Born: August 28, 1953 Primary Instrument: Guitar
￼Bio by Sal Cataldi One of the most influential guitarists to emerge during New York’s avant-garde loft jazz scene has returned to influence a new generation of edge-pushing, genre-hopping musicians. He’s also returned, after a few decades’ detour courtesy of “The King of Pop,” to his original name and performance moniker – Michael Gregory Jackson.
Michael has tread a winding musical path over his 30-plus year career, embracing everything from creative music, jazz, blues, rock and electronica soundscapes to harmonically rich and lyrically-deep vocal tunes, with the complex arrangements and subtleties that are a signature of his music. His ability to span musical genres was best captured by one reviewer’s depiction, “Musical Mercury.”
Michael Gregory Jackson was barely of his teens when he served as second-in- command of the Oliver Lake Quartet, one of the most critically acclaimed and far- traveling ensembles working jazz’s outer fringes. Michael’s brilliant technique on electric and acoustic, flavored with quicksilver runs, volume pedal swells and sudden shifts from crystalline melodic to fuzzy dissonance, has been name-checked as a critical-influence, and can be heard deep in the musical DNA of six-string legends like Bill Frisell, Vernon Reid, Pat Metheny, Marc Ribot, Mary Halvorsen and more.
The fruits of Lake and Jackson’s post-modern Bird and Dizzy flights, often woven in a trio format with renowned drummer Pheeroan aKLaff, can be enjoyed on discs like “Life Dance Of Is” (Arista Novus), the recently re-released live set “Zaki” (Hat-Hut) and Michael’s own solo releases of this era, his 1976 debut re-released in 2010 “Clarity, Circle, Triangle, Square” (ESP) and “Karmonic Suite” (IAI). It was on “Clarity, Circle, Triangle, Square” that listeners may have first detected the staggering breadth of Michael’s musical influences and ambitions. All About Jazz’s Clifford Allen writes: “The shock – at least to those weaned on improvised music – comes when he spins out a delicate, soulful tune reminiscent of a young Steve Wonder. Its effect is extraordinary, immediate and unlike anything else before or since in improvised music.” Q Magazine concurs, writing of the 1987 “What To Where” BMG: “Gregory has that rare combination of virtuosity and versatility, able to play the guitar whiz...then slip easily into hugely commercial cuts.”
Michael Gregory Jackson’s journey from the avant-garde to what the industry regarded as a more commercial, song- based sound was thankfully and intriguingly gradual. It gave fans with inquiring taste a ringside seat to an evolution that unfolded subtly over a series of superb albums, ones that continue to be favorites of critics and his fellow musicians.
1979 saw the release of two masterpieces produced for Arista/Novus, “Gifts” and “Heart and Center.” Legendary Rolling Stone critic Robert Palmer called the song- centric second release: “a completely original synthesis of influences ranging from Stravinsky to Duke Ellington to Hendrix to Earth, Wind and Fire, unlike anything that’s been heard before.” With the more instrumental- focused “Gifts,” Michael showcases his spiraling, cliché-free guitaristics, and a chamber jazz approach to horn-driven melody, one highlighted with the 10 minute, “Sir Julius of Woodstock.” The skat- accented instrumental was titled and dedicated to another of his frequent musical partners, sax man Julius Hemphill. Inspirations Magazine called it “a beautiful, magical record... (Jackson) thoroughly inhabits these intricate compositions, always finding an improvisational voice that is absolutely at home. A masterful performance.”
As the 1980s unfolded, Michael dropped the Jackson (to avoid confusion with we all know who) and moved further towards commercial sounds, as a performer, producer and session man, with releases like the synth-heavy “What to Where” RCA/BMG and “Situation -X,” Island, the latter produced by famed producer and Grammy Award winner Nile Rodgers, an acknowledged fan of Michael's guitar prowess.
During this era, his talents as guitarist and vocalist also adorned projects by folks who might seem unlikely partners for the one-time outre guitar god, Steve Winwood who recorded on Michael’s Situation-X and was hired by Mick Jagger for a solo tour. Michael also collaborated with Walter Becker of Steely Dan. While the record-buying public may not have provided platinum level support, the critics did. About “Situation-X,” The Trouser Press observed that its’ formula combined “Bowie’s sophistication, Prince’s flamboyance and with plenty of originality.” The Advocate added that Jackson’s more pop leanings “lay bear the sinews of human emotion,” observing that his “high tenor voice calls to mind Smokey Robinson, Sting or Ben Harper.”
Like many veteran musicians, Michael Gregory Jackson has most recently quenched his wandering creative spirit by making his recording more of a cottage industry, and by helping to point, in the right direction, a new generation of genre-hopping musicians in his role as educator.
Throughout the 90s and 00s, Jackson continued to evolve his own sound with releases like “Way We Used to Do” (Tip- Toe), “Red” and “Towards the Sun” (both Golden/iTunes). Dense horn-driven clusters have given way to a stripped- down, largely acoustic sound, with multi-tracked guitars, wide harmonic chording and alternately soaring and quiet vocals, on some songs imparting an almost alt.folk feel that might reside in your record collection next to Nick Drake. The sound may have been influenced by his idyllic surroundings, his chosen homes in western Massachusetts and, until recently, Maine.
Over the last two decades, Jackson has taught and led creative workshops at wide variety of institutions in the U.S. and abroad. These include the New England Conservatory of Music, CalArts (California Institute for the Arts), Woodstock’s Creative Music Studio and The Copenhagen Conservatory of Music in Denmark, which have led to his most recent recordings.
As the guitarists he influenced with his early avant-garde palate have continued to widen the ears of the listening public, Jackson has again returned to this style and experimental jazz’s center stage – New York City.
Over the past decade, Jackson has increasingly performed at New York venues like John Zorn’s Space, Tonic, Roulette, Spectrum and during the annual Visions Festival, at a much- anticipate reunion of the Oliver Lake Trio alongside his original cohorts, sax man Lake and drummer Pheeroan aKLaff. Jackson has also hit the European festival circuit, performing in ensembles led by another longtime partner in sound, Wadada Leo Smith, for whom he produced two noted discs, “Spiritual Dimensions,” Cuneiform 2009 and “Heart's Reflections,” Cuneiform 2011.
In 2013, Jackson seems poised to reclaim the mantle of the god of jazz guitar avant, with a busy touring schedule and a move back to New York City, where he is increasingly connecting with both old compatriots and a younger generation of players.
His newest release is a product of his European travels and teachings. “Liberty, (2013 Embla Music) features Jackson and the Art Ensemble Syd, a creative ensemble from Denmark. The disc includes seven Jackson originals including the free-spirited, two part title track, the touching vocal ballad “Down” and the wild, improvised “Citi”, compelling jazz author Bob Gluck to write “The music is deeply touching and even heartbreaking. It defies category (yay!)...I cannot stop listening to this recording. It is that good...one part New Orleans early jazz, another part Ornette Coleman ‘harmolodic’ syncronicity, and a third part jam band party.”
One of the most lyrical musicians working today...singularly personal and arresting and one of contemporary music's few genuine poets... Gregory's daring, darting vocal is so serene yet intense that one is hard-put naming a contemporary vocalist of similar grace and power. —Down Beat
“By the time he was twenty-one he was already one of the most original jazz guitarist to emerge since the Sixties.” —Rolling Stone Michael Gregory Jacksons’ “Heart and Center, with it’s completely original synthesis of influences ranging from Stravinsky to Duke Ellington to Hendrix to Earth, Wind, and Fire is unlike anything that’s been heard before.” - Robert Palmer - Rolling Stone
“Gregory has that rare combination of virtuosity and versatility, able to play the guitar whiz...then slip easily into hugely commercial cuts. Michael Gregory is, quite simply, the business.” –Q
Take Bowie's sophistication, add Prince's flamboyance, and mix with plenty of originality. Michael Gregory writes crisp, vibrant songs, and sings them like it's a matter of life and death. —Trouser Press
“The songs...realize Michael Gregory's own theoretical musings about the fertile musical possibilities created when applying blues and jazz sensibilities to rock.” – Spin
“A highly distinctive and beautiful CD of originals...his own unique style that synthesizes jazz, pop and soul...filled with romantic longing and smoldering passion....” —Music Revue
Michael Gregory's high tenor voice calls to mind Smokey Robinson, Sting or Ben Harper as it flows with his guitar riffs...He doesn't back away from the difficult and sometimes raw themes connected with love and loss. Lays bare the sinews of human emotion. Gregory's honesty and hypnotic sound mixes are unabashedly mellow. —The Advocate
“Gregory's voice recalls vintage Prince, Curtis Mayfield and Aaron Neville...There's little doubt that Gregory remains a stringman supreme.” — Sunday Republican “At a certain point Gregory comes spinning out of an emotional wringer, and takes a beautifully berserk guitar solo. The dynamics are unbeatably exhilarating.” –Record
Towards the Sun picks up with graceful aplomb as if there were no gap in time at all. While fans of soulful ’70s and ’80s artists (Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, etc.) will find easy entrance into Gregory’s music, it’s also filled with subtle surprises that acknowledge his background in the gleefully iconoclastic fringes. All is not as it appears, with layering and compositional flourishes embedded in the songs, revealing themselves in slyly gentle ways. From the graceful modulations of “If I Only Had a Minute” to the thick guitar dazzle of “Love’s Parade,” this is an album filled with rich singing, inventive playing, and alluring, mesmerizing and cliché-free hooks. —Metroland.Net