FKJ, One-Man Orchestra and Internet Phenom, on His Jazz Roots (and a Concert in the Clouds)

Sep 27, 2019

As the French multi-instrumentalist known as FKJ boarded a plane early this year, he turned to his manager, Kate Cudbertson, and asked: “Why are we going to Bolivia, again?” The huge risk of filming a remote concert at Salar de Uyuni — the world’s largest salt flat, high in the Andes — was starting to sink in. But they both knew they might be on the verge of making something for the ages. 

Located 12,000 feet above sea level, Salar de Uyuni is one of the most visually stunning places on earth, especially in the month of February, when water covers its 4,000-square-mile surface. As the glassy top creates a perfect reflection of the sky, it imparts the optical illusion of floating in the clouds, or resting in the middle of a vast, placid ocean.

 

FKJ — aka French Kiwi Juice, birth name Vincent Fenton — knew this prehistoric lake would be a concert site unlike any other. Cercle, a livestream media channel known for exotic locales, had arranged the shoot after Cudbertson sent Google Map coordinates, half-jokingly; she didn’t think their production team would actually accept such an outrageous challenge.

 

A view of Cercle's shoot with FKJ, at 12,000 feet
Credit courtesy of the artist

“The Cercle guys wanted to work with Vincent for some time," Cudbertson says. “They’re huge supporters of his music and truly did make the unthinkable happen.” So the production team — 15 people, with assorted drones — braved bone-chilling conditions to film an unprecedented 90-minute performance, in one epic take. 

It’s not hard to understand why they thought he was worth the risk. FKJ had already achieved stratospheric success with his online videos; one 2017 set from Red Bull Studios Paris, with trap-jazz artist Masego, has racked up more than 150 million views on YouTube. As a result of his growing demand, FKJ had only one day available to accomplish the shoot.

 

That it went as well as it did might be a small miracle, given the unpredictable weather of the Andes, and the many technical complications that could have ruined the day: a lethal combination of salt, lithium, and water getting into the production gear; a generator failing onsite; some other failing in a complex stage rig including two keyboards, two saxophones, three electric guitars, an electric bass, a half-dozen effects pedals, a mixer, and a laptop running Ableton software.

FKJ with The Checkout's Simon Rentner backstage at Webster Hall in NYC

Last spring I met up with FKJ in backstage at Webster Hall in New York City, and he agreed to a rare interview. In this conversation, he opens up about the jazz that shaped him, from Monty Alexander to Thelonious Monk to Count Basie and more. To my ears, the core of what FKJ does is really rooted in the blues. (In our conversation, I called him out on one of his most formative influences, Carlos Santana.)

You might not catch these deep jazz and blues roots in FKJ’s spectacular one-man show, which resembles a DJ set with copious live instruments. A lot of looping is required to make his brand of house jazz, with all its moving parts. But Fenton prefers not be labeled as a so-called “loop artist,” but rather a musical layerer, bringing countless elements together into a landscape of sound — stunning even when it isn’t complimented by a jaw-dropping sunset, at one of the natural wonders on Planet Earth.

 FKJ kicks off his European tour on Oct. 1.

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