Jacob Collier

The Virtuoso Line Continues

Jacob Collier is surprising the music world, and he has some commonalities with two rock-based virtuosos

If there’s one collaboration that speaks to songwriter Jacob Collier’s catalog, it isn’t his work with Coldplay on “Human Heart”  or with SZA on “Good Days.” It’s Collier’s “Do You Feel Love/ Outro” featuring Steve Vai. 

Collier’s collaboration with Vai in a way continues a lineage of virtuosos, drawn from Frank Zappa to Vai and now possibly to Collier. Winning over Vai — and later collaborating with him — shows Collier’s musical colors of being unclassifiable by genre and comparable musical compositions. And Collier’s talents can be comparable to the composer Zappa, who mentored Vai in the early ’80s. 

Collier, 27, is an English composer and multi-instrumentalist who’s on a worldwide tour to support his new album, though he’ll play a stripped down version of his music when he performs at the Hult Center on piano. 

Collier’s performance career started with his YouTube channel in 2012, where he now has nearly a million subscribers. Years later, he’s being mentored by legendary producer Quincy Jones and has won Grammy awards for his 2019 release Djesse Vol. 2 without first appearing on an album sales chart — the first time since 1963 — according to a March 2021 article by Billboard. 

Although the primarily instrumental composer, Vai isn’t well known in mainstream music circles, but he’s beloved by many guitarists. Vai’s works are guitar-heavy and have inspired many guitarists with his technique and style.

Collier’s musicianship caught Vai’s attention years ago at a live performance. 

According to a November 2017 Facebook post by Vai, he was blown away by Collier’s performance. “Inspired music flows effortlessly through this young man and it felt as though I was witnessing a paradigm shift in music history,” Vai posted. “I believe he is an ‘Indigo’ child. These are people who are born with an evolved sense of creativity in a particular field and foster the evolution of consciousness and creativity on the planet.”

Vai added that Collier doesn’t perform with emotion and is instead connected to the “free flowing creative impulse of the Universe itself in his now.” 

Vai’s description of Collier could likely be similar to words he’d use to describe Zappa. One of the few musicians who will be seen as a composer who could write rock and serious classical music, Zappa took Vai under his wing during the early ’80s. 

Much of Zappa’s work included jazzier musical scales, emphasizing the awkward notes that stand out, such as the vocals on “Inca Roads” from One Size Fits All. Zappa’s penchant for composition meant his music is difficult to categorize — sometimes he wrote jazz (Hot Rats), doo wop (Cruising with Reuben and the Jets) and even classical (“G Spot Tornado”). 

Collier’s work is reminiscent of some of Zappa’s songs, including how they write harmonization for songs. In “Do You Feel Love/ Outro” from Djesse Vol. 2 (2019), in addition to Vai’s guitar, Collier’s composition features vocal melodies in a similar style to Zappa: melody contrasted with a flurry of changing chord harmonization. 

But Collier’s track record with harmonization goes back years before that song was recorded. When he was a YouTuber, he posted videos reharmonizing popular songs and performing them a capella — with him singing all parts. In a 2012 video, he took Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” and rewrote the supporting harmony, creating an interesting arrangement that moves along with complexity while preserving the song’s integrity. 

Like Zappa, Collier also defies genre. His most recent album, Djesse Vol. 3 (2020), is rooted in R&B, but combines elements of various other genres. One of the singles from the album, “Time Alone With You,” is a difficult to describe genre: At times it’s cool jazz, but speeds up to funk, even though the song is plagued with some of Collier’s studio altered high pitch vocals. 

When Collier performs at the Hult, he won’t have his band with him. Instead, it’ll be a solo piano performance. That probably doesn’t mean his set will be limited, though. If his 2020 NPR Tiny Desk (Home) Concert (during which he played every single instrument in the pre-taped performance during peak COVID) is any indication, he’ll likely perform with the same sort of energy that impressed Vai in 2017.

Jacob Collier performs at the Hult Center 7:30 pm Thursday, March 31. Tickets start at $35.