Where To Start With... Jamiroquai
When Gilles Peterson and Eddie Piller formed Acid Jazz Records in 1987, the last thing on their minds was creating chart hits. “It was just going to be a party label, we never took it too seriously”, Piller would later tell The Guardian on the label's 25th anniversary in 2012. What started as an exercise in digging out rare groove tracks and putting out compilations soon led to something entirely different, following in the footsteps of Jerry Dammers' 2 Tone Records and creating a whole new genre that blended the instrumentation of jazz and latin records with the minimalist grooves of acid house, hip-hop and funk.
During the label's heyday in the early 1990s, Acid Jazz spawned several successful acts including Brand New Heavies, Incognito and The James Taylor Quartet, but by far the most commercially successful of them all the groups to emerge from the label's early days was Jamiroquai. Frontman Jay Kay had been a regular at the club nights hosted by Piller and Peterson, and after forming his own band with founding members including keyboardist Toby Smith and bassist Stuart Zender, Acid Jazz signed them up, releasing their debut single 'When You Gonna Learn?'
From the outset, though, it was obvious that Jamiroquai were destined for bigger things: “I couldn't afford his recording style and techniques”, Piller said of the band's lush, orchestral sound, “that first single cost 37 grand and I was still working out of two rooms.” Sony offered the band a deal, Acid Jazz released Jay Kay and co. from their label, and within a year Jamiroquai's debut album Emergency on Planet Earth was sitting at Number One in the UK Album Chart.
Its follow-up, 1994's The Return of the Space Cowboy, narrowly missed out on repeating that feat and the band continued to grow commercially in the UK and Europe, but it was their third LP, 1996's Travelling Without Moving, that saw the band enjoying the same kind of success on the other side of the Atlantic. 'Virtual Insanity', the third album's lead-off single, became a huge hit in the U.S., thanks in large part to Jonathan Glazer's groundbreaking video. Fusing elements of jazz, funk and disco, Travelling Without Moving set the template for the albums that would follow.
Since then, the band has undergone multiple line-up changes, with Stuart Zender leaving shortly before recording sessions began for Jamiroquai's fourth album, Synkronized, and Toby Smith departing shortly after their fifth, 2001's A Funk Odyssey, leaving Kay as the sole founding member. Two more albums followed in 2005 and 2010, but since then it's all been quiet on the Jamiroquai front.
Until, that is, May of last year, when the group's current bassist Paul Turner first revealed that an eighth studio album was finished and “being mixed”. Originally a late-2016 release date was mooted, but then in January this year Jamiroquai finally confirmed a March 31st release date and the title Automaton.
The title track and lead-off single offers an indication of what you can expect from the new album's direction, which leans more towards electronica and dance music than the more mellow, jazzy vibes of their early records. That said, this isn't so much a radical departure as a continuation of the band's evolving sound, which has been gradually shifting over the course of their last two or three albums.
The signature elements are all still here though and tracks like 'Cloud 9' have the familiar Jamiroquai feel, albeit an updated version underpinned by fizzing synths and drummer Derrick McKenzie's water-tight rhythms. After seven years in hibernation, there were always going to be a few shifts in style, but Jamiroquai rank as one of the most unique-sounding bands the UK has produced in the last couple of decades and we're pleased to say they sound as great as ever here, if a little harder-edged than we're used to.
You can find the video for 'Automaton' below, beneath that we've picked five highlights from the band's back catalogue as a reminder of the some of the fine tunes Jamiroquai have served up over the years...
'Too Young To Die'
While it wasn't the first single released from the band's debut LP, 'Too Young To Die' was undoubtedly their breakthrough moment and was a blast of summery fresh air for anyone who wasn't looped in to the emerging Acid Jazz scene, combining Stuart Zender's jazz-infused bassline with strings and brass that delivered a mellow yet funky introduction to the band's style.
“Everything is good and green”, sang Jay Kay on the title track from the band's sophomore album, while the rest of the nation nodded and winked. If it still isn't obvious what he's referring to by the time he sings of travelling “at the speed of Cheeba”, then we'll have to let you work that one out for yourselves, but 'Space Cowboy' is another slice of mellow gold that typifies a band still very much on a chilled Acid Jazz vibe by the time of their second album. There are plenty of other great tracks on The Return of The Space Cowboy, but this pretty much sums things up.
By the time of the band's third album Travelling Without Moving, Jamiroquai were reaching their commercial potential while modifying their sound to take on more influences from funk, disco and pop, and while 'Virtual Insanity' was undoubtedly the bigger hit, 'Cosmic Girl' stands as its equal on an album packed with great songs. The final album to include Zender on bass, Travelling Without Moving demonstrates why he was such a key part of the band's sound in those early years and there's no greater example than this track, which features some of his most impressive fretwork.
New bassist Nick Fyffe was in the midst of applying to join a Jamiroquai tribute band when he got the surprise call asking him to join the real thing, and while he had some pretty big shoes to fill his bass playing skills were neatly showcased in the disco-influenced lead-off single from the band's fourth LP, Synkronized. The thing this track will always be remembered for though isn't Fyffe's impressive fretwork, but Napoleon Dynamite's dance routine.
'Feels Just Like It Should'
Our final pick is taken from 2005's Dynamite, the first album to feature only Jay Kay from the band's very first line-up, with the singer beatboxing his way through a snaking bassline that underpins the whole track. Derrick McKenzie's drums sound tighter than ever, keeping the track chugging along with machine-like precision, and while the album wasn't a huge success for the band in commercial terms, it still has plenty of great moments and this is probably the best.