One of Ontario’s most popular and accomplished jazz/funk/R&B bands, Coldjack, is ramping up its creative output in the coming weeks and months, as bandleader John Fraser sets his sights on establishing an international audience for his unique, groove-oriented, dance-inspiring brand of original music.
Growing up in England, football (or soccer as we North Americans call it) was Fraser’s passion, although music had also always been a part of his young life.
“I played professional soccer for a number of years for Fulham, which was a First Division club during the time I was there, but just as I was retiring he buggers were elevated up to the Premiership [the top league in the U.K. alongside the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool]. I was into music when I was a kid before playing soccer because my dad was a professional drummer and he played a lot on the circuit. As a kid I used to listen to his Elvis records and I also went into all the clubs with him and used to help him set up his kit,” he said.
“But once I got into soccer that was it. I loved music but didn’t really get into it until I was finished on the pitch. I could play piano, clarinet and trumpet as kid. I did start off loving rock music and went through a stage where I was into Queen and Status Quo, and I vividly remember going to see ELP play in London. When the early 1980s hit, I switched over to funk and got really involved listening to Earth Wind and Fire and Crown Heights Affair. Level 42 was a big influence on be, as were Incognito and Jamiroquai – any band that had a horn section of some kind, even Madness. And I really did transfer my personal taste from rock to fun, jazz, R&B and soul music, and that’s what I continue to play to this day.”
After leaving professional sports, Fraser felt it was time to follow his other passion and formed the first version of Coldjack in 1994 in London.
“We toured England for a few years and were starting to make some noise, but then a couple of the guys got married and had kids and it all fell away. By that time I had made the transition to vocals as well as bass. We were working with Gary Numan [Cars] in the studio, I was good friends with him back then, and he pulled me aside and said, ‘I know you’re a good bass player, but you should sing because you’ve got a really nice voice.’ So that’s when I also started singing more. And now that’s all I do onstage,” he said.
When the band fell apart, Fraser and his then wife both felt the need to shake their lives up. Both had a love of horses and decided they wanted to own a horse farm. After searching for a little while, they crossed the Atlantic and bought a 50-acre farm just south of Barrie, Ontario, right near the internationally-renown National Pines Golf Club. But the couple soon split, and Fraser opened and continues to run a sporting goods store focussing on soccer in Barrie’s south end.
“I didn’t start up music again until 2010 when we did a new Coldjack album and held a big CD release party. That second version of the band was made up of guys I met on the local scene in Barrie and Orillia. By 2012 they had all left and I basically regrouped with new players. It was at that time that I met producer Eddie Bullen, through Frank McNulty who runs the Collingwood Jazz Festival,” he said, adding that the current lineup can play in configurations from five to eight pieces, depending on the venue. The band also includes Dane Wedderburn, Saya Gray, Carl Harvey, Aaron Spink, Bela Haymen, Dianne Rivard and Kolette Easy.
That meeting proved to be a huge step forward for Fraser and Coldjack, as Bullen possesses an incredible pedigree as a recording artist, producer and owner of his own label and production company, Thunder Dome Sounds.
Bullen has worked with a host of artists in the contemporary jazz, smooth jazz, and even Caribbean genres for artists like Melba Moore, Anselm Douglas, Maestro, Liberty Silver, Deborah Cox and many more.
“Even though he’s mostly known for smooth jazz, he’s really helped me refine the sound of Coldjack. I would say we’re more of a fusion of pop, R&B, blues and funk, so we have a real crossover appeal. No disrespect to smooth jazz – I personally love it – but it can be a little laid back. We have more of that rock/funk element when it comes to lashing out these really upbeat, high-energy, up-tempo solos. We’ve a got a real 1970s feel, but with a modern twist. We go down well with a live crowd because people in the audience say we’ve got a great mix, but that we tie it all together to make for a very special vibe that’s all our own,” Fraser explained.
Bullen helped Fraser craft songs for Coldjack’s first singles and album in North America, including the powerful album title track Spitfire Angels, which is a bit of a thematic departure for Fraser, but one that has a lot of emotional resonance for him and for all who know the story behind it.
“It’s in honour of the World War 2 Spitfire pilots who were able to fight off the huge Nazi Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. I wrote that with Eddie in four hours, the whole song. And many stations around the world play that on Nov. 11, Remembrance Day. It’s an unusual frack for a funk, R&B, jazz album because it doesn’t really fit the tone. But it’s a gorgeous song and when you really listen to it you can understand the story. The second verse talks about children crying for their fathers who have gone off to their Spitfire fighters, with little hope of returning,” he explained.
“The reason why I called it Spitfire Angels was that the story was that the second they died in the skies they became angels looking after the pilots who were still alive. So they were guardian angels in the sky.”
Coldjack had a number one hit on a number of radio stations abroad, as well as in Canada, with the song Troubled Man, released earlier this year.
“That’s when you’re in a sticky moment and you’re trying to find yourself, and It’s something I think a lot of people can identify with. The songs that I have written are about things that have happened to me. The song She Takes Me High is about loving someone and how that person makes you feel so good, where everything they do is perfect. That particular person is so high in your thoughts, no matter what she does it takes you higher and higher, like a drug – and you don’t want to come down,” Fraser said, adding that he can’t read music and most often hums or sings his melodies while creating new songs.
“I don’t read music and I don’t play piano any more, but I basically just get these melodies in my head and then I hum them into my phone and I just lay it down. And then when I listen to it back, the lyrics just come to me. That’s how we did Spitfire Angels. I just sang the melody to Eddie and the lyrics and he wrote the music around it, and we arrange it together. So that’s my process – things just come to me.
“I find the melody and the words pretty quickly; I can’t explain how it happens. I am writing a couple of new songs right now that I hope to release as singles early in the New Year. One is going to feature a Gospel choir singing behind me, and I think it’s going to be really beautiful, especially live. I have another song tentatively titled Morphine Highway, but it’s not really about drugs. It’s basically a message song saying we are screwing up this planet. And there’s another song that I am partway through about Al Capone. I read a book about him and learned that he started off as the song of a barber in New York. And it’s about when he was in Chicago and New York, talking about his rise to power. So I have a lot on the go.”
Being a fan and later a friend of the popular band Level 42 paid dividends when Fraser was gifted with a song by the band’s songwriters Mark King and Mike Lindup called Free Your Soul. It was never recorded, and never published by the pair, and became a success for Coldjack many years later as part of the Spitfire Angels album.
“I have been following them for 37 years and later befriended them. And you never know how things in life are going to turn out because I never could have imagined that I would be cutting a track that they gave to me. I sent it to them when it was done and they endorsed it and gave it a big thumbs up. That was pretty incredible,” he said.
The plan is to release a series of singles, making sure that each new song is of top quality, with the end goal of perhaps releasing a full album of all the singles down the road. In the interim, Coldjack has an ambitious touring schedule set for 2017 with festival dates throughout the United States, including in California, Alabama and Florida.
“We’re just waiting for confirmation for a number of dates in both Canada and the U.S. We are waiting to hear about 10 major festivals in the States and we’ve applied to maybe 20 or so here in Canada. On April 7 and 8 we’re back at Sticky Fingers in Barrie, where we like to play two or three times a year, and on April 29 we’re up at the Meaford Hall. In the summer, we’re hoping to get over to the U.K. too,” Fraser explained.
“In 2017 I want to really focus on taking Coldjack to the next level. We are being played on a lot of radio stations and the new songs have got me some press in places like Australia. I know there is a big audience out there for this kind of music, so it’s just a case of getting out there, playing wherever we can, whenever we can, and releasing good music that gets picked up by more and more radio stations, both terrestrial and satellite or internet stations.”
For more information on Coldjack, the band’s music, tour dates and even its own branded coffee, visit http://www.coldjack.com.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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