Black Jesus Experience: an espresso with Peter Harper and Ian Dixon

Image Credits: Black Jesus Experience © Bram Lammers

December 27, 2020

“To Know Without Knowing” is the last recording collaboration of the Australian band Black Jesus Experience and the Ethiopian artist Mulatu Astatke. We asked Peter Harper and Ian Dixon to tell us about how this project was carried out.

> Ivano Rossato 

How would you define the Black Jesus Experience?
Ian Dixon: co-operation quite defines Black Jesus Experience. It’s a large group of creative musicians, from 10 to 15 piece typically, bringing musical experience and inquisition ranging through jazz, funk, hip-hop, electronica, free improvisation, afro beat, all cemented together by the richness of Enushu Taye’s sharing with us of Ethiopian culture through her beautiful voice and lyrical insight. With this, us all being improvising musicians is a binding thread.

There’s a constant stream of new compositions being created by the band and its members, Peter Harper in particular is prolific in this respect. Black Jesus Experience has  performed at a weekly residency at The Horn in Collingwood for more than a decade, a rare situation these days, where BJX is able to compose, workshop, and refine pieces in a live situation. (Ian Dixon)

How the compositions featured in To Know Without Knowing were born and what approach to recording did you follow in the studio?
Peter Harper: We keep the essence of live performing when we record, the whole band playing together on every take (though typically initially with guide vocals to give Enushu, our rapper Mista Monk, and any guest vocalists room to improvise). We work fast in the studio, as mentioned before our live residency primes us to do so, our records are all first or second takes. We do refine a few things after the initial whole band recordings, the vocals obviously, and adjustments to arrangements. While we record kind of live, we are also conscious that we are making music to be listened to many times each time revealing new subtleties, as compared to the rarity of out and out live performance where the sensation of the music exists only for one uncapturable moment.
Peter, you play the sax (a melodic instrument) and at the same time you took care of the arrangement and the co-production (two phases that require a remarkable overview and harmonic vision); how do you mix these two natures and what goals did you pursue in approaching arrangement and production?
Peter Harper: BJX is a live working band we play every week and we rehearse on a regular basis. Arrangements are quite simple, those members with ideas that compliment a particular song are usually featured on that song. Or the song might be written to feature one or more members. Having regular performances enables us to road test the material and adapt the different elements. As a composer for BJX I write with the band and its members in mind. Many hours of workshopping and sectional rehearsals are necessary before we are happy. The band has a number of prolific writers so have very little trouble finding new music. We also like to rework Ethio standards and classics Jazz.
This is the second album together with Mulatu Astatke, how has the artistic relationship evolved compared to the beginnings together?
Peter Harper: Our relationship with Mulatu began in 2009 as we progress it feels more like a collaboration. In the early days we were concentrating on Mulatu’s original repertoire. We then started introducing some arrangement of Ethiopian classics and a couple of original pieces. As time passed we performed more of these classics and original pieces live. On our two recordings we were able to include a number of our own works and arrangements. Mulatu’s genius and generosity has been an absolute pleasure to be around and we hope that we can continue to learn from the master.
Black Jesus Experience: an espresso with Peter Harper and Ian Dixon copyright Jazzespresso 2020.
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