It never fails to amaze us what you can experience on a typical Wednesday night in Liverpool these days.
FORQ, an American jazz fusion band made up of Grammy award winners and a fella who played keyboards for Bowie, and was his musical director on Lazarus, just happen to be playing in Phase One on a mid-week hump day.
And you can go see them for about the price of a round. Not bad that is it?
For this to happen we have Parrjazz (Liverpool’s best-established jazz night and musical collective) to thank.
Tonight they’re hosting headliners FORQ and support band Sleeping Dragon – a local electronic/drum’n’Bass instrumental trio.
The opening of the venue is 30 minutes late due to technical difficulties during the soundcheck.
No great problem and gives the jazzers (is that even a term for jazz fans?) time to form a cordial and chatty, BoHo snake along Seel Street.
Eventually, we’re let through the doors into the cosy hub of Phase One.
The room is candle-lit, decked with fairy lights and Chesterfield sofas which serve to enhance our expectations that we’re about to experience an eclectic evening of thoughtful, beard scratching music.
It’s a late start and the crowd have already filled up all the available seats, leaving the rest of us to find suitable spots to lounge against – it is a jazz night.
It’s only when Sleeping Dragon start their first song that it’s apparent it’s not that type of gig – these boys have a real thump about them.
They move tightly through a short set that pits light synth passages up against galloping bass fuzz and hard, syncopated drum rhythms.
A particular highlight is Fire All Weapons, which begins slowly with atmospheric keys and percussive fills that build up into a heavy, metallic groove with hard, jagged synth stabs – and it’s all alarmingly danceable.
The headliners FORQ are greeted warmly.
They come with an impressive CV, and with it, high expectations.
After a friendly greeting from band leader, co-founder and former Bowie keys man, Henry Hey, they drop straight into their opening number.
It’s a lushly layered fusion of bluesy jazz with the kind of good-time vibe you would likely hear from the house orchestra coming back from an ad break on a late-night US talk show.
That’s no bad thing here, it sets an upbeat mood for the evening and proves to be a great example of FORQ’s skill at playing funky, fusion grooves in major keys without wading into syrupy or saccharine waters.
Never allowing the music to become muzak – Forq demonstrate themselves to be masters of building and releasing sonic tension, combing groove with moments of complexity before taking the music into new directions without a warning, yet it never jars or feels forced.
In fact, it would be difficult to review FORQ on the particular merits of individual songs as opposed to moments they create during the set that surprise and please the ear.
I think that’s what good jazz is about: these moments within the music.
Sure it can be difficult and the good stuff often demands from us the effort that some are not always in the habit of giving, particularly when it comes to music.
Tonight, the audience in Phase One was gifted many such moments as their appreciation was teased out by the band’s spontaneity, and ability to lead mesmerising creative wanderings back to the big, hummable musical motifs from their three albums, and a few new ones from an album coming this Autumn.
Tonight, FORQ’s performance leaves little doubt that they possess a playful, enjoyable synergy between the four musicians on stage.
The audience danced to the pulsing funk and whooped and applauded to show their appreciation during the braver musical moments.
And at the end of an enjoyable night, it was one jazz hat spotted, one skin-tight striped cartoon burglar top, and no turtle neck jumpers except for the one I had in my wardrobe and was too chicken shit to wear.
An audience assembled in the main exhibition space of the British Music Experience as Getintothis’ Jonathan Butters chatted with FORQ.
Running through the band we have Henry Hey on keyboards (David Bowie, Empire of the Sun, George Michael, Donny McCaslin), Chris McQueen on guitar (Snarky Puppy , Bokanté), Kevin Scott on bass (Wayne Krantz, Jimmy Herring, Donny McCaslin) and Jason “JT” Thomas on drums (Snarky Puppy, Roy Hargrove, D’Angelo, Marcus Millar).
Henry, Jason (JT), Kevin and Chris were dragged away from the Led Zeppelin and Bowie displays, arranged on the stage and handed coffees and mics.
We passed on apologies from the advertised interviewer, The Farm’s Keith Mullin, who had a serious vocal condition requiring rest.
Visitors wandered around the displays and pop music from the past 50 years could be heard in the background, reminding us how important the UK and Liverpool have been in world musical culture.
FORQ was co-founded by Henry Hey and Snarky Puppy bassist Michael League.
Getintothis: Michael talks about you playing together in NYC and said of Henry “he’s kind of like my big brother in NYC, actually the guy who convinced me to move there and got me a steady gig which allowed me to afford it“ What was that gig? How did FORQ then evolve from it?
Henry: “We hung around the 55 Bar in NYC. Mike and I plus mutual friends would see and play with well-known jazz musicians like Chris Potter, Brian Lane.
I was in the band Rudder before Mike’s band Snarky Puppy had starting touring. We started playing together and it was so good, we put a band together. The NYC scene was similar then to what it is now.”
Getintothis: How did the current line up come about?
Henry: “JT has been the only drummer, ever.
We did one gig with Adam Rogers as the original guitarist, but he was too busy for touring. Mike suggested Chris McQueen and he immediately went off into deep end sonically, wow!
He’s an amazing collaborator, a mad scientist.
However, Mike was always very generous with everyone and never said no, so tended to take off more than he could handle.
I saw Kevin Scott playing and he was awesome. So, I subbed-out Mike’s roll on the bass for a trial period and it worked so he was replaced. Snarky had just won a Grammy so he was OK with it.
In the past 2 years FORQ really feels like a band, and we have new album and tour in October 2019. It goes further down the radical sonic direction. The new album is going to be called “Four”.
Chris: “Adam Rogers was a hero of mine and he invited me to join FORQ.
Although we are well-known in our own right, FORQ is definitely not an all-star jazz ensemble. We write with a real purpose.”
Getintothis: How do you write when you don’t live in the same parts of the US?
JT: “I’m in Dallas Texas, Chris in Austin Texas, Kevin in Atlanta, Henry in NYC.
The only time together is a rehearsal prior to a tour and during soundchecks – generally we have two days to get ready.
Everyone writes on their own at home and then shares with the band. We exchange voice messages on our iPhones and we always write thinking how the others will interpret it.
I generally think “how weird can we make this?” With this new record we had a week to work through the stuff – a real luxury!
Everyone writes loads. One thing I want to pass onto to all you guys, never empty your trash, there could be a gem in there!
We all, take a shared responsibility. This helps with four distinctive voices working as a band. We generate sketches, notes, clips, collages – all of the above. What pulls it together is our improvisation.”
Henry: “Here’s something we’ve learnt. If you are struggling to complete your new tunes, book a gig or a recording session, you’ll get it done. It’s normal to struggle. Hard deadlines and pressure are good for the creative process and deadlines stop the procrastination.”
Kevin: “Since I joined, I’m pretty much part of the writing team now.”
Getintothis: Your third album, Thrēq, is quite dancey – bass and drums driving the groove – are you fans of dance music?
Chris: “Yes, we’re all amazing dancers (laughs). Our tunes are built on a sonic groove, even in weird time signatures.”
Getintothis: Cowabunghole, from Thrēq, is like a fusion of Northern Soul and Acid Jazz. Are these influences?
Chris: ”I wrote it, but I see it as a Surf song.”
Getintothis: Do you see yourselves within the Jazz genre?
Kevin: “ No, wouldn’t class myself as a jazz musician, jazz is very serious, with a jazz vocabulary, I don’t speak jazz any more I’ve forgotten the vocab.”
Henry: “Jazz, is it a style, a sound, blues based, swing? We’re improvisational, yes – FORQ is closer to jazz than pop. But we’re not set like pop. We have depth, influences, and we change and grow.”
Getintothis: What are the upcoming plans for the band? Another album? More shows?
Henry: “New album.Simply called Four. FORQ are currently on a “jet-lag” tour but will also tour when the album’s out in the fall. We’ll play the Jazz Café, London in October and will be announcing some more dates.“
Chris: “Some other interesting things will come out along with the album!!!”
Getintothis: We are sat in the iconic Cunard Building, home of the Cunard liners (a British /American cruise company), Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth etc. Liverpool to New York was one of the main routes from the UK to the USA so it’s fitting that we are sat here today. The British Music Experience Museum charts the evolution of British Rock and Pop music from 1945 until now.
What elements of British rock and pop have been particularly influential to you all and what work have you done with British artists?
Henry : ”All the artists presented in the museum have been significant influences on us.
David Bowie (who I worked with on The Next Day and Lazarus the musical with Chris McQueen). I like the Spice Girls for their charm and attitude.
Getintothis: JT, what do you think of Ringo?
JT: “He’s great, I spent my career learning how to play like the greats, ready in case that was the sound I was required to provide.”
Kevin: “Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream. My grandmother was British, and she got me into the post big band stuff, pop singers from the 1950s, more than American bands, really, when I was growing up.”
Chris : ”Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Stones.”
Kevin: “I hung around London and spent a lot of time with Mumford and Sons!
Getintothis: Reading about your work there are references to writing and arranging on major film soundtracks, did you study film composition at college? How did you first break into this kind of work?
Henry: “My first career direction was about pursuing writing for pictures – film and TV. I had some great mentors who helped connect me with the industry and the process.
The music is to support the picture, not to stand-alone on its own.
However, I realised my future career would be solitary, sat in front of a computer screen. I loved the way the music is very specific to the edit but missed the collaborative nature of a band so moved on. I still play sessions for other composers.
Getintothis: Aside from playing with FORQ, Snarky Puppy and Bokante, you have designed and built the Guitar Note Atlas, an app for iPhone and iPad to help guitar and bass students learn the fretboard. Did you do this all independently or with the help of an IT expert? Can you talk us through how it works?
Chris : ”I started doing all myself as I felt it would really help people developing their guitar playing. It was originally online. I soon realised people were moving away from online stuff and wanted an app. So, I got it pretty much there and then got some great guys to finish it off.
JT: “I remember when I was a kid I made a kit out of a bunch of boxes, buckets, hubcaps, and whatever else I could find in my grandfather’s backyard. Man…that was a great kit! What was driving you to make a drum kit specifically? Not a guitar for example..
My father played drums so that was what I grew up with. I dug all this junk out from the garage and built it. It looked awesome, sounded horrible (laughs).”
Getintothis: You are renowned for playing different styles of music. When playing with D’Angelo would that require a completely different set up and approach than for Marcus Millar?
JT: “D’Angelo, I was not originally intended to be the drummer so when I arrived I was provided with a very different kit – 26” Bass Drum, 13” Snare, 18” Floor tom and two cymbals – nothing like my kit.
I’d never played that configuration before, ever. I decided to make it sound like a big ol’ 1970s kit – honour the groove.
How would a 70s drummer play it? D’Angelo said I sounded like an old man drumming – that was what I wanted.
Marcus was more normal, though my mindset had to change. You’re supporting him. Don’t interact with him. He’s a drummer in his head so don’t trip him up, you’ll be stepping on his toes. Stay with the groove. Steady time but not boring – let him do his thing. Easiest person ever to work with, almost too easy (laughs)!”
Getintothis: You host a long-standing Monday night jam session in Atlanta, how do you approach this and deal with the various personalities and experience levels of a jam crowd?
Kevin: “My jam ran for fourteen years, but it’s stopped for the while as I’m busy with other things. I went on a pilgrimage to NYC and it gave a boost and I wanted to do an all improvised jam. NYC is the place! I’ll probably restart it in NYC. Once I put on a 12 hour jam – 8pm to 8am – thirty bands, insane.
Getintothis: On April 1st 1919 the first American jazz band (The ODJB) arrived in Liverpool. Jazz music has come a long way since then, where do you see it going over the next 100 years?
Kevin : “Machines taking over – AI!”
Chris: ”Feeling, playing with musicians, effects, music initiated by a person. This is different from machine generated music and will always find a way through technological innovations.“
Henry : “The changes in technology have impacted on popular music – you can deconstruct it and rebuild it.
The speed of technological change has picked up in 30 years. It has given us improved access to a lot of music, not necessarily great music.
Tech will become more integrated but there will still be a need for people to express themselves. This increases in times of struggle and I suspect we have more of this to come.“