Photo: Rene Marban

We Good: An Interview with The JuJu Exchange

Dropping his stage name of Donnie Trumpet, Nico Segal is moving from being one of Chance the Rapper's chief artistic collaborators to exploring the way we communicate through jazz.
The JuJu Exchange

While jazz has been permeating mainstream music in more and more noticeable ways recently, many listeners who’ve jived with Terrace Martin’s sax solos on Kendrick Lamar songs, felt their passion for A Tribe Called Quest’s heady blend of rap and jazz reinvigorated by their 2016 album, or enjoyed the soulful stylings of Chance the Rapper have still yet to engage with the genre in more holistic terms. That’s where The JuJu Exchange comes in.

The JuJu Exchange is the next step in taking jazz agnostic fans from the confines of hearing the genre as part of a rap or pop song to experiencing a purer interpretation of the art form that still feels distinctly built for 2017. All four members (trumpeter Nico Segal, pianist Julian Reid, bassist Lane Beckstrom, and drummer Everett Reid) are prodigious talents, but the melodies, improvisation, and creative flourishes on their debut, Exchange, are so skillful and ebullient that the record is a perfect guide into the genre for the curious yet uninitiated.

“A big phrase that came up time and time again in the studio was ‘retain interest…’ We wanted every moment of every song to retain interest, we always wanted to make sure we were audience-facing and not just playing scales to show off our chops,” says Julian Reid in his conversation with PopMatters. “The second phrase that came up time and again was ‘special moment.’ Often we’d just turn on the ProTools to record and we’d just start playing. And we’d jam on an idea or a riff that somebody was singing and we’d play for 10 or 15 minutes, Nico would stop it, and then we as a band would start going through and looking for those special moments. And then we would build on an idea and all of a sudden that might be the germination of a new song or a new part of a song.”

Segal is best known for his work in the Social Exchange alongside Chance the Rapper. The group’s album Surf was lauded for its freeform musical experimentation and for incorporating heavy gospel and soul influences into its rich sound. Segal says that while a lot of the production skills he learned working on Surf influence Exchange, the intentions of the two records are not the same.

“The point of both projects was just completely different, the idea behind both things was a complete 360. I really wanted to highlight improvisation [with Exchange], and I wanted to highlight real instruments. I feel like certain points in Surf kind of show where I was going musically. ‘Nothing Came to Me’ and ‘Something Came to Me’ kind of sound like prehistoric JuJu Exchange songs,” notes Segal. “I’m older, I’m more mature in my music making, in my ability to produce. It was just good timing. You never decide when you get good at something.”

After making Surf and touring the world with Chance, Segal had a yearning to not only return to his jazz roots but to find a way to incorporate the signature elements of the genre into music that would excite young audiences who don’t necessarily have a technical knowledge of jazz.

“The thing that I was missing the most about playing this type of music besides just soloing a bunch was the communication that happens between jazz musicians, and how that really is the essence of jazz music,” said Segal. “Jazz is about that communication, riffing — that exchange if you will — between musicians and what everybody is hearing. I wanted to get the improvisational aspect from everybody, I wanted that to be a big part of the music … I also really wanted to craft a type of sound that wasn’t so exclusive to jazz listeners.”

Julian Reid and Segal grew up playing jazz together in Chicago, and when Reid asked Segal to play a song at his wedding it sparked an idea in the two of them that reignited their shared passion for writing and performing together. They linked up in Los Angeles and began working on ideas before realizing that they wanted to round out their sound on the low end with bass and percussion.

As with any jazz record, solos are essential to the fabric of Exchange, from Segal’s searing performance at the end of the title track to Reid’s soulful piano outro on “The Lane”.

“That’s part of playing a solo in any scenario too is severing that line of impressing yourself and impressing the people but also playing something beautiful and melodic that you want people to sing and I think it’s even more of a factor in the studio when you know what you’re playing on the record is going to be there forever,” said Segal. “Music is just that, it’s history, it’s marking a moment.”

“The Lane” is one of Exchange‘s most striking individual songs. The piano and bass swirl into a hazy cloud underscored by haunting vocal harmonies from Lane Beckstrom, who was largely responsible for the track that bears his name.

“The very first human voice you hear at the beginning of the track is me, doing something I was not expecting to do, completely outside my comfort zone,” he said. “That really sets the tone of the track for me. Furthermore, the motion of the chords in this track always makes me think of a never-ending road, whether it’s going upwards or downwards.”

Tucked into the background of “The Lane” are these gorgeous, otherworldly plucked synth sounds that are certainly unconventional in a jazz context but fit flawlessly here. There are moments throughout Exchange, such as the ominous synth bass interlude on “The Exchange” — which sounds like it was culled straight from Stranger Things — or the rapid fire hi-hats and warm chords of “The Circuit” that have a distinct electronic bent to them. Segal talked about “sampling the band the way I would sample for Surf.” Reid and Siegel stressed that they did this in order to establish the connection between jazz and mainstream contemporary music for a younger audience.

“Especially in our generation of millennials and Generation Z, people feel very ahistorical, like they’re outside of time and the music that’s in front them is the only music there ever is and the issues in front of them are the only issues there have ever been,” said Julian Reid. “My hope is that a reclamation of instrumental music can give people a far greater perspective on what music is and also where all their modern influences are coming from and their sensibilities.”

Segal echoed that sentiment and stressed how the members’ shared love of all music was incorporated into the production on Exchange.

“We aren’t a traditional jazz band at all. As musicians, and especially Lane and Everett and myself as producers we really feed off of all types of music,” said Segal. “We listen and love and sample and learn all types of music.”

By using their jazz skills and background in a way that puts the audience’s enjoyment first, The JuJu Exchange hopes that they can challenge listeners to dig deeper into their music in a way that will be incredibly rewarding. That’s one of the reasons the band decided to release the sheet music from their album for free on Genius.

“I think what it ultimately is doing is creating stronger, more creative, more inspired listeners. And I think the act of listening is a much bigger concept than most people give it credit for,” says Segal.