In 1997, Philip Jeck and his family moved to a new house in Liverpool, a city in the north west of England near Manchester. There was quite a lot of stuff to be moved, and the neighbour recommended a chap called Dave, who lived down the road and was a scrap dealer, and also did house clearance. PJ was told this would be cheaper than hiring a skip and doing it yourself, and also Dave’s mate would do all the lifting and carrying. Dave was promptly hired and they came round they were chatting away whilst working, Dave asked PJ what he did. PJ replied that he was a musician.
A few weeks later, there was a knock at the door, and it was Shirley, Dave’s wife. She said it was her granddaughter’s 7th birthday and could PJ do a show at the birthday party. PJ looked puzzled and replied: “I don’t really think what I do is appropriate for a kid’s party.” Shirley asked: “Is your act a bit ‘blue’?” To which PJ replied: “What is it you think I do?” Shirley said that Dave had told her PJ was a magician. PJ laughed and said: “Dave must have misheard me, I said I was a musician!” Shirley replied that Dave was a bit hard of hearing...
Well, PJ IS, of course, a magician. To be sure, yes he is a “musician”, but in reality he creates magical conjunctions without ever fully knowing what will come out of the hat. “If you make a mistake, do it again. Now it’s not a mistake anymore, it’s a part”, as Duane Allman said in Rolling Stone. Chance encounters and mistakes litter his work, but PJ has the historical perspective and musical knowledge to turn these ingredients into a creative, and of course homespun, recipe, rather than simply a melange of sound. Its one thing to throw in the ingredients, even if they are impeccably sourced, stir the pot and hope for the best. But PJ draws deep within himself, to access the parts the beer he had before the show cannot reach.
I see this often close up and first hand; at Lincoln Cathedral for a Spire event in October 2011, the audience broke through the critical psychological barrier in place in front of the performer, having been encouraged by me beforehand to “walk around this amazing building and listen to the sounds from different locations and perspectives.” One chap with a big nose had no sense of space or decorum, and thrust himself right into Jeck’s table of events. Looming over the turntable, as I hovered nearby to repel all borders, he loudly asked: “What is this chap trying to achieve?” Jeck ploughed on, (I managed somehow to deflect the nose’s interest) and produced one of THE great performances. Grace under pressure. [Trans.: That’ll teach the bastard!]
It’s never dull. Evenings in Liverpool involve excellent food, lashings of booze and laughter and a thorough and often surprising musical education... leaping from one side of the sitting room (CDs) to the other (LPs) past the hi-fi, PJ spins a feast of concoctions made from muso-magical ingredients. No barriers, no genres, just quality fare, always, but always with a story. PJ dances around the room, then slumps onto the sofa, wine glass at a tilt, as he listens with amazement to sounds he has heard many times before, but is still as excited and entranced as he ever was by them.
This childlike quality carries over into all aspects of his work and life. Ever-playful, teasing, great jokes (his own and others “fork handles!”), PJ is a straightforward, complicated man. He told me he was 60 in 2011, when in fact it’s 2012... (twice as old as Touch, then!), keenly aware of the transience of things and surprisingly well-read, given his peripatetic education. Very funny and serious; hugely sympathetic to the suffering of others, having done so much himself, but doesn’t suffer fools gladly; the tears of disbelief when he won a hugely prestigious composers award reveal a deep humility. All this is poured into his work, the record deck motors powered by emotion as much as experience and will.
PJ accepts the travails and boredom of travelling as a necessary curse to get where he really wants to be - live behind his decks, spinning, messing, larking about in deadly seriousness. I try to record his sound checks where this balance of opposites plays out most interestingly. Some of the audio gets used as a contribution towards edits he uses for his releases. To PJ they are not enough on their own... merely a chance practice to stretch out, like the footballer on the touchline, warming up. It’s bloody magic to me.
In some ways, to be this age is the perfect place to be. Culturally, he witnessed the great explosions of musical freedom in the 60s and 70s, saw analogue reach its apogee and the transformation info digital. Comfortable with both, he sees their utility and limit. A rough childhood, awakening at Dartington, chance encounters in New York City and elsewhere constitute the creative foundations which now bear fruit.
This is beginning to sound like an obituary.
The Great Jeck. Long may he last!
Mike Harding is the founder and publisher of Touch as well as a respected curator, producer, lecturer, publisher, author as well as editor.
Read more on the Conexions concert series here.