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 aka Michael Gregory 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 40-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 co-creator in 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 Halvorson and others.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), Holding Together (Black Saint, Shine Arista Novus), and the re- released live set Zaki (Hat-Hut) and Michael’s own solo releases of this era, his 1976 debut Clarity, Circle, Triangle, Square (Bija; reissued 2010 on 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. It’s effect is extraordinary, immediate and unlike anything else before or since in improvised music.” Q Magazine concurs, writing of the 1987 What To Where on BMG: “Jackson 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 he 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, composer and 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 WhereRCA/BMG and Situation-X, Island, the latter produced by Grammy Award winner producer Nile Rodgers, an acknowledged fan of Michael’s guitar and songwriting 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. He collaborated with Steve Winwood, who recorded on Michael’s Situation-X, and with Walter Becker of Steely Dan fame, in addition to other rock headliners.
While the record-buying public may not have provided platinum level support, the critics did. About Situation-X, 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.”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/Bandcamp). 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, Maine and California.
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 a new generation of genre-hopping musicians in the right direction through his role as music educator. 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 Berklee College of Music, 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.
Michael is poised to reclaim the mantle of the god of jazz guitar avant. 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, where he has been connecting with both old compatriots and a younger generation of players.
Over the past decade, Jackson has increasingly performed at such venues like John Zorn’s Space, Tonic, Roulette, Spectrum and during the annual Visions Festival, at a much- anticipated reunion of the Oliver Lake Trio alongside his original cohorts, saxophonist Lake and drummer Pheeroan aKLaff. Jackson has also hit the European festival circuit, performing in ensembles led by another longtime partner in sound, Pulitzer Prize finalist, Wadada Leo Smith, for whom he produced two noted and critically acclaimed discs released on Cuneiform Records, Spiritual Dimensions (disc 2) in 2009 and Heart’s Reflections, in 2011.Michael played on Smith’s release Najwa, on TUM Records and several other new projects. He also recorded with London based drummer Kikanju Baku and tuba player Joe Daley on Endogeny and Exogamy, released in 2016.
The guitarist currently performs, records and tours with several of his own ensembles, including his CLARITY Trio, which features Rakalam Bob Moses on drums and a changing line up of bassists. In 2017, he released the album Spirit Signal Strata, recorded with his trio featuring drummer Kenwood Dennard and bassist Keith Witty.
Simultaneous with his current work in the USA, Michael’s been collaborating with musicians in Denmark, recording and releasing the aforementioned albums and touring in Europe. Jackson was the guest composer for the Art Ensemble Syd, a creative ensemble from Denmark, for the album Liberty (2013 Embla Music), which features his music. The disc, which includes seven Jackson originals, compelled jazz author Bob Gluck to write “The music is deeply touching and even heartbreaking. It defies category…I cannot stop listening to this recording. It is that good...”.In 2015, he released After Before (2015) with his Danish group Michael Gregory Jackson Clarity Quartet and embarked on a tour. His second album with the Michael Gregory Jackson Clarity Quartet, which includes Niels Praestholm on bass, Simon Spang Hanssen on saxophone and flute, and Matias Wolf Andreason on drums, was 2019’s WHENUFINDITUWILLKNOW, released on Golden Records to international acclaim. Named “Album of the Week” by Steve Smith in the National Sawdust Log and reviewed worldwide, it received 4/5 stars in All About Jazz, which praised it as “a celebration of Jackson’s continuing vitality, and a hopeful sign of much more to come.”
Jackson moved to Southern California after WHENUFINDITUWILLKNOW’s release. On the West Coast, he began regularly releasing singles in digital format on Bandcamp of both new music and vintage recordings. Jackson released an astonishing number of singles on Bandcamp throughout the 2020 Covid 19 pandemic year; widely diverse in recording dates and styles, they illustrate his skills in a staggering number of musical genres, in instrumental as well as vocal music, and acoustic as well as electric and midi guitars.
In July 2020, while national protests called for racial justice following George Floyd’s murder by police, Jackson released a musically and emotionally powerful jazz suite that he had written and recorded live in 1994 with a 9-piece ensemble including himself on vocals and guitar. “Change” A Suite for Nelson Mandela had been written by Jackson to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s life and accomplishments and the end of apartheid, and as a call for racial justice and change in America. He released it in 2020 on Golden as a 20 minute digital EPK, with Jackson’s lyrics and liner notes by Nick Storring and poet Nashira Priester, who called the release “Part PRAYER, part WISH part GUIDEBOOK”. Reviewed in NYS Music and Italy’s Tracce di Jazz, Change was featured on One Man’s Jazz in September, jazz DJ Maurice Hogue spotlighting: “a seminal album that called for change back in 1994: guitarist Michael Gregory Jackson’s Change: A Suite for Nelson Mandela. That message then is as relevant today, and I’m playin’ the whole thing.”
Live concerts and touring were interrupted by the Covid 19 pandemic, but Jackson will perform virtually at the Alternative Guitar Summit 2021 Music Festival, presented online. His appearance is part of a series of solo virtual performances by alt-guitar all-stars including Mary Halvorson, Nels Cline, Henry Kaiser, Anthony Pirog and others, that the Alt Guitar Summitwill present on March 21 st.
Currently - 2021, Jackson is working on new music, recordings and poems. He’s also working in his studio, mastering and releasing previously unreleased songs, suites, live music from various concerts and remastered albums of both new and archival material on his Bandcamp site.
Jackson’s newest release, Frequency Equilibrium Koan, will come out on Golden Records in February 2021. Frequency Equilibrium Koan is a 1977 recording of an extraordinary concert of Michael’s music at Joe Lee Wilson’s New York City venue, The Ladies’ Fort, performed by an extraordinary quartet: Michael Gregory Jackson (guitars & percussion), Julius Hemphill (alto saxophone), Abdul Wadud (cello), Pheeroan aKLaff (drums). Featuring 40 minutes of music and liner notes by Michael and guitarist Bill Frisell, Frequency Equilibrium Koan offers listeners a priceless opportunity to experience a key moment in NYC’s long lost Loft Jazz Scene of the 1970s, with Michael at that scene’s heart.
Michael Gregory Jackson has performed and/or recorded with: Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, Will Calhoun (Living Colour), David Murray, Baikida Carroll, Matt Shipp, Grammy Award Winner Nile Rodgers (Chic, Daft Punk), Pulitzer Prize Winner Anthony Davis, Carlos Santana, Bernard Edwards (Chic), Vernon Reid (Living Colour), Billy Hart (Wes Montgomery, Wayne Shorter), Nona Hendryx, Kenwood Dennard (Dizzy Gillespie, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock), Buster Williams (Herbie Hancock), Steve Winwood (Traffic), Keith Witty (Anthony Braxton, Amel Larrieux, Somi), Nels Cline (Wilco), Walter Becker (Steely Dan), Anthony Braxton, Rakalam Bob Moses, Niels Praestholm, Patti LaBelle, Jack Dejohnette, Anton Fig (Letterman Show), Melle Mel, Omar Hakim (Weather Report, Sting), Jerome Harris, Eddie Henderson, Simon Spang-Hanssen, Amina Claudine Myers, David Sancious (Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel), Obie Award Winner Ntozake Shange, Pulitzer Prize Winner Henry Threadgill, Rodney Holmes, Jimmy Bralower, Nona Hendryx, Kevin Jones, American Book Award WinnerJessica Hagedorn, Ed Blackwell (Ornette Coleman), Steve Thorton (Miles Davis), Anthony Jackson, Gary Bartz (Miles Davis), Tony Thompson (Chic, Robert Palmer, Led Zeppelin), Sammy Figueroa (Miles Davis), Kermit Driscoll (Bill Frisell), Ole Romer, Bernard Davis (Sam and Dave, Mariah Carey), Marty Ehrlich, Karl Berger, Ingrid Berger, Pulitzer Prize Nominee Wadada Leo Smith, Victor Lewis, Grammy Award and American Book Award Winner Thulani Davis, Jeff Bova, and many others.
Michael Proudly endorses Pigtronix Pedals, Fishman Triple Play, Reunion Blues Gig Bags and Godin Guitars.