There are those within music whose work is arguably overlooked, or whose careers are only celebrated only by a handful of enthusiasts – those fans with a intimate knowledge of their discography. I firmly believe that JJ Jeczalik is one of those artists.
Most know of his involvement with The Art of Noise, ZTT Records groundbreaking, pop art collective. Some may also acknowledge that he played a key role in Trevor Horn’s production team during the early-to-mid 1980s, working alongside the likes of Stephen Lipson, Julian Mendelsohn, songwriter Bruce Woolley, and fellow Art of Noise members Gary Langan and Anne Dudley.
That, though, is about where it usually ends. Jeczalik left the music industry many years ago, instead taking up a second career as an IT teacher. He’s now retired, but that second career was undoubtedly fitting. You see, Jonathan Jeczalik was one of the first people to fully get to grips with the world’s first music-making computer: the prohibitively expensive and hugely complex Fairlight CMI.
Jezcalik wasn’t a trained musician. He’d wanted to be a drummer, but was advised by Landscape sticks-man Richard James Burgess to get to grips wth computers instead, as they were “the future”. When keyboard player Geoff Downes joined Yes, Jezcalik was asked to work out how to use his new toy, a pioneering music computer from Australia that was capable of manipulating “samples” of recorded sound. This computer – equivalent in cost to an average family home – also contained a program in which you could create music by sequencing patterns and notes.
Jeczalik not only got to grips with it, but became one of the World’s most in-demand Fairlight CMI programmers. He quickly worked out how to get the best from the machine’s basic sampling capability, including what sort of sounds to record, how to turn them into percussion hits, and how these could be used in a musical context.
These days, many successful producers and artists, particularly in the world of electronic music, have no musical training. Jeczalik was, in some ways, the first truly successful computer musician: the programmer whose championing of sampling technology would pave the way for the dance music revolutionaries that would later follow.
It wasn’t long before he was a vital player in Trevor Horn’s production team. When the former Buggles man and ZTT co-founder got stuck for ideas, or needed some kind of “gimmick” to liven up a song – be it by Dollar, Grace Jones, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, The Buggles, Malcolm McLaren or ABC – he called for Jezcalik and his Fairlight CMI (which, astonishingly, Horn had bought for him).
It was, though, through the Art of Noise that Jezcalik, alongside engineer/producer Gary Langan, and composer Ann Dudley, with occasional contributions from Trevor Horn and journalist Paul Morley, really pushed musical boundaries. He made the Fairlight’s sampling and sequencing capabilities the main attraction, creating far-sighted electro, hip-hop and synth-pop tracks that broke the accepted rules of song-writing and musical structure. What started as a simple post work mess around session turned into an decade-long exploration of the possibilities of sampling, and what could be done with a Computer Musical Instrument. It’s for this reason that Jeczalik, and Langan for that matter, deserves to be more widely celebrated than he currently is.
Recently, I was commissioned by Red Bull Music Academy Daily to write a piece on the “Fairlight” for their Instrumental Instruments series. From the start, I knew I wanted to speak to Jeczalik. Tracking him down wasn’t easy, and I wondered whether he would be keen to discuss the past. One day, I received an email from him out of the blue, after a speculative message I sent to the official Art of Noise website had been forwarded onto him. Happily, he was keen to talk, and we ended up spending a good hour discussing his career, the music he’d worked on, and the ins and outs of the Fairlight CMI.
An edited transcript of that interview is now available on the RBMA Daily website. I’d urge you to read it, as it will give you a better understanding of how Jeczalik worked, and the role he played in some of the most iconic records of the 1980s.