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The brainchild of acid-soul singer/songwriter Jay Kay, JAMIROQUAI the band was built around the man himself, so much so that it proved confusing to novices absorbing their music for the very first time and of the incorrect notion that the group was a solo act; though it was Jay that morphed together the words “Jam” and a tribe of Native Americans (the “Iroquois”) for the name.
The image was calculated but perfect: Adidas Gazelles, 70s flared cords, ethnic hats and funky soul-boy footwork. Vocally, Jay Kay’s comparisons to STEVIE WONDER were unavoidable; all “doo-doo-da-doo-doo” flourishes that seemed irreconcilable with a skinny white kid from London. That kid was born Jason Luis Cheetham, 30 Dec’69, Stretford, Greater Manchester; son of light-jazz singer/comedienne/impressionist Karen Kay, who had her own BBC-TV show in the early 80s.
Unsure of what he wanted in life, Jason left home at 15. He found himself homeless and in trouble with the authorities for committing petty crimes. A near-death experience after he was stabbed; and an arrest for a crime he didn’t commit, left him in no doubt that his home was where his heart was; his lesson had been learned and he took up singing more vigorously.
JAMIROQUAI were formed in early 1992 by Jay Kay, in Ealing, London. He and fellow composer Toby Smith (keyboards) had soon settled with the line-up of Andrew Levy (bass), Nick Van Gelder (drums), Kofi Kari Kari (percussion), Gavin Edmonds (trumpet), Mike Smith (sax/flute), and last but not least, Wallis Buchanan (didgeridoo!). On scoring a minor hit on Eddie Pillar’s Acid Jazz label, with his debut single `When You Gonna Learn’, the group switched to Sony Soho Square; the label no doubt hoping to cash-in on the super-hip Acid Jazz scene which had already seen The BRAND NEW HEAVIES reap financial rewards; especially in the lucrative American market. And cash-in on they did; where Acid Jazz had once been the preserve of a London clique, singer Jay Kay sold the concept nationwide. In the meantime, Levy was superseded by Sheffield-born/part-Pennsylvania-raised Stuart Zender; and plus noted auxiliaries Maurizio Ravalico (percussion), Glenn Nightingale (guitars), D-Zire (turntables), Gary Barnacle (sax/flute), John Thirkell (trumpet/flugelhorn) and Richard Edwards (trombone).
With two further high-falutin’ hits `Too Young To Die’ and `Blow Your Mind’ hovering around the Top 10, 1993’s EMERGENCY ON PLANET EARTH {*8} scaled the album charts that summer. Spontaneous, irresistibly funky and musically accomplished, what the record lacked in originality, it made up for with brazen charm (e.g. further chart gains a la the title track and a re-issued `When You Gonna Learn?’). The only thing that indicated the set had been recorded in the present was the lavish use of didgeridoo, although this added novelty value rather than any real innovation. Lyrically, the record was a platform for Jay’s unceasingly positive guide to life and his often naive, if well meaning, political and ecological diatribes such as the 10-minute `Revolution 1993’.
In interviews and on stage, Jay’s charisma was undeniable, rebuffing charges of being contrived with a cocksure cheekiness; drummer Derrick McKenzie replaced Van Gelder at this stage. By fifth shoo-in single, `Space Cowboy’, and its parent set THE RETURN OF THE SPACE COWBOY (1994) {*7}, the image was still intact; it was just a case of different album, different hat. As well as cornering the money-spinning pop/teen market, the David Morales mix of the aforesaid single was a massive European club hit, further boosting sales of the near-chart-topping album, which eventually gleaned a Stateside release for Work/Columbia Records, the following May. Musically, the set more or less stuck to the same formula although there were signs of a growing maturity in Jay’s songwriting and lyrics on `Half The Man’, `Stillness In Time’ and EU/US-only single, `Light Years’; it wasn’t issued in Britain and therefore didn’t hit the Top 40, despite Wikipedia stating the misnomer.
On the back of a featured credit on M-Beat’s Top 20, `Do U Know Where You’re Coming From’ (in summer ’96), JAMIROQUAI secured their biggest hit to date with the promo-video-enhanced `Virtual Reality’. Spawned from the equally transit, TRAVELLING WITHOUT MOVING (1996) {*7}, the band consolidated their position as purveyors of reliable, chart-friendly pop-funk, while Jay had become as much of a 90s icon as OASIS or BLUR, if a bit more stylish on further conquests `Cosmic Girl’, `Alright’ and `High Times’.
Now “lord of the manor” in his Buckinghamshire country estate (he also owned a number of sports cars, etc.); and the brief beau of Big Breakfast starlet Denise Van Outen, Jay Kay was back to what he knew best, writing songs. A fresh cut from the “Godzilla” movie, `Deeper Underground’, was the group’s return to the top slot.
With a line-up of Jay Kay, Toby Smith, Derrick McKenzie, DJ D-Zire, John Thirkell, Wallis Buchanan, Simon Katz (guitar), Nick Fyffe (bass), Sola Akingbola (percussion), Mike Smith (sax), Dennis Rollins (trombone) and Donny Wallace (platins), SYNKRONIZED (1999) {*6} was JAMIROQUAI’s fourth album in six years, although the slickness of the frontman’s retro persona was wearing a little thin. Nevertheless, the set shot to the top of the charts; repeating their back-to-back Top 30 sales figures in the US. It produced three further UK hits: `Canned Heat’, `Supersonic’ and `King For A Day’.
The man in the silly hat and his downsized band (guitarist Rob Harris in for Katz, D-Zire, Buchanan, Rollins, Mike Smith, Thirkell and Wallace) returned in 2001 with A FUNK ODYSSEY {*6}. And sounding more and more like STEVIE WONDER with each album, the record, mostly based on the group’s strained attempts at disco/funk, entered the charts at No.1 and the US Billboard Top 50. It also reaped in the cash for Jay Kay and Co via singles, `Little L’, the estranged break-up `You Give Me Something’, `Love Foolosophy’ (featuring BEVERLEY KNIGHT) and `Corner Of The Earth’; all being shoved down the public’s throats by repeated plays on MTV; other media outlets were available.
Jay Kay and his funkateers (Matt Johnson for Toby; and Paul Turner for Fyffe) returned to the Top 3 in 2005 with sixth set, DYNAMITE {*6}, effecting a fashionably 80s gloss here and there, but otherwise fusing the tried and tested nu-funk and disco influences on hits like `Feels Just Like It Should’ (very KRAVITZ), `Seven Days In Sunny June’ and `(Don’t) Give Hate A Chance’.
The steadfast strength of JAMIROQUAI’s songs found them once again atop the charts with the “High Times: Singles 1992-2006”. It featured exclusive addendums, `Runaway’ and `Radio’, the former another Top 20 notch. But then nothing was heard from the sextet until 2010 and their inaugural Top 10 album for Mercury Records: ROCK DUST LIGHT STAR {*6}. Re-igniting the disco grooves and funky rhetoric, Porsche fanatic Jay put his feet to the pedal via `White Knuckle Ride’, `Blue Skies’ and `Smoke And Mirrors’.
If the cosmic space between albums seemed long on previous occasions, the seven years running up to pseudo-concept album, AUTOMATON (2017) {*6}, must’ve been excruciating for loyal fans to undergo. Produced by Kay and songsmith sidekick Matt Johnson, the set warned the world of lost interaction between humans under the spell of mobile/media technology. And taking GIORGIO MORODER, DAFT PUNK and HEATWAVE as its inspiration, the Top 5 record peppered a handful of light-saber, funk-by-numbers such as `Cloud 9’, `Summer Girl’ and `Hot Property’. Sadly, the record was tinged by tragedy when former member Toby Smith died on 11 April 2017, only a month after its release. 2018 saw a fresh addition to the JAMIROQUAI contingent in Nate Williams (keyboards/guitar/vocals).
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD-BG // rev-up MCS Aug2019

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