ve ever encountered. Every song!
J.J: It was a real pleasure and that’s the thrill for me. People forget those are the intangible things. A lot of people who dream only of money and fame can’t quite understand.
B.K: As you say, seeing bassist James Jamerson playing behind Marvin Gaye. For a musician it’s about that glorious moment on stage and the magic happens. That’s what you remember.
J.J: I remember more of the times, as you just pointed out, with another musician on stage. I remember more than the lunches and dinners like talking to Steve Jordan [the record producer, not the Polaris Prize head] on the telephone about making a record. Those are the things that stand out for me. That’s a musician I’ve listened to and idolized and now I’m talking music.