‘You’re Sharing Elements Of Your Life Through Song’: Q’s With Niji Adeleye

Niji Adeleye in his Element.
– Niji Adeleye in his Element.

London born, NYC based jazz-fusion pianist Niji Adeleye is going to premiere his 2019 performance at the Elgar Room of London’s Royal Albert Hall on YouTube, Aug. 6.
Adeleye has been making a splash in the UK and NYC Jazz scene with his two albums Better Days Ahead (2015) and Late Nights Early Mornings (2017). In the past year, he has performed with UK rapper Stormzy on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, performed in the 2020 NYFW Pyer Moss fashion show, and became the official organist for the NY Knicks.  
Pollstar caught up with Adeleye on the phone, to talk about the upcoming premiere, which was captured at the end of the Late Nights Early Mornings tour cycle in 2019, and what he’s been up to during these past months, during which he couldn’t perform live.
Pollstar: What made you choose New York City as your second home?
Niji Adeleye: I’ve been going back and forth between London and New York for the past three years. Luckily, I got an artist visa, called a O-1, which is for people they call aliens with extraordinary ability. Very elaborate.
I just love the city, it’s got a lot of similarities with London. I like the non-stop element of it. The way I’m built mentally, I’m very much associated with the American Dream, in the sense that there’s not limit on your possibilities. I feel like that’s really cultivated here, not to say that it’s not in the UK and London, but in New York in particular.
They say if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. That really resonated with me. So, in 2017, just before I released my second album, Late Nights Early Mornings, I came over to the U.S., and ever since then I’ve been going back and forth.

Niji Adeleye
– Niji Adeleye
Performing at C’mon Everybody in Brooklyn, NY.

Are there more gig opportunities in general in New York? Or is it even harder than in London?

By virtue of New York being the epicenter of entertainment in a certain respect, there’s just a lot more activity at all different levels. In the UK, if I’m an artist and I stitch together a UK tour, that might consist of five, six dates maximum. Whereas over in the States, you could tour in small to medium cap venues, and do 40 stops on your tour.
The reason New York’s perfect for me is because it’s a short enough distance from London to not make it seem too far from home. There’s just certain opportunities out here, for example, I started playing organ for the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden just before the lockdown.
How have you been dealing with these past months?
Luckily, for me, my experience hasn’t been the worst, because I’ve been able to mentally keep very strong throughout it. It’s actually been a really busy year leading up to it, especially the start of this year. There was a lot going on musically for me. So, it was almost a welcome break.
Obviously, it has affected the live space tremendously, and I think that the easier thing to do is settle for that, the second option is to find new and wonderful ways to continue your artistry and still have some connection with the audience you’ve built up.
In an interview with londonjazznews.com you specifically mentioned the freedom that comes with performing live and being able to capture the audience. How have you tried to maintain that connection in these past months?
I’ve started a series of conversations with a few artist friends of mine in the jazz world. It’s almost like the conversations we have backstage, that audience members are usually not privy to. I did an Instagram Live series called the Jazz Lockdown with people like China Moses, Moses Boyd, Lizz Wright, Pauli The PSM. It was really cool. Luckily, they are my friends, but these are incredible artists as well. 
I used that as a way to bring my audience into these conversations. On top of that I was creating a few videos, just me making beats, and using my creativity to add a little bit of positivity to anyone’s life every now and again. I didn’t feel an urge to perform online, just because I feel that there’s no return value in that, in the sense that it happens and then it’s gone. 

'I don't worry about what I can't control'
– ‘I don’t worry about what I can’t control’
Pollstar caught up with Niji Adeleye via phone.

Unlike your Royal Albert Hall performance last year, in front of real people, which is streaming on YouTube, Aug. 6. What made you choose that performance?

We went into Lockdown, and I thought, ‘cool, I was going to play in London this year a few times, but that’s not going to happen. So, maybe we could do this, a virtual way for people to relive the concert, or, if they couldn’t come, partake in that.
Did you have a tour lined up this year?
No, this [Royal Albert Hall] stream is the last bit on the cycle of my second album, Late Nights Early Mornings. I was actually going to come into London and block out a few months in the summer to record the next album. I don’t like recording my stuff remotely, in the sense that you just send it off to people, and they send back the drums or the horns. There’s an element of humanity that gets lost if you’re not bouncing against each other in the room.
What do you remember from the show at the Elgar Room in the Royal Albert Hall?
It was an interesting one. It wasn’t the first time I performed at the Royal Albert Hall. The first time was in 2016, I was the musical director for BBC Prom. It was amazing to be a part of. When it was my turn to headline a show there, it was almost like a full-circle moment. You work so hard playing for yourself and other people, to be able to come back into that space and play a show for people who have spent their money to come and see you play what you create in your brain. You’re sharing elements of your life through song.
If I never do that ever again for the rest of my life it will now live online. It happened. That was the overarching sentiment or feeling. It was a fantastic night. We sold out the Elgar Room about two days before the show, that was an amazing feeling. Who would have known, flash forward a year later, that we won’t be able to play another show for a very long time. Now, in hindsight, you cherish it even more.
Are you keeping up with the developments regarding the return of live music?
I’ve stopped checking the news every day to see when they are going to allow us to perform. The beautiful thing for me in this time is, it allowed me to evaluate where I am, and use that time to sketch out how will come back out in the next months. If we do play, we’re going to play reduced-capacity venues. 
Do we just do a lot smaller shows, stripped back, and do a few in a row? I don’t see it coming back until half-way through next year at any real capacity. Most of these venues need about 80% to break even. There’s a lot of red tape around that. For me, personally, I’m not preempting when we’re going to be back on the road touring. I don’t worry about what I can’t control, I just know that I’ll always be provided for. 
The beautiful thing is that we’ve all been forced to pivot into the digital space, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. I think it’s the future. Right now, we’re streaming this show, and who knows, we might stream another show if I have an album launch and we still can’t play. It might be a thing where we charge to have people sit in a livestream. I’m not the greatest fan of live-streamed shows. 

If it’s literally live there’s just so much margin for error, and I’m a bit of perfectionist in that sense. I would hate it if you promoted the show and then it ended up being a bad show just because of a technical error on the day. You can rehearse, you can test, but in that environment it’s still very risky, if that makes sense. And then if you add people paying for that experience on top of that, it’s a little bit different.
Can you already talk about your next album?
What I can say is that it will be a merge of my first and second album in terms of sonics. The first album was brass led, really melodic brass [lines] over really funky grooves. My second album was more drums, guitars, keys and bass, there was no horns in it, quite dark in nature. Mentally, I’m in a different space than when I wrote Late Nights Early Mornings. Definitely, even in light of Covid, I feel I’m in a much more positive headspace, I think that will reflect in the music. It will almost be like a closing of Late Nights Early Mornings, and the opening of something a lot brighter.
Do you think audiences will be afraid to start going out to live shows again?
It’s interesting, there’s a lot more scope on the audience side for shows to return. You could have socially distanced crowds. But for the musicians and the crew it’s extremely difficult, backstage, setting up, to maintain any sort of social distance, you have to interact. The audience will probably be more eager to get back, because there’s less likelihood of them being at risk. 
For musicians it’s a question of putting your life on the line, because really this is a virus that we can’t quite quantify. It’s a tough one, because at some point you have to say enough is enough and continue with normality. The safety of artists is probably the trickiest thing. Me, personally, if we decided to put on a show towards the end of this year or the start of next year, I’d be okay with that. Obviously it takes venues being filled to a certain capacity for a lot of shows to be profitable. From the biz end, what you might see is an uptake in ticket prices, just so that they can recoup.

At Oslo in Hackney, London.
– At Oslo in Hackney, London.
Niji Adeleye released his second album at the Hackney, London venue, in April 2017

Is there a venue that you’d still love to play in that you haven’t played in yet?

I’ve done most of the London Jazz clubs outside of Ronnie Scott’s, which is crazy. I’ve done Pizza Express, I’ve done Oslo, I’ve done Hoxton Bar and Grill, I’ve done them all, but I haven’t done Ronnie’s yet. It’s not top of my list, but it would be nice to do Ronnie’s, just because the legacy of it in London. All of the greats have passed through there. I don’t think in terms of capacity, for me, it’s not about the experience and the legacy. That’s why the Royal Albert Hall shows was so great, because that it something I can show my kids.
Of all the venues you have played in, which one is your favorite?
Oslo in Hackney. You get quite intimate with the crowd, it get’s stuffy in there sometimes, it just has that live feel. I think that was my favourite place to play so far. Outside of playing Madison Square Garden with the Knicks.
Say you’re next album launch will have to be a live stream. What would you envision it to look like?
When you have a livestream you can be positioned anywhere. Audio-wise it’s a lot better, because you can clean everything up in post. When you’re at a live show you have to just get whatever the front of house engineer has mixed for the show, whereas when you’re doing a stream, you can have it channelled trough a desk, and have it balanced all nice and crisp. 
To answer your question, I probably would do something really creative, a space, a warehouse of some sort or a field, it could be so creative. You have to recreate some sort of a feeling, and I feel like if its highly visual, it’s going to be really cool for the audience, because they’re not going to be there in person. So, at least, what they’re visually looking at is very appealing.
What are your plans for these coming months?
To continue writing the album. I’m almost 70% done in written, and then get into the study. But unlike my previous albums, which I made and recorded in stealth mode, without anyone really knowing, I’m going to carry everyone along in this journey. Typically Instagram is the best way to keep up with what I’m doing, especially with this next one. I’m taking everyone through each of the steps that I take to create a body of work. Instead of just turning up with a finished album, especially now that people just have more time at hand, it’d be a good time to let people into the whole recording process. 
Where and with whom are you going to watch the stream?
I’ve cultivated quite a nice family in New York of my British friends that have also move over. I feel like they’re all going to come over to my place and we’re going to watch it together.
Save the date
– Save the date
The stream will premiere on YouTube, Aug. 6 at 8 p.m. GMT.