Nico Segal should have been tired. The 23-year-old trumpet player formerly known as Donnie Trumpet had just gotten home at 4 AM, after playing a show with Chance the Rapper, with whom he performs as a member of the Social Experiment, at Facebook's Developer Conference in San Jose, California. But sitting with him and bassist Lane Beckstrom at Segal's parents' house on Chicago's Far North Side and hearing them talk about their new jazz-infused band The JuJu, Segal was so animated I think even he forgot he took a red eye flight from a corporate gig just hours ago.
"In the last five or six months, I was really feeling antsy to drop something because after touring with Chance for the last couple years, I just never had this outlet to make instrumental music," he said excitedly.
What started last summer as a jam session with Segal's high school buddy Julian Reid, a jazz-trained pianist, quickly expanded into a four-piece, reuniting Segal with his former Kids These Days bandmate Beckstrom, as well as Julian's little brother Everett, who plays drums. Segal's clearly happiest when he's making music with his friends. Just listen to Surf, the wildly collaborative 2015 project he released as Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment. It's a testament to the joy of friendship and working together, with songs like "Wanna Be Cool" and "Sunday Candy" that radiate positivity while also bringing together a wide-ranging cast of collaborators like Big Sean, KYLE, Jamila Woods, and, of course, Chance himself. But if that full-length sounded like it was a blast to make, it's The JuJu's new album Exchange that was the most seamless recording process of Segal's career.
Exchange has the warmth of Surf, but it translates that feeling to seven mostly instrumental songs that still slap with pure exuberance. Opener "Morning Of" offers the best example of the band's adventurous, collage-like approach to melody: Using samples of improvised jams and even a section from a Facebook Live-streamed show Reid and Segal did with Andrew Bird, the song thrillingly unfurls while managing to be a cohesive whole. While that sounds like it could have been a complicated recording endeavor, Segal and Beckstrom's experience making hip-hop beats was a solid working backdrop. Plus, compared to the multi-layered recordings on Surf—which, no exaggeration, could hit over 1000 instrumental tracks stacked onto each other—this found Segal taking a simpler approach.
"I could've worked on Surf for the next 600 years and never been happy with it, but this is definitely the fastest recording process of any album I've ever made," he said of the sessions held over the winter in his LA studio. Where on Surf he'd tirelessly labor over every detail, here he felt more relaxed: "There's real moments of inspiration while we were recording that I knew I didn't want to change." Beckstrom confirmed that, adding, "For me the main jazz spirit and fun of this music comes from the mostly improvised recording process: None of these tunes existed in any form before we got to the studio." Julian Reid offered his own account over the phone. "Seeing how these layers were organically put together was like opening up a whole new world of experiencing music for me," he said.
Though the obvious magic on Exchange can partly be traced back to the group's longtime chemistry—all four members studied together at Chicago's Merit School of Music—it's the way they've managed to make these sounds accessible for their audience. (Keep in mind that one of Segal's most recent credits is on the Ed Sheeran album). Segal explained, "We tried to be able to recognize what sounds good and what people want to listen to—like a pop sensibility where anyone could gravitate towards it." He later clarified, "It's not like we're trying really hard to make a jazz album. Yes, if we're putting an iTunes description on it we'll call it jazz, but it's really nothing like anything we've ever made—all four of us."
"It's not like we're trying really hard to make a jazz album. Yes, if we're putting an iTunes description on it we'll call it jazz, but it's really nothing like anything we've ever made—all four of us."
Where The JuJu most successfully split this difference between is on the Jamila Woods-featuring "We Good." While it sounds like their Social Experiment collaborations in the sense that there are discernible lyrics, it's rooted more in a jazz world.
"She's such an incredible singer that she was one of the only people I thought could tether that line and achieve the sound we were going for," Segal explained. The only other song with a prominent vocal track is the intro to album highlight "The Circuit," whose wordless melody is a nod to "Qing Wen" off alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett's 2006 album Beyond the Wall.
Each member of the band gets equal time to shine, creating melodies that will sneak into your head the same way the summery choruses of Surf did just two years ago. That's intentional, Segal explained. "We tried bringing to light the fact that instruments can produce sounds that people, one, want to listen to and, two, can remember and sing forever in the same way that their favorite vocalist can do." Julian Reid's dexterous piano leads and Everett Reid's standout on the title track, a hodgepodge of connected instrumental sections that simmers to a boiling climax. On closing track "Patients (+Yet)," The JuJu ditch the collagist experimentation in favor of a piano-anchored jazz ballad played live straight through and it happens to be the prettiest song off the whole full-length. For the first half, Segal's trumpet isn't even heard. It's a group affair, and just hearing these players lock in with each other should be rewarding even for jazz novices.
"One of my main goals is to make instrumental music a topic of conversation for young people, for people that wouldn't necessarily think jazz or classical is cool." Segal said. Though Surf challenged listeners on their conception of a pop album with Segal's trumpet taking front-and-center, Exchange manages to forego the handholding of big name features while still making instantly palatable songs.
"Jazz is actually very inclusive but it also can seem really exclusive," he joked. "When kids think of jazz, they can get an image in their head of a stuffy guy in a suit smoking a really long cigarette, leaning back and listening on a fucking gramophone. For us, it's not just and old people thing."
Photos by Rene Marban, courtesy of The JuJu
Josh Terry is a writer based in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter.