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, 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 a saxophone-style breath controller over preprogrammed 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." Eventually, he found himself drawn to Berlin, Germany, where he now resides.
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, which allows 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 will lecture and perform at Five in One (423 N. Watkins) on Friday, February 15th. Doors open at 7 p.m. "Tech talk" at 8 p.m. Performance at 9 p.m. Admission is $10.