CHRIS JASPER has now re-emerged with a fine new album. He spoke to Tony Cummings.
The release of Chris Jasper's 'Faithful And True' on New York independent Gold City has gone almost unnoticed by the movers and shakers of the multi-million dollar gospel music industry. There's a certain irony in that. For the album is not from a music scene unknown but from a hugely talented singer, keyboard player, composer and record producer who has tasted the heady wine of international music success, whose co-compositions like "Caravan Of Love" and "Harvest For The World" are considered pop classics and who in 1992 was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame. For Chris was a member of the hugely popular R&B ambassadors the Isley Brothers, from 1973 to 1984. Then Chris with Marvin and Ernie Isley formed Isley/Jasper/lsley who amongst other cuts recorded the classic "Caravan Of Love". The Isley Brothers connection began when Rudolph Isley married Chris' sister. Soon Chris, Ernie and Marvin had formed a jazz trio. "We would do some church functions and some high school dances and things like that. That's how it started off," remembers Chris.
By the early 70s Chris was being asked to add his keyboard skills to the Isley Brothers recordings. In 1973 Chris became an official member of the band. The Isleys had already a two decade musical pilgrimage moving from doowop ("Angels Cried", 1957) to secularised gospel ("Shout", 1959), Latin R&B ("Twist & Shout", 1962), Motown ("This Old Heart Of Mine", 1966) and funk ("It's Your Thing", 1969). Now, by incorporating Marvin Isley's Hendrix-influenced rock guitar into their funky R&B they were pioneering a new R&B/rock hybrid and the now six man Isley Brothers emerged in 1973 with the classic big selling album '3+3'. The album featured some carefully considered covers of white rock songs. Remembers Chris, "We wanted to do our renditions of those songs to broaden our audience. Then there were songs like 'Highways Of My Life' that I wrote that has a classical feel to it when it starts off, which is a big influence in my personal upbringing and career. A lot of those classical elements are in all of the music from that time period on as far as adding different degrees of the scale to a chord, to voice it in a certain way, a different way. I think that's a big difference in the way the music sounded during that time. Even now some of it is even in 'Faithful And True' because that's my writing style. I use those chords and inverted chords."
Leaving aside the classical and jazz tinges Chris brought to the Isley Brothers' smoking musical brew, it was their funk that kept them high on the R&B charts. Chris is adamant that playing funk is harder than it looks. "My son is studying music and something I try to explain to him is that sitting on a riff for 15 minutes is not easy. He likes jazz. There's not a lot of freedom in jazz. It seems like there's a lot of freedom but there are a lot of structures in there as well but with the amount of freedom jazz seems to have, it's more difficult for me with my experiences to concentrate on a riff and make that riff effective. Anybody can play a riff for 15 minutes but to create an effective one is not easy and that's what I tell him. Once you get on stage and you're playing that thing, your hands and wrists hurt. You're doing the same thing over and over and over and it's hard physically to play. To me funk is very specific, precise. If you don't have feeling you can play the exact same notes and it won't sound the same. You have to get into the feel of funk. It's an expression."
I asked what inspired Chris' songwriting. What inspired "Caravan Of Love", for instance. "I was just starting to read the Scriptures and understand them. At that point in time I was reading the Bible all day and every day because it was a new thing to me. That song was written during that time. The other members of Isley/Jasper/lsley thought it a bit strange. Some things I was saying they didn't quite understand but I understood why they didn't understand it. That particular song didn't start any trouble because it was a universal expression of brotherly love. Nobody could really object to that. But it was during the time that I was learning a lot of things."
It was a time of great difficulty that led Chris to the Christian faith. "Probably the reason that most people are drawn to faith and to Christ is different trials that happen in your life," admits Chris. "A year before there were a lot of things going on. When we left the three older brothers for example, they sued the three younger members, tried to say we were exclusively on their label. At the same time I got a suit from another person. Two bogus lawsuits at the same time. There was a lot of turmoil going on. Not that those specific lawsuits did it but I also started to get information about the Gospel. There was a television programme by the Worldwide Church of God that came on called The Worldwide Truth and I would catch that from time to time. I think the whole environment drew me into the Scriptures and from that point on I've been following Christ."
The Worldwide Church Of God is one of the most unusual religious movements to come out of America. Originally considered a cult by evangelical authorities it has down the years taken on board more and more biblical orthodoxy so that it is now accepted by all as a genuine Christian church. Comments Chris, "It went through some changes. It's more mainstream now. They used to observe the Sabbath and the holy days but now they are just like any other church."
In 1987 Chris became a solo artist. "We were with CBS at the time. Ernie left the group and that left IJI without another I," Chris laughs before continuing. "So I asked them about their thoughts of my doing a solo album. There was some discussion and they said, 'Alright, we'll do that', so I did an album called 'Super Bad' and with that album I started Gold City Records. The record label is named after the New Jerusalem in Revelation and my publishing company is named after the foundation, jasper stone -Jasper Stone Music. From that point I was gonna try to be positive in my lyrics, put at least one inspirational song on each album I did after that, etc, so it was a new direction."
In the sleevenotes on the boxed set 'It's Your Thing: The Story Of The Isley Brothers' Chris spoke out boldly both about his faith and the vagaries of the music industry. He said, "The Scripture talks about how you can't let man bother you. That certainly sharpened my outlook, especially in dealing with the music business. So much of it is foolish politics. Why get upset?" He comments further, "You have to have very thick skin. The more understanding you have of the record business, the better you can accept those kinds of things. What frustrates a lot of people is they don't understand what's going on or why things go on, or how things occur even, or how a record gets on the radio, or how a company goes about doing the business of marketing a product. Once you understand that and understand different reasons, you can better accept some things that maybe don't go your way or you can better understand the politics of why a person or an executive would do this or why he wouldn't do that. The more you know about the business helps you cope with things."
Chris is very excited about the 'Faithful And True' album. "Lyrically
of course I wanted to tell stories and the Gospel from the heart. This
particular album was an overwhelming experience for me because several
of the songs were written in 20 minutes, which never happens to me.
The inspiration was so powerful that it was overwhelming. I actually
dreamt 'Inside Of Me'. I got up about four o'clock in the morning and
came down to start playing it and it was all there. The title cut was
written in about 25-30 minutes with ideas just pouring out from me. I
was overwhelmed because it's never happened to me with any album.
Songs coming that quickly and that completely is just a wonderful
experience. My brother is a minister in Cincinnati, Ohio and I would
call him on the phone asking him to listen to stuff. We were just
overwhelmed with it."