by Chris McCoy
When you see him perform today, it’s hard to believe that Tupelo, Mississippi native Onyx Ashanti started out as a saxophone player. But after mastering conventional jazz saxophone and making his living as a busker in Atlanta and California, in the 1990s he became fascinated by electronic music.
“I liked that it was such a varied and open new world,” Ashanti says. “I saw synergies in music that could be applied to society. Here is this music that can be so many things at the same time. It can be cheap and cheesy, or it can be really emotional and powerful in ways that we are just starting to grasp.”
Soon, Ashanti had become a laptop noodler, playing synthesized sounds with an saxophone-style breath controller over pre-programmed beats and loops he had created.
“I didn’t have to get a bass player. I could be the bass player. I could play all of the instruments. But back then, I didn’t play all the instruments at once like I do now,” he says. Eventually, he found himself drawn to Berlin, Germany, where he now resides.
“I absolutely love it,” he says of his adopted homeland. “It is a very dynamic place. I knew they were very sophisticated about their electronic music scene, so before I left, I spent about a year developing this new strain of beatjazz.”
His forays into electronica had freed him from a traditional band environment, but the experiments in Berlin led him into an entirely new direction. The music that Ashanti will bring to Memphis this week bears some resemblance to both “conventional” electronic music and the kind of mutated jazz that Miles Davis explored in the late ’60s. But to get a sense of what Ashanti is trying to do, imagine if Miles Davis had not only been an innovative trumpet player and bandleader, but had also designed and built all of his own instruments. Ashanti creates his beatjazz by using custom controllers he designed and built using a 3D printer that allow his hands, body movement, and breath to signal and manipulate a bank of computers and synthesizers in a way that was simply not possible even a few years ago.
Onyx Ashanti, performing:
“How many questions do I have that I don’t know how to ask?” he says. “I played sax because I wanted to play music. But did I need a saxophone or a guitar to play music? I thought I did at one time, but as time went on, it gets to the point where I was looking at all of these instruments that existed before I was born, and that gives them a kind of holy sensibility. These are instruments. These are what you use to make music. But then I thought that we might be excluding the other things that might be instruments. And then I thought, do you even need instruments to make music? Do you need instruments to interact with rhythm and melody?”
Ashanti says his technological innovation has fused itself with his musical imagination in a way he did not expect. “I came up with the sounds, I designed the hardware, and I practiced it like an instrument, and I iterate all of the controls as I go forward. It’s a completely different type of instrument that’s made up of all of those things: The CAD design, the 3D printing, the programming, is all part of one thing. I don’t even have a name for it.”
Ashanti, like most electronic musicians, describes himself as a “slave to the groove,” and, indeed, freed by his inventions from the confines of the stage or DJ booth, his performances often find him dancing alongside his audience. But there is also a restlessness to the music as the beats, melodies, and sounds he improvises weave in and out of each other and evolve before your ears into unexpected forms. “I want a narrative cohesion,” he says. “I don’t want to just be flipping from thing to thing. Right now, it’s kind of like that, because right now, it’s so new, that I don’t know what is coming next. It would be criminal not to jump from thing to thing.”
One gets the sense that the creation has taken over, and the creator is, like the audience, along for the ride. “I feel like I have outsmarted myself. I have outstripped my ability to imagine what’s next. The only thing I can do is concentrate on iterating the functions that I need or want when they come.”
Five in One Social Club (423 N. Watkins)
Friday, February 15th
7 p.m. | Doors open with warm-up DJ Ben Jenkins
8 p.m. | Tech Talk
9 p.m. | Show