“Reverse-engineering” is the term drummer Jojo Mayer uses to describe his New York-based group Nerve, whose live sound is inspired by electronic beats. However, their sound isn’t a matter of just copying electronica. Rather, the band uses the structures of old school, drum ‘n’ bass, dub-step, jungle, or glitch beats to minimal and tech house to create a framework for a live improvisation—the essence of jazz.
Mayer, who was born in Zurich in 1963, lived an itinerant life as a child including a period of his youth in Hong Kong, but his musical career began in Switzerland, based in Ruschlikon, where at the age of 18 he joined legendary jazz pianist Monty Alexander’s group and toured the biggest jazz festivals in Europe, including Montreux, Antibes and the North Sea Jazz Festival. With this exposure, he was soon invited to play back up with Nina Simone, Dizzy Gillespie and other big names in jazz touring even beyond Europe.
This initiation into the mainstream international jazz world, however, shifted after he moved to New York City in 1991. Mayer then turned to more experimental jazz groups closer to his interest, playing with progressive jazz-funk groups like David Fiuczynski’s Screaming Headless Torsos, Vernon Reid’s My Science Project and the Vienna Art Orchestra or just their saxophonist, Harry Sokal. Over the years, he has also become a staple internationally at prominent jazz and rock drummer conventions, festivals, clinics and workshops, not only those dedicated to jazz. He is consistently on the cover of Drummer’s magazines, and in 2014, Modern Drummer magazine listed him as one of the 50 greatest drummers of all time.
In fact, Mayer is reluctant to be associated with the term “jazz” in its present state. “I don’t want to discredit some honestly good music out there, but I’m highly suspicious of anything that still chooses to carry the label ‘jazz’ today,” he said to me in a previous interview. “Jazz is classical music now. … It’s become an art form. And when something becomes an art form, its cultural relevance becomes expired. The discipline and theater of it become more important than any cultural meaning it actually might have, or had.”
In a 2016 feature-length documentary about the life and music of Mayer for Swiss TV, “Changing Time” by Alexis Amitirigala, Mayer talks about his musical evolution since moving to New York City 25 years ago.
“I came here with a completely eclectic European vision. Jazz, for instance, I’d noticed that I’d come 40 years too late. Jazz was no longer progressive music, it had become conservative music. Everybody was walking backwards. I knew I wanted something else,” he says.
In this light, Mayer’s Nerve is a progressive, drum-based experimental musical project created with fellow New York musicians who are also expert sound engineers. There is John Davis, Mayer’s main collaborator on bass, synthesized electric bass guitar and low end manipulation; Jacob Bergson on keyboards, synthesizers, and main producer for the group; and Aaron Nevezie on a sound desk doing real-time audio deconstruction. This combination creates a sonic boom of live analog instrumentation in a high-tech reconfiguration.
Mayer started Nerve as performance/party events in New York City in the late 90s, called Prohibited Beatz, which actively involved the audience, venue, musicians, DJs, visuals – all organized by Mayer.
“I don’t play electronic music,” says Mayer in the documentary. “I assimilate contemporary aesthetics. I make an abstraction of programmed music, in real time. This experiment is about creating a sound effect that sounds digital, but is actually mechanical. Analog.”
Previously he had told me, “It’s a party. It happened before that in the course of a Nerve gig, people took initiative and rearranged some jazz club into a steaming hell-hole,” Mayer recalled. “In Poland, once, a promoter made the mistake of putting up bistro tables for a seated audience. About 50 kids who wanted to dance created a contemporary sculpture out of them in about 90 seconds.”
“We don’t want to perform. We want to make music that is not driven by intention, but emerges from a communal experience. We want to be the medium that enables this experience,” says Jojo Mayer.
Nerve’s most recent album (released in 2017) brings the party if not to a pause, at least to a break with slower tracks at a new level of abstraction from dance tracks and ambient soundscapes to cinematic junglism and acoustic jazz improvisation. It is a new direction and not surprising for this ever evolving artist.
Jojo Mayer and Nerve are a highlight of the Drum Days Festival in Prague, at Jazz Dock, April 23rd. On April 24th drummer Brian Blade’s project Children of the Light (Perez Patitucci Blade), and on April 25th drummer Mark Giuliani’s Jazz Quartet complete the Drum Days Festival.
Artists website: JoJo Mayer
Jojo Mayer and Nerve continue their tour across Europe till May 1st on dates listed below.
Jojo Mayer and Nerve on tour
April 23, Monday – Jazz Dock—Prague, Czech Republic
April 25, Wednesday – Dom Omladine—Belgrade, Serbia
April 26, Thursday – Babylon—Istanbul, Turkey
April 28, Saturday - Savino Live—Larnaca, Cyprus
April 29, Sunday – Gazarte—Athens, Greece
April 30, Monday – Control Club—Bucharest, Romania
May 1, Tuesday – Form Space—Cluj Napoca, Romania
Text: Tony Ozuna
Artwork and Photo credits: cover art by Ayham Jabr, JoJo Mayer/Nerve Facebook , Mats Bakken, David Mason, Karina Rykman Photography - and (c) info: all rights go to original recording artist/owner/photographer(s).