When the coronavirus lockdown began, organist/composer/producer Ondre J Pivec was on tour with Gregory Porter in Europe and found himself faced with spending the entirety of the pandemic there, in Prague specifically, as lockdowns initiated across the continent. Now he has two Grammy nominations and a new project to look forward to, proving that fortunes change when we least expect them to do so. In our brief interview, Ondre details the very moment he learned about those nominations and describes the new sounds inspiring his newest musical conception…
Baylor Project is a single actually? Not a full album?
It’s a single, the one called Sit On Down, it’s a song they did - the way it came about is they did a thing on Instagram, just like a little clip, when the first lockdown started, I think in March or April. One morning I made that mistake of looking on Instagram - actually I had woken up at 7am to go to the bathroom and I turned on my phone to check out what was going on online, and the first thing that the app put in front of my face was this clip. You can still find it on their page - it’s just a clip of Jean singing and playing piano and Marcus playing tambourine. It was like a little jokey thing, you know, just to encourage people stay home don’t go anywhere. You know - people were initially not really into following the rules (laughs) - it was just to encourage them to stay home. I played the clip once, and I heard the full arrangement immediately in my head. It’s classic R&B, a sound I’ve been immersing myself in for the last 10 years. Immediately I heard everything - the organ part, the horns, the drumbeat - like everything just came to me in that very instant. And I thought “shoot, ok I can’t go back sleep” so I fired up Logic and I started just making a whole production around it and I was done in about four or five hours. It was a minute and a half - an IGTV video. I’m like “Hey guys, I know you didn’t ask for it but I just made this production around your performance - what do you think?” And I actually posted it, just for fun - I’m on lockdown, I’m working on my production skills, this is what came out. It’s just something to do, it was great source material for me to work around. And Marcus Baylor calls me right away and he says “Man, this is killin’ - we have to make a song out of this. Would you care to finish the whole song?” I said “Sure, just make me a vocal track - just record it on a click cause the Instagram clip was free-floating so it was a bit hard to program drums to it and all the other stuff.” So they did. It needed another verse and a bridge, so they wrote that and sent me the material and I spent a day putting together the tracks and I sent them back the stems. And they recorded live bass, live drums and some guitar to it, added some killer background vocals and that was the song. I thought that was kind of the end of it. It was for fun, like a cool thing to do during lockdown. And then the song got nominated for a Grammy! (laughs)
All creativity counts!
I mean - shoot! There was no intention outside of it being fun. So I was like “hopefully they will repost it,” that was the only thing I saw “getting out of this.” My goal was to make it feel good enough for them to want to repost it and it turned out a little different. They told me that they went for the pre-Grammy nomination and I thought “ok cool” but there must be so much music coming out of so many people right now that it would be kind of difficult to get a nomination. “I’m glad you guys are trying that.” And then when Gregory announced his nomination - that was like two days ago (November 24, 2020) - in the afternoon my time over here in the Czech Republic, I didn’t hear from Marcus Baylor and I was like ok, I guess Gregory got nominated, which is great and the Baylors probably didn’t. And then 2am my time, I was just getting ready to go to sleep and I got a text and Marcus goes “We made it” (laughs). I’m listed as a writer on this song too, co-writer and co-producer, so it’s beyond incredible. It’s definitely motivating …
I’m working on a record right now. It’s proven to be extremely difficult because I’ve been into all of these contemporary modern sounds, like EDM, trap and like hiphop and all of this pop stuff, nu-funk and all of this other stuff - Anderson Paak, PJ Morton and all these people. So, I’m longing to come up with a sound that would reflect today as opposed to sounding retro. Most of the stuff that I would usually come up with just ended up sounding retro because I do love old jazz, I love Jimmy Smith, I love Billy Preston, I love everything Quincy Jones has ever done. Most of the stuff I come up with ends up sounding kind of like poor man’s versions of those people. While these days, it’s like I’m super intrigued by the sound of today. I’ve heard some great people that actually do music that is extremely musical, they’re very good at their instrument - there are ways to make that stuff sound incredibly musical and very respectful of what used to be, while being relevant today. And that’s where my focus is right now. It’s a challenge and I hope I’ll be able to figure it out. It’s really inspiring to listen to people like Robert Glasper, Rob Araujo, Anomalie, and these cats where they take jazz sounds and they turn it into something that’s completely different, but it’s true to the genre. Like when Robert Glasper plays, you can’t really say he's a jazz guy playing hiphop. It’s hiphop all the way. Like people that are hiphop heads will enjoy listening to Robert Glasper because he's true to the style. There are other examples of that. It’s been done with the Rhodes, it’s definitely been done with the horns, you know - Christian Scott and people like that are doing phenomenal things with the instruments that are usually associated with a more classic type of sound and they bring it to the 21st century. I will never be a Cory Henry and I know that, so I’m trying to find my lane and kind of maybe fusing the music of today with the old stuff, so…that’s kind of the idea behind that.
So this new recording also a new ensemble? How is that working? Is it comprised of people in Prague or in New York or a combo?
Well it’s most likely going to involve people from all over the place. I’ve been very fortunate to have played with a lot of people around the world. Everyone today has good enough recording equipment and skills to be able to do things remotely. Also, most of today’s music is done in the box, a lot of it is computer-based production. A lot of it is on me coming up with ideas and then maybe asking people to kind of just join me and help me with that. I do have some people around the world that I will collaborate with even on the production side of it and then of course, maybe some people from the Czech music scene, I’ll probably have some string players from over here, maybe I will involve some singers.
And do you have a projected release date or even just when a sample of it may appear in the ether…?
I was thinking sometime next year, the first half, of course depending on how the pandemic goes. I would like it to be sometime next year (2021)
That’s so cool and so positive compared to…a year ago at this time…
Well, that’s because there was a lot going on in my personal life…
For Baylor Project, the nomination was for…?
Best Classic R&B Performance
And about All Rise - anything particular about that?
All Rise…that was an amazing experience. It was recorded in Paris. Gregory loves Paris so we recorded in Paris. That’s how things go with him. I think the music is amazing. I personally think it’s an evolution of his sound - it’s probably the most
advanced album in terms of production. I really love the songs. They are very strong and I think he’ll be able to fully cross over into the pop world without lowering any of the quality of the music, which is amazing. He’s crossing over into the pop world without purposely doing it. He’s staying true his sound and true to his writing style. There’s plenty of solos and complicated jazzy things but it’s put together so well, which is largely thanks to the producer Troy Miller. It’s an incredible album and I’m super proud to be part of it. And the band is of course absolutely smashing. It’s nominated in a tricky category - Best Contemporary R&B Album category, which means he’s competing against John Legend, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
This Friday (November 27, 2020), SFJAZZ is going to rebroadcast Gregory’s performance from August 2019 that you also played on. Is there anything about those performances that you want to say something about?
It was lovely - we did like three days in a row - which means after the first day you don’t have to sound check again! (laughs) I loved it, it sounded good, the organ was very nice, I remember having an amazing time actually. Of course, the people who go to SFJAZZ, are an educated audience so that’s always good when people really appreciate the music and the little things in it.
You are in Prague right now - are you going to stay based there or are you going to return at some point?
I’m going to return at some point. It has a lot to do with the pandemic and sort of the overall mood of the country getting a little better, which it hopefully will in January or February, so…
Of course we will want to have you back, but you have to do what’s right for yourself.
…which is what I’m still trying to figure out. I was supposed to be touring this year and it obviously didn’t happen so God knows what I’ll be doing in New York but I found great things to do here. I’m glad for the time being and I’m glad to be here but I’m going to have to return at some point just on the basis of the music alone, how people play.
So you’re finding that New York is going to be more stimulating?
Who knows! I’ve got quite a few people trying to motivate me to move to LA. One particular person is recommending San Diego. We’ll see…LA might sound good. I’m like everybody else, kind of waiting things out trying to see how things turn out after the whole COVID thing is over. Who knows. Gregory tends to be very loyal to people, it’s my hope that he’ll want to continue to have me in the band when things pick back up. The music is excellent and the environment is amazing, we’re like a family, so yes, it’s just a matter of picking up other things which is studio work, a lot of which can be done remotely. I also said my goal is for it to not matter where I’m based out of and that remains, that’s still the number one goal. It gives me a lot of freedom but right now no one knows, so I’m waiting it out in a safe place, which is Prague.
You could do worse, it’s a great place to be!
It’s quite all right…
The Baylor Project's "Sit On Down" and Gregory Porter's "All Rise" are both available on Apple Music
You can find out more about Ondre J by visiting www.ondrejmusic.com