Jacob Collier calls from Chile, where he’s in the middle of a South American tour. He’s a long way from the London bedroom where he got his start, showing off his virtuosity and intricate arrangements in YouTube videos that caught the eye of no less a starmaker than Quincy Jones. A few short years later, Jones is his mentor and manager, while The Guardian has dubbed the 23-year-old “jazz’s new messiah.” Quite the remarkable turn of events, but Collier seems to have adjusted to the transition just fine.
“It’s a really interesting situation, because when you make music at home all the energy goes into the process, and touring’s all about the energy going outward,” says Collier. “I had to learn how to do that transition, but once I figured that out it’s so much fun.”
Collier is particularly excited to play Boston this Thursday, when he will be performing in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall as part of its pop/rock/hip-hop concert series RISE. He has some history with this area; it’s where he met with MIT Media Lab PhD candidate Ben Bloomberg, 27, to develop his groundbreaking one-man stage show.
“Ben’s super-awesome,” says Collier. “This upcoming show actually feels like a home gig in some ways.”
Bloomberg specializes in music technology, and when he saw one of Collier’s videos he shot him a Facebook message offering his services. Collier accepted, and the two got to work figuring out how to translate the music Collier makes for YouTube, in which he sings anywhere from six- to 10-part harmonies by himself and plays every instrument, to the live setting. If that wasn’t pressure enough, they had to have the show ready for the 2015 Montreux Jazz Festival, where Jones had tapped Collier to open for Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea.
The setup they developed is a natural extension of the frenzied creativity behind Collier’s home recordings. Surrounded by instruments, Collier lays down parts and uses multiple loopers to singlehandedly build his songs from scratch. A custom-made harmonizer allows Collier to layer vocal parts just as complex as the ones he painstakingly constructs in the studio, while a bevy of Xbox Kinect cameras capture his movements, adding a new Jacob Collier to the video feed with every loop.
“Everything’s woven together to create these amazing songs he’s written, but allowing him to play for the audience live what would normally take hours and hours of multitrack production in a studio,” says Bloomberg.
Montreux was a success, and Collier’s been touring the world with the apparatus ever since. Bloomberg is often too busy with his studies to join Collier on the road, but he mixes the show whenever he’s available.
Unfortunately, due to Calderwood Hall’s unconventional layout, Thursday’s performance won’t include the video elements. It won’t be the first time Bloomberg and Collier have had to modify their setup to suit a smaller venue.
“We play all kinds of different-size venues. We’ve done the Hollywood Bowl, and we’ve done people’s living rooms,” says Bloomberg. “A real challenge of developing the show was to make it work well in all of these different scenarios.”
Though Collier and Bloomberg have spent the past several years tinkering with and perfecting the live show, Collier plans to retire his current setup soon. Recently, he’s been playing with everyone from jazz ensemble Snarky Puppy to film composer Hans Zimmer, and he’d like to bring some of that collaborative energy to his next tour.
“This might be the last one-man show that Boston will see,” Collier says. “The show will be crazy and exciting moving forward, but this particular chapter of my life is kind of coming to an end.”
No matter what Collier decides to do next, Bloomberg will definitely be involved. In addition to co-developing the new live show, he’ll be flying to London to help Collier redesign the home studio where he recorded his debut album, last year’s appropriately titled “In My Room.”
Even as he starts turning his focus to the future, Collier has lost none of his enthusiasm for the current tour.
“It’s a real thrill to be doing these gigs,” says Collier. “It’s really special to be bringing it to Boston because it’s genuinely where I started, you know?”