When I checked out Jim Zeller on Spotify I knew within seconds of hearing the first track on the first album “Circus” that I was in for something special. I usually like to take notes as I listen to an artist’s material for the first time, however that didn’t happen while engrossing myself into Zeller’s complete collection. His music is an experience, a strange beast that changes its entire essence on a whim while keeping you in the grips of its jaws from the first to last track.
The first album “Circus” is a powerful introduction to the mind and musical talent of Zeller that immediately showcases what the rest of the album has to offer without overwhelming you. As early as the second track “Wild Life” I found myself daydreaming, not out of boredom, far from it, the imagery projected from the powerful and engaging lyrics force your mind into submission. When you listen to Jim Zeller you need to accept the fact that you’re not in the drivers seat, the moving experience of his art has the wheel and the Devil himself is handling the gas peddle.
Zeller fuses genres the same way he switches seamlessly from English to French and truly speaks to us all with his unique and progressive music.
Zeller has been playing the harmonica since the age of twelve and has been nominated by Maple Blues Awards for harmonica player of the year. He is famous at The International Jazz Festival in Montreal and has played along side the greats including Muddy Waters.
In 2017’s “Cut To The Chase” blues meets rock in a dream like sensation while songs like “James Bond Beach” grip you out of nowhere and refuse to be labelled or sorted into a recognizable genre.
This fearlessness and willingness to experiment doesn’t clutter the album, instead it solidifies its value and significance, bringing the listener to complete attention.
In his latest album “Blues From Another Planet” Zeller has not stopped experimenting with his own sound or slowed down in the least bit. The album starts with the funk influenced “I Grew Up In Black And White” and then rock and blues mingle until the track “Phychobilly Baby” crashes into your head and changes everything you predicted about the album. The song doesn’t stall the flow or impede on the experience, instead it shakes you around and throws you to the ground, causing you to forget what you thought you knew about the artist.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to ask Zeller a few questions that came to mind and he was kind enough to oblige.
- In 2017 you released two studio albums and one live album. On the title track of “Fire To The Wire” there is a clear Reggae sound that is heard again on the album “Cut To The Chase” on the song “Cool Running Last Survivor” where does this influence come from?
As far as reggae influences. This was a result of a three week gig in Ocho Rios Jamaica. Living there at that time we became hypnotized by the musical energy. The song “Fire To The Wire” was written on the beach with guitarist Joe Jammer.
We wrote the song and the next day performed it live on Irie FM, Bob Marley's national Rastafarian radio station.
Another incredible song from that prodigious trip was “James Bond Beach.” It was channelled through a swim on the James Bond Beach, a real place. Originally it was the location for the James Bond movie. “Dr. No.”
“Cool Running” was inspired by a trip to a pot plantation in the Jamaican Mountains. This tour happened in 1994.
- Is the song “Violins Began To Play” about a real person?
“Violins Began To Play” is a song about my new love. 3 years together now. We met on the Montreal Metro early one morning. IBella Godmer sings all backups on the new CD.
- You’ve released five albums, which one means the most to you?
My favourite CD is “Blues From Another Planet,” but “Cut To The Chase” is very high on the list.
“Circus” contains amazing songs.
Very hard to choose as each have great material. My style is very eclectic as you have certainly noticed by now.
- What is your most memorable collaboration?
My favourite collaborations are many. My association in 1977-81 with Michel Pagliaro stands high one list.
Also working in the mid 70's with the great Alan Gerber marked my career. 1980-81 in NYC, I collaborated with many of the NYC punk scene and used to play at CBGB''s.
- You started playing the harmonica at 12 years old, who taught you?
I learned harmonica on my own. When I was 15 I ran away. 1970.
My harmonica saved me many times. My professional Career started in 1974.
I toured with the Great Willie Dixon. His harmonica player Carey Bell took me under his wing. Learned from so many along the way. Always wanted to become the Jimi Hendrix of the harmonica. So I basically was a quick study with a dedicated ambition to learn from everyone and everything.
- Where did the funk influence come from in “I Grew Up In Black And White?”
The Funk influence was always there. A great friend of mine was Bustah Jones from Memphis, played with “Talking Heads.”
R&B and blues have the same roots. Being such a strong rhythmic player it was a part of my musical DNA.
- Did I read correctly that you have played with BB King, Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan and John Lee Hooker?
I toured extensively in the late seventies with a Detroit based band called “Shaky Al Band.”
We opened regularly with BB King, Willie Dixon and on occasion with Muddy Waters. I jammed with him in Montreal in 1978 After we finished he said to me "I like the way you play the harmonica son. You play it like a Violin."
The Bob Dylan story is amazing. It happened in 1977. I was touring with the Chicago born Alan Gerber, we had a duo back then Gerber/Zeller. We had finished a show in a Quebec City club when we were asked to come down at 3AM to perform for Bob Dylan and his people. The next night we were hired to perform with Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue. The performances appears in the Bob Dylan movie “Reynaldo and Clara.”
- You’ve been touring since the late 70’s, where’s your favourite city to perform?
My favourite city to perform is Paris. I love Japan as well, but Montreal is home. I have performed 32 times at The Montreal Jazz Festival.
I love Mexico as well. Bottom line. I make the best of it wherever I am.
From the Quebec town of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, this internationally recognized artist is one of our great Countries best talents and world’s best harmonica master.