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Roy Ayers: Sunshine & Good Vibes

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At 78, Roy Ayers still has an infectious youthfulness about him.

Over six decades of recording and performing have kept him young, and over the course of our conversation he is positively brimming with happiness. "It's all about good vibrations!" he says. You can hear him smile down the phone from New York City.

I ask how he'd introduce himself to unfamiliar listeners. "I'm a vibist, a great vibist!" he says. "I've had a lovely career, almost a hundred albums." I should mention at this point that a vibist plays the vibraphone, a sort-of cross between a xylophone and a keyboard.

"I've worked with so many great people, like Miles Davis and Earth, Wind & Fire. So many groups," he says when I ask about some of his favourite collaborations. "It's been a fantastic career." As well as these seminal jazz groups, Ayers has come to be cherished for his contributions to funk, soul and disco. He has become one of the most sampled artists of all time.

The undisputed king of the vibraphone and a gifted composer and producer, Ayers first made a name for himself as a young man on the sixties jazz scene. He talks with great respect for his mentor, Lionel Hampton. "I chose the vibraphone because Lionel Hampton came to me - well, I came to him - and it was like imagination personified." he says, explaining why it quickly became his instrument of choice. "He gave me some vibe lessons, which was wonderful." His standing as one of the great jazz vibists is not to take away from the man's beautifully soft voice, which is an instrument in itself.

The seventies and eighties saw his sound shift to the funkier side of things on albums like Change Up the Groove and Vibrations. Ayers embraced the disco movement while keeping the jazzy style with which he had made his name. His enthusiasm for the new music of the time extended to starting up his own record label, Uno Melodic, which released disco and soul by contemporaries including Bobbi Humphrey, Rick Holmes and Sylvia Striplin.

He soundtracked the 1973 blaxploitation film Coffy, which served as the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, in which Tarantino used five of the songs from Coffy. "Oh, she was wonderful," he says, when we take a moment to bond over our mutual love of Pam Grier, who starred in both films. "Matter of fact, I love her. It was a fantastic time."

Wow, I've had so much fun

'Love' is a word that Ayers uses often during our chat, and it's obvious that he means it genuinely every time he says it. "Wow, I've had so much fun," he says of his career, as I let him pause and soak it in for the thousandth time. His seminal song, 'Everybody Loves The Sunshine', best encapsulates his career. While never reaching the commercial heights of hits by Stevie Wonder and James Brown, it's a song that has gained cult status, birthing the acid-jazz movement.

One collaboration I was keen to discuss was with Nigerian afrobeat legend Fela Kuti. "Oh wow, my god!" he says, "Fela Kuti! Great artist and greatly respected. There was such a great energy." The fruit of this collaboration was Music Of Many Colours from 1980, recorded after the pair undertook a three-week tour of Nigeria the year before. Ayers talks warmly of Kuti as "the one, the top of the line," talking about how much fun the two had. "So very artistic and creative. Such a shame he passed on." The collaboration has evidently left its mark on Ayers. "I want to work with more African artists, and there's a project we're working on at the moment."

He's keen to express how much joy he's found in touring the world, as well as the longevity he has enjoyed in his eighth decade. "It's really been a fantastic year and it's lovely that I'm performing so greatly and wonderfully," he says. He's still a keen collaborator, in recent years working with neo-soul icon Erykah Badu and house producer Kerri Chandler, but it's clear that his heart still lies in live performance.

"I guess it's down to my guys, my band," he says, when I ask what keeps touring fresh for him. "Wonderful people, and it's the atmosphere that's created. The good vibrations of the audience. It's just a flow." I can testify that a Roy Ayers show is a delight to behold.

"I've toured in the UK so many times," he says, but when asked about his favourite venue to play in Britain, there's a clear frontrunner. "Many times I've done Ronnie Scotts," he says, referring to the legendary Soho jazz club. "Pete King and Ronnie were great guys." It's also obvious that for Ayers, performing isn't about the size of the venue or city, but the authentic connection created with the audience at his shows. It's this factor that energises him to continue touring on the cusp of turning 80.

I look forward to seeing you in Sheffield

There's a chuckle when I ask about the reverence towards him within the hip-hop community, and the fact that his music was being sampled so often that at one point 50% of his income was from sample royalties. "Yeah, that's true!" he laughs. "It would have been the mid-to-late eighties." He still expresses surprise that his music has formed the instrumental basis of hip-hop, and I get the impression that he has long last track of the thousands of different songs his music has found its way into. "My music has been sampled so many times, I just can't believe it," he says. "There's some good articles I've read about it."

I admit that I first became aware of Ayers as a teenager, having read his name as a sample acknowledgement on an album's liner notes. It's clear that he appreciates how his music has been renewed and stayed relevant in this way, as well as through remix albums, bringing him an ever-expanding fanbase.

"I look forward to seeing you in Sheffield," he says, referring to his headline set at the Folk Forest next month. He signs off with a heartfelt "I love you all!" - and he sounds like he really means it.

Roy Ayers plays the Folk Forest on Saturday 7 July. Tickets via thefolkforest.net

Joe Baker

6 of the Best from the Roy Ayers Catalogue

Roy Ayers Ubiquity - Everybody Loves The Sunshine (1976)

Probably his most famous song and the definitive anthem to sunny summer days.

Sylvia Striplin - You Can't Turn Me Away (1980)

An infectious bassline punctuated by Striplin's smooth and sultry vocals. Sampled a number of times, and also covered by Erykah Badu.

Roy Ayers Ubiquity - Running Away (1977)

My personal introduction to Roy Ayers, sampled on A Tribe Called Quest's anti-domestic violence track, 'Description Of A Fool', but a disco classic on its own merit.

Roy Ayers - Coffy Is the Color (1973)

A funky, fast-paced opener to a fantastic film. 'Aragon' was also perfectly used in one of the most iconic scenes in Jackie Brown.

RAMP - Daylight (1977)

A slow and soulful number from the group's solitary but masterful LP, Come Into Knowledge. Also used by Tribe on the classic 'Bonita Applebum'.

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