Chris Jasper: “We felt that it was important to address the social issues of the time in our music”

Mercredi 12 Juin 2013

Interview. Chris Jasper has been king enough to answer to my questions. He talks about his Isley Brothers years, his solo career and his new album titled Inspired...By Love, By Life, By The Spirit.

Chris Jasper: “We felt that it was important to address the social issues of the time in our music”
You had a classical music education and you studied jazz too. Were both of these experiences useful for your career as a soul artist?

I started studying classical music when I was 7 years old growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio. My mother played piano and she asked me to take piano lessons. I was fortunate to have a piano teacher who was part of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. When I graduated from high school, I studied classical music at Juilliard School of Music in New York for one year. I learned a lot at Juilliard, but their composition department was rather strict in that they focused on atonal music. I wanted to compose many other types of music so, while at Juilliard, I found out that jazz pianist Billy Taylor was teaching at Long Island University. I wanted to study with him and explore jazz and other types of both classical and contemporary music. So, I took advantage of that and completed my bachelor's degree in music composition at Long Island University.

I can’t stress how important my musical education was in preparing me to be a composer. The way I voiced the chords on many of the lush ballads was a result of my classical training. I introduced many of the elements that I learned studying the music of great composers such as Ravel, DeBussy and Gershwin into the music I wrote for the Isley Brothers and Isley-Jasper-Isley, as well as my own solo music. I think it gave the music a little different flavor that many people identify as the “Isley sound.” You can hear these influences in my ballads, such as “Highways of My Life,” “Lovers Eve,” and “For The Love of You.”

You joined the Isley Brothers in 1969 and became an official member of the band in 1973. How did this happen?

The Jasper family and the Isley family lived on the same street in Lincoln Heights, a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. Rudolph, Ronald and O'Kelly were the older brothers, and Marvin and Ernie and I were closer in age. My sister, Elaine, married Rudolph Isley so I became the “brother-in-law.” Elaine and Rudolph moved to Teaneck, New Jersey and as a teenager, I would visit them in the summers and attended high school there one year. During this time, Ernie, Marvin and I formed a group called The Jazzmen Trio. We used to play locally, at high school events and churches, playing a lot of the popular songs that were out at the time. I played piano, Ernie played drums and Marvin played bass. We were about 15 and 16 at that time.

The older brothers formed the T-Neck label in 1969 when they were with Buddah Records. At that time, they were still a vocal trio and didn't play instruments or write much original music. The older brothers were impressed with our ability to play our instruments so while Marvin, Ernie and I were in college, we started playing on the recordings, such as Givin’ It Back, The Brothers Isley and Brother Brother Brother. I was mostly playing piano. But on Brother Brother Brother, I wrote my first song, which was “Love Put Me On The Corner.” The more we played, the more input we had.

There was a trend back then to form self-contained bands and it was the older brothers’ idea to join the two bands to make one self-contained band. So, Marvin, Ernie and I brought the musical and composition component to the band and starting with the 3+3 album, we started to write more original songs and started appearing on the album covers. And that started a string of gold and platinum records up until 1984 when, unfortunately, the 6-member group broke up, mainly for financial reasons.

You appeared on Soul Train with the Isley Brothers during the golden years of the TV show. How was the atmosphere on the set?

Yes, we appeared on Soul Train a number of times and it was always a good atmosphere because we could see the audience reacting to the music right away as we played. There was always a lot of energy during the shoot. We also appeared on a lot of other music shows at that time, like American Bandstand and Midnight Special.

There was a great musical variety in the Isley Brothers’ repertoire with covers of songs from artists who are not soul artists like James Taylor, Todd Rundgren or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Was it important for the band to open its repertoire to a great variety of music? And why? And what were the influences of the band?

We felt that by covering songs by popular artists, like James Taylor’s “Let Me Be Lonely Tonight”, and “Summer Breeze” by Seals and Crofts, that it might open us up to a new audience. A big influence for me was the music of Motown and Sly & The Family Stone.

There was a political element in the music of the Isley Brothers in the 70s. Was it important for the band?

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, young people felt like they didn’t have a voice. It was the era of Civil Rights and the Vietnam War. A song like “Fight The Power” was addressing the fact that people wanted to be heard. “Harvest for the World” talked about the inequality between the rich and the poor. And we covered the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young song “Ohio” that addressed the shooting of the students at Kent State University during a Vietnam War protest. We felt that it was important to address the social issues of the time in our music.

Over the past years, you have been singing gospel. Did something happen within you that made you feel like singing gospel?

Yes, around the time I wrote “Caravan of Love.” Although I was raised a Christian, at the time I wrote “Caravan”, I was beginning to study the Bible more in depth and I began to gain a deeper understanding of the Scriptures. “Caravan” is based on a principle in the Bible when Christ returns and it will be a time of peace on earth ("the lion will lay down with the lamb and a child shall lead them"), but it is also a universal theme in that we are supposed to love each other and strive to live in peace and brotherhood.

So, as I studied more, I became aware of the responsibility that comes with that understanding, and from that point on, I didn't separate my music from my lifestyle. I compose the same R&B, soul and funk music that I am known for, but I feel obligated to put positive messages in the music, whether it is a love song, a song about social issues, or a spiritual song. I will still write a lush ballad, but without overly suggestive or negative lyrics. I also want to bring the funk with a positive message.

In a period of increasing pessimism, you appear as a healer with a very optimistic album. What is the message of the Inspired album?

In Inspired...By Love, By Life, By The Spirit, I included songs about love, social awareness and spirituality. The music is the same soul, R&B and funk that I have always written. There is the topic of love and how a person should treat and feel about their husband or wife, like in the songs “Inspired,” “Any Day,” and “Someone.” And funky songs like “Keep Believin'” and “Let My People Go” address social issues, like gun violence, war, education, and self-empowerment. There are also spiritual messages in songs like “Faith” “Only The Lord Can Do That” and “Prince of Peace.” There is something for everyone on this CD and it basically sums up who I am and what I believe. Musically, I wanted to have a fusion of pop, a little jazz, and R&B in one album.

Inspired is a very smooth album with beautiful ballads. Is this smoothness a reflection of your state of mind?

As far as the ballads, like I said, this is the same music I was writing throughout my career and I am just continuing to write the music the way I have always written it, whether it is a soulful ballad or funk. The only difference is the content of the message, which is positive and does reflect my state of mind.

There is a very funky song titled “Keep Believin.’” Is it a gift for the old time fans or did you still enjoy playing funky music?

I will always enjoy writing and playing funky music, and I hope that it is well-received by the old time fans as well as the newer generation.

Do you plan to tour in Europe?

I would love to tour Europe and look forward to the opportunity. My wife, Margie, and I visited Paris in 1989 and absolutely loved it and would love to return.

Your son Michael is a musician too and you have worked with him on his first album. Do you think it is more difficult to succeed in the music business nowadays?

Michael released an electronic/techno CD Addictive in 2010 when he was 17 years old. He is working on new music now while also attending college. Michael’s music is more club-oriented and he also sings and uses a lot of keyboards and synthesizers in his music. He is very good with rhythms and he laid down some of the rhythm tracks for my “Inspired” CD.

As far as the music business nowadays, I do think it is harder because of the number of artists and amount of music that is out there and the difficulty of getting one’s music heard. Also, because of downloading, it is harder to make money in the music business, particularly if you don’t write your own music. So, I always tell young people starting out to get the best music education available, and, if possible, to learn to write music, and to remember that this is the music “business” so it is a good idea to understand the business aspects also, and the importance of protecting one’s rights.

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Boris Plantier