The latest project from Chance the Rapper affiliate Nico Segal creates far-out jazz.

By Eric Renner Brown
September 19, 2017 at 04:23 PM EDT
Rene Marban

Who’s topping the charts, going viral, and ruling our earbuds? With Breaking Big, EW introduces the freshest music talent you have to hear now. Below, get to know the JuJu Exchange, the mind-expanding jazz fusion project led by Chance the Rapper’s go-to trumpeter Nico Segal.

Listen If You Like: Chick Corea, Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way, Chance the Rapper instrumentals

The Backstory: The most distinctive sound on Chance the Rapper’s 2016 project Coloring Book — outside of his unmistakable flow — could be the trumpet tones of his collaborator Nico Segal. An integral member of the Windy City’s vaunted contemporary music scene, the 24-year-old musician may be Chance’s most trusted affiliate and has teamed with artists from Neil Young to Kanye West. And Segal broke out in his own right with Surf, the 2015 debut from Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment. (Segal dropped his Donnie Trumpet moniker following the 2016 election.) Segal’s musical options seem limitless in 2017 — so, naturally, he’s chosen to spurn the A-list and return to the roots, forming a jazz collective, the JuJu Exchange, with jamming buddies from his high school days in Chicago.

Segal met pianist Julian Reid “early on in high school” and the two were fast friends, performing in orchestra and pep bands, getting into artists from Stevie Wonder to Miles Davis together, and parlaying their interests into fruitful sessions in the wee hours of the morning. The pair reconnected in 2015, when Segal played the processional at Reid’s wedding. “Nico, remember that music we made in high school?” Reid recalls asking Segal afterward. “Why don’t we make an album?” Reid initially just thought “it would be cool to do something together for posterity’s sake,” but Segal pushed for something more extensive. “The vision was always big from the beginning,” Reid explains. “We didn’t want to have any ceiling to what we were doing.”

Why They Rule: For the sessions that eventually became Exchange, the group’s debut album that was released physically last week, Segal and Reid recruited Reid’s drummer brother Everett and bassist Lane Beckstrom. “A lot of it came pretty organically from jamming together in a live, improvisational setting, and then going back through everything and highlighting the points that were really, really special,” Segal says, “and then taking those points as far as our minds would allow us.” The resulting ensemble bears a spiritual resemblance to the all-star lineups that generated classic jazz records in the mid-20th century. “Their roles are much bigger in the studio than just being drummer and bass player, as if they’re some random, replaceable guns for hire,” Segal says.

Other familiar Chance affiliates pop up on the project. Producer Nate Fox helped add studio gloss to some tracks, like “The Lane,” where Reid blows into a microphone to simulate wind. And rising R&B singer Jamila Woods — who sang on Surf standout “Sunday Candy” — delivers Exchange‘s sole vocal on “We Good.” “Throughout the process of making Exchange, I was very conscious of the album not being really heavy on features and not turning it into Surf 2 or my own, jazzier version of Surf,” says Segal, emphasizing that “instruments themselves can play melodies you remember forever.” But Woods proved an irresistible collaborator. “She killed it,” he says. “She sings a beautiful, simple melody with really simple words and a good message. She did a perfect job.”

What’s Next: The JuJu Exchange has started to play gigs, including one last week in Washington, D.C., and another tonight at Manhattan’s Le Poisson Rouge. “They’re really cool explorations for us,” Reid says. They also promise they’re back in the studio, working on “a couple more” projects to follow Exchange‘s brief 27 minutes of music.

Hear the JuJu Exchange’s debut album above.