IT’S BEEN 50 YEARS SINCE Brian Jackson met and first played music with Gil Scott-Heron, but though the visionary American poet and proto-rapper died in 2011 Jackson keeps their songs alive in live shows that mix masterly musicianship and intimate talk, relating the stories behind and around searing soul-funk-jazz classics such as The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, The Bottle, Home Is Where The Hatred Is and Winter In America.
The multi-instrumentalist – Scott-Heron’s writing and recording partner on all their classic ’70s albums – visits the UK next month with a small group including former Paul Weller bassist Yolanda Charles and drummer Chris Morris.
“When we got together, the result was so… big and so forceful that I thought, I don’t think we really need anybody else,” says Jackson of their minimalist approach. “One of the things that people always say to us after the show is, Oh, we can’t believe that it was just three of you up there.”
But the music is only part of the live experience, as Jackson explains.
“I’m telling the stories of the songs. It’s me going inside of the song and speaking about where we were in our heads, where we were in our hearts, what was happening in our world that caused us to say the things that we said and to write the things that we wrote. It’s kind of a living history lesson, you know?”
Jackson’s name for the group is American Griots, namechecking the ancient storytelling tradition that was picked up by Scott-Heron and the Last Poets in the ’70s, providing the link to hip-hop in the ’80s and ’90s – what Public Enemy’s Chuck D would famously call “the CNN of the streets”.
“The African griot was kind of the Bard of the community,” says Jackson, “the one who goes around and sings the songs of the history and the culture and the news of the community. We kind of wanted to take that responsibility upon ourselves and carry on that tradition.”
Jackson promises audiences “will get a lot of Rhodes, a bit of flute, a lot of singing and a fair amount of talking!” but concedes that the strong emotional undercurrents in the music and his relationship with Scott-Heron – who struggled with addiction and HIV – aren’t always easy to master.
“It's hard sometimes,” he says. “But it’s kind of my job, you know, because there were… there were two of us. And now there’s one of us. And so if the story is going to be told, it’s going to have to be me who tells it.”
Brian Jackson plays Hoochie Coochie, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne on July 12; Mostly Jazz, Funk & Soul Festival, Birmingham, July 13; Hideaway, London, July 14.
The Mostly Jazz, Funk and Soul Festival – celebrating its 10th anniversary – occurs Friday 12–Sunday 14 July, 2019 at Moseley Park, Moseley, Birmingham, B13 8DD. Tickets cost £52 day / £125 weekend adults / under 12s free. Investigate at https://mostlyjazz.co.uk / @mostly_jazz
This year’s headliners include The Jacksons, Brand New Heavies and Burt Bacharach, plus Brian Jackson, Khruangbin, Ibibio Sound Machine, Craig Charles, Jurassic 5’s Soup, Oscar Jerome and more.