Kevin Yost Talks Electronic Jazz and the Disposability of Modern Music
Its decades-long legacy also owes much to the work of veteran DJ-producer Kevin Yost, first and foremost a jazz multi-instrumentalist. Since the '90s, his forays into house have displayed a worldly musicianship and level of class unmatched by most of his peers.
Born and raised in small-town Philadelphia, Yost went from child prodigy to serious music scholar, earning a classical education in composition and percussion at the prestigious Berklee College of Music and Shenandoah Conservatory. Meanwhile, he cut his teeth as a house DJ. It wasn't long before Yost hooked up with New Jersey's iRecords, establishing a fruitful relationship with the label that would yield his 1998 breakthrough album One Starry Night as well as the acclaimed acid-jazz/downtempo compilation series The Jazz Influence.
In advance of his Electric Pickle performance this Friday, Crossfade caught up with the legendary producer to talk electronic jazz, the demise of creativity in music, and his new music projects.
New Times: Legend has it you started out as a wedding DJ at age 13. What can you tell us about transitioning from such humble beginnings?
Kevin Yost: I started doing birthday parties for friends and school dances, then eventually weddings. It was a slow process from there to here. I really had no set goa but to play music and make people happy. It was not till I started experimenting with making music I realized that I also wanted and needed to create.
You're considered an undisputed master of electronic jazz fusion. What do jazz and electronica each mean to you and how do you reconcile them?
Back when I started, it was very important as an artist to stick with a certain sound and really develop it. Things are so fast now. Styles come and go so quick, I am not sure that matters much anymore. At that time my manger said I should do what I really want to do and believe in it. So that's what I did with mixing the open, free style of jazz with a more syncopated structure of electronic music. These days I have focused more on the jazzy side for my live group and with the DJing and producing I have tried to use the amazing technology we have to go into a more electronic direction. Such as focusing on sound design and programing sounds that fit and say exactly what I want. For me, there is so much influence it's hard to put a label on most of the stuff I do these days.
How do you typically approach your studio production work, especially in collaboration with live musicians?
Working in the studio is a 24/7 thing for me. Even when I travel, I have my laptop and portable keyboard with me to complete certain projects. Or, most important, create whenever the ideas are in my head, which happens very often. With live musicians, it's much different. When I'm alone in the studio, I have full control of everything including time. With live musicians they have their own time and their own influence, which is good and bad. It's good because it makes the music more interesting, but bad when I want something to sound a certain way and cannot explain or notate exactly what that is. When I'm by myself I'm at the point where whatever music thought I have I can pretty much create it. With live musicians, it's a whole other process.
Do you think jazz is dying? And can electronic music can play a role in keeping its legacy alive?
Jazz will never sell out a stadium of partygoers, but jazz has stood the test of time. This is basically because jazz is thinking music as well as music with a lot of feeling. Dance music is cool, but electronic music gives you only six colors to work with. Intricate music like jazz or classical gives you many different shades of red or blue to work with. Music that's complex never reaches everyone's ears at the same time, but over the years it pays off that it's something more meaningful than a kick drum on every beat.
Which contemporary artists do you think are carrying the torch?
I think there is a lot of great stuff out there today. But nothing that really has not been done before. And with the amazing technology we have at out fingertips for very little money, I am surprised we have not really progressed musically. The artists who have their fans in their hands should take advantage of that power and be more creative, push the envelope, and try something new.
It seems that even though music is as important to everyone as it always has been, most people demand very little of their music, except for wanting to get it for free. We seem stuck in this rut where music is disposable like AA batteries. I think that the technology just caught on so fast that we do not know how to move on as musicians and listeners. We want to drive through, get what's popular for free, then throw it away for the next new thing which sounds the same anyway. I do have hope and there are many great musicians out there trying to get noticed in a very crowded music-making market.
You've had a long-standing relationship with New Jersey's i! Records and a best-of collection was released last year. Which titles off this discography are you most proud?
My manager who started i! Records is one of the first people to get hold of me when I started out. There was a very good collaboration in wanting to achieve the same goal musically. So many great labels have come and gone. We are lucky that we were able to adapt to the changing times. The album has mostly the very early stuff I did back around '97. I'd say "Dreams Of You" and "One Starry Night" would be my favorites from that time. These were songs that had been in my mind for a while and to have them be received so openly was such a great feeling.
The Jazz Influence compilation series has been much-lauded over the years. Are there plans for more installments?
Yes, I am working on a new one now actually. Number four is so much fun to work on. It's a nice break to do something which has a lot more freedom to it.
What does the future have in store for Kevin Yost?
There's so much in the works for the future. Along with the DJing and electronic music, I am putting together two different live shows. One would be more electronic and the other for a more musical crowd that wants to sit and watch and really see the music played out live. I have also been working on writing classical music and music for independent films. So there's much to do in the future.
What can Miami expect during your performance at the Electric Pickle?
Well most people still think I play the music I produced 11 years ago, which is not entirely true. I make a lot of music and I try to make each show I do unique. I know people want to come hear the old stuff they know from me from years past. But as an artist, I have to try and catch their ears with the other sounds I have been doing. Either way, people can expect to hear a lot of music they probably have not heard before as well as some stuff that will take them back a few years. I'm really looking forward to coming back to Miami for this show.
With Prince Language, L of M, Stravinsky, Patrick Walsh, Will Renuart, and Tomas of Aquabooty. Friday, September 24. Electric Pickle, 2826 N Miami Ave., Miami; 305-456-5613; electricpicklemiami.com. The show starts at 10 p.m. Ages 21 and up.