How Social Experiment Producer & Trumpeter Nico Segal Formed Jazz Fusion Group The JuJu Exchange
For 23-year-old Grammy Award-winning producer/trumpeter Nico Segal, progression has often come from home. Whether physically or musically, the Chance The Rapper collaborator has made a name for himself by working alongside longtime colleagues and experimenting with music first introduced to him before high school in his native Chicago. His latest endeavor, a new-age jazz fusion group named The JuJu Exchange, acts as a perfect continuance of a career made by listening to his heart and playing music with his friends. This time around, he’s looking to make a new kind of statement musically by returning to his roots.
The group’s debut album, The Exchange (which dropped today, April 21), is aptly-named, the result of inter-disciplinary collaboration that plays on the connectedness of jazz in the same manner it complements hip-hop's collaborative free-flowing nature. The result is a sort of new standard from which colleagues and contemporaries alike can mine in an attempt to propel music across several genres simultaneously in the future.
"[It's] just basically having those moments that really define jazz music where we’re playing together and complementing each other, and that improvisational element that we’re soloing together and soloing off of each ether’s ideas and then there’s also the hip-hop mentality of sampling a jazz album or sampling something,” says Segal, perched behind a sound board in the legendary CRC Studios in Chicago. "We’re finding the parts and defining them, and making sense of the best ones and piecing them all together. But they all come from this very natural, organic jam setting where everybody is coming up with a bunch of stuff."
Segal -- who dropped the "Donnie Trumpet" moniker in the wake of the recent presidential election -- is a highly passionate and competent musician who cut his teeth at the Merit School of Music program in the city’s West Loop. He found his first taste of success with a band culled from a group of high school friends appropriately titled Kids These Days, boasting talent that included the likes of Vic Mensa and a pair of current collaborators in SoX drummer Greg Landfair and The JuJu bassist Lane Beckstrom. Ultimately breaking up in June of 2013, the band’s demise left a hole in Segal that was eventually fulfilled by a new, similar collaboration project led by close friend Chance The Rapper titled The Social Experiment.
Finding himself working with a contingent of musicians and producers with a deep understanding of the collaborative process, Segal immersed himself in the group, heading out on tour, playing the trumpet and tinkering between stops on a collection of songs he’d been experimenting with since before the breakup of KTD, a side project that would eventually see the light of day as SURF. The project itself (released in May 2015) was met with great anticipation, the first Chance The Rapper-associated collection that had hit the public since 2013's Acid Rap, which spoke to the over-arching manifesto of what’s come to be known as the Chicago Renaissance.
With a newfound success garnered through singles, features and a critically-acclaimed live touring show with Chance, Segal was handed the reigns to work with just about anyone he could imagine: For SURF, he tapped the likes of Busta Rhymes, Big Sean, Erykah Badu and many more, choosing to pair them with old friends like NoName, Lili K and The O’My’s. The result was an instrumentally driven project that served as a highway on-ramp for the Renaissance to reach the outside world. The project, driven by intonations of Segal’s trumpet juxtaposed against a distinctly jazz-centric foundation, arrived without features included in the tracklisting. The move made fans find their favorite parts of the project without judging ahead of time.
The Exchange similarly eschews listing the names on any single song. “Kids are going to be searching for where King Louie’s at or where Busta Rhymes is at, but they’re going to be wrong, they’re just going to listen," ays Segal. "It’s like tricking them into listening to just instruments, and finding their favorite moments instrumentally... I didn’t want people to associate this with something like Surf. I didn’t want to cover it with singers and rappers and all the people that I could just get in the studio through connections and whatever, I wanted it to be about the music."
The effect of that approach is an explorative musical moment un-influenced by status or recognition, but instead a true experiment in one’s taste of sound. It's exactly what Segal wants. A student of jazz and music in general for the majority of his life, he talks often of the ability to sort of "force-feed" instrumental music to a new generation beholden by DJs and Ableton.
"I can’t help but make genre-less music because I like so many different types of music, but with this project specifically, the important sound to me was making jazz and classical music a part of young people's everyday discussions, and kind of force-feed them instrumental music,” says Segal. “Force them to really listen, to really digest instruments and their favorite instrument on the album, wherever that might be -- just turning it on and listening to it as music."
The goal for Exchange was to create something wholly new. Segal plays the bandleader, but largely in title. The project was a shared one from the beginning that developed from recording jam sessions until they found a particular note, feeling or aesthetic to pull out and build around. In that sense, it reflected the essence of hip-hop sampling as well, only instead of past records, the group sampled one another’s exploratory playing.
The trumpet towers over the compositions throughout like a self-actualized General: Powerful in stature and secure enough to allow the best part of the whole to come forward when appropriate, its presence is perpetually felt in the periphery. Everett Reid, a student at the University of Michigan, paces the percussion, employing a range of sounds while older brother Julian serves as a steadying, wise presence on the upright and keys, Beckstrom adding his own twists on the bass along the way.
Fellow Chicago musician Liam Cunningham of Marrow described the album on first listen as "the sounds of a bunch of people just happy to be playing in one another’s company." It’s hard not to drift back to that thought often while listening to the project, which guides the listener through like a character on a Mario Kart level, taking quick turns and sudden drops. Through and through, though, it offers an understood look forward to what live music can sound like.
"We recorded a lot of this live and we’ve never been able to do that and that was a big deal for us as a jazz band,” says Segal. "Our biggest weapon is playing together -- that’s like our prized thing -- and then within the creative process of making this album and deciding what the songs would be, I wanted it to be about the music. And then if that turned into other people sampling it -- somebody like Kendrick [Lamar] or Chance even -- that's great, you know?."
The same spirit and understated loyalty that has made Chance an authentic star is embodied in Segal’s latest endeavor. Mined from memories of late-night sessions in his living room with Julian and Everett, endless jams and van-rides hunched over a laptop next to Lane; the project serves as a full-circle moment.
“The loyalty I saw embodied in Chance and the SoX Boys, how they were constantly calling their homies from Chicago that they went to high school with, that really grounded what we were about and I felt that with Nico," says Julian Reid. "Nico could be working with all kinds of cats. There’s plenty of people in L.A., and he said, ‘Nah, let's do it [ourselves] -- and in fact, let's get your brother and let's get our homie Lane,' and I was reminded very quickly that this is about the vibe that he had engendered in high school, and carried on with Kids These Days and Chance. He was always with his bros and always from Chicago, and that carried into today."
The project is an outgrowth of plenty of things, but more than anything, it makes sense. Segal has worked for years, the entirety of his adult life so far, to establish himself as an artist capable of making a statement of the sort made here. Because of that and the extra hours spent at band practice in high school, the late nights staying up transcribing horn solos, tinkering with sounds, and learning his craft have all set the foundation for this latest intonation to be an appropriate one.
"Nico has always been absolutely driven to find what’s new on the horizon and he always had this curiosity and creativity to his approach," said Stephen Burns, who helped teach Nico the trumpet as a Merit kid. "It reflects upon the Chicago jazz scene has been doing for a long time, it’s very much the next generation carrying on this incredible tradition of generosity and collaboration and support for creativity to -- in this case -- bring Jazz to a whole new audience."
On Thursday (April 20), Nico and The JuJu debuted their project on local talk show Windy City Live, performing “Morning Of." Beforehand, host Val Warner spoke with Segal. Acknowledging his recent accolades and newfound fame, she remarked at the artist’s humble decision to return to his hometown set to unveil his latest experiment.
“So why come here to Windy City Live? You could be anywhere debuting this project.”
Blushing a bit and a smile crossing his face, Segal cooly replied, "Because I love you guys, man, it’s Chicago. It’s my third time and third time’s a charm."
If nothing else, the latest chapter in the evolution of Nico Segal arrives in line with the trajectory he’s followed thus far -- from playing behind the scenes as a trumpet player in Kids These Days to being nudged to center stage by his friends with SURF to asserting himself as a bonafide band leader with his latest project. Together, The JuJu is similarly representative of the larger music landscape from which they originated from and continue to contribute to. At a time when countless musicians or self-proclaimed producers often settle for packaged sounds to manipulate and rearrange, this foursome of talented young Chicagoans have set out to establish a new blueprint.
“Some people might be confused at first, some people may take it like a challenge, an interesting one and hopefully find something that like they like: a melody or a drum pattern or anything,” said Segal. “The JuJu Exchange and the album are both a metaphor for trading ideas, thoughts or whatever else, this is our offering to the larger music community to try and spark something new.”
The JuJu Exchange's The Exchange is also available on Apple Music.