For American audiences, two images come to mind when reading the name “Jamiroquai”: one, the eye-catching “Virtual Insanity” video, which made a splash on MTV in 1996; and the film Napoleon Dynamite, which made comic use of the single “Canned Heat.” Unfortunately, Jamiroquai has never equaled their “Virtual Insanity” days in the US, although the band continues its popularity in the UK and internationally. Frontman Jay Kay’s sometimes abrasive personality may have limited their success, but his funky vocals (invoking comparisons to Stevie Wonder) and the band’s acid jazz grooves remain irresistible. Need convincing? Listen to their incredible live performances.
Formed in 1992, Kay and the original lineup (Toby Smith, keyboard; Stuart Zender, bass; Nick Van Gelder, drums; Wallis Buchanan, didgeridoo; and Alec Moran, flute) found themselves poised at the tip of the then-burgeoning UK acid jazz movement. The Brand New Heavies, Incognito, and the James Taylor Quartet dominated at the time, but the band’s first single, 1992’s “When You Gonna Learn,” generated buzz. Subsequently signed to Sony/BMG Music, Kay and the group released their first album, Emergency on Planet Earth, in 1993. While the album garnered attention—particularly due to the soul-drenched track “Too Young to Die”—it wasn’t until 1996 when their disc Travelling without Moving broke them into a wider market. The gravity-defying video for “Virtual Insanity,” which also featured Kay’s Wonder-esque vocals and quirky dance moves, propelled the track into Billboard’s Top 40. Two singles followed—the dance-friendly “Alright” and the lyrically eccentric “Cosmic Girl” (“Like some baby Barbarella/With the stars as her umbrella/She asked me if I’d like to magnetize”)–but failed to achieve the same success. However, they have continued releasing quality albums, including 1999’s funky Synkronized and 2001’s aptly named A Funk Odyssey. Their last disc, Rock Dust Light Star, failed to earn a US release.
While Jamiroquai may have faded from some American fans’ consciousness, their thumping beats, jazz-tinged chord changes, and Kay’s clear, soulful voice remain largely unchanged. While their greatest hits album High Times: Singles 1992–2006 serves as an excellent overview of their work, it’s their live performances that really merit another listen. There are two ways to experience their spirited jams: one, a search of torrents, MP3 sites, and fan message boards (for a full list of live performances, visit The Funkin’ Site); another is a DVD from their 2003 performance at Montreux Jazz Festival.
Clearly realizing the venue’s prestige, Kay and the then-lineup played a fiery show for the festival crowd, with the top-notch musicians showcasing their jazz/soul chops. “Soul Education” receives a slight rearrangement, with Kay, the drummer, bassist, and backup singers working rhythmically to stress the track’s jazz roots. When Kay half-shouts “I’ve found a God that I can pray to,” he sounds reinvigorated. “Shoot the Moon,” a never-released song, mixes up-tempo R&B with jazzy chord changes. But the real highlight, “Just Another Story,” features furious drumming and an impassioned vocal performance. A track from their second album, The Return of the Space Cowboy, the song addresses a teen’s descent into drugs and crime. At the 2003 Montreux performance, Kay spit out the lyrics with anger: “Stick up kid/Thinking you’re a glory boy/Fronting that stupid toy.” The song begins with a slower, steady beat, the bass and synthesizer setting the tempo. As the tempo slowly speeds up, Kay’s signing also increases in intensity. At over nine minutes, the song dazzles with its relentless tempo but serious subject matter. For well-played funk, look no further than this track. However, their versions of “Alright” and “Mr. Moon,” among other songs from their catalog, also dare you to dance.
Jamiroquai may not have as high a profile in America as overseas, but fans of funk and acid jazz should not overlook their soulful albums recalling 1970s funk. The band personnel may have changed frequently over time, but their enthusiastic yet skilled live shows demonstrate their undeniable talent and Kay’s charisma as a frontman. Want to hear what they’re up to in 2011? Listen to their new single, “Smile, at their SoundCloud site.
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