When you’ve got a name like Jaco, chances are someone will eventually ask if you play the bass.
That’s a Jaco Pastorius nod, btw, and that legendary bassist is the real-life namesake of Santa Fe-based musician Jaco Imani. There’s no relation, but Imani started out on bass, too, as a way to feel closer to his own musician father. He’s since evolved into more of a guitar player. He’s also learned a thing or two about recording software like Ableton Live and Reason, partly from Santa Fe Community College teacher Jason Goodyear, partly on his own.
Now, as Imani enters a new era of creativity, he’s mere days away from the June 1 release of part one of the two-part full-length album Ayllu from his bedroom-based project Sable, and it’s time to come out into the light: Ayllu is one of those for-the-records kind of albums that transcends genres and playing styles to become its own piece of art for which comparisons are challenging. Just know it is gorgeous.
Ayllu is named for an Incan concept of kinship, according to Imani. Perhaps a group of villagers might not actually be related, he says, but they look out for each other on a deeper, more familial way. That’s the most basic of explanations, and it’s definitely worth Googling. The record is almost annoyingly good, and not like anything else making the local rounds.
Quick comparisons would be easy enough—Animals as Leaders, Battles, any number of contempo free jazz acts or even technical metal powerhouses. With Imani’s core relationships forming the basis of its lyrical content, however, a bit of indie rock math weridness picks up the musical slack alongside off-tempo jazz elements that sound almost improvisational but are anything but. Think of it more like a singularly excellent bit of extroverted songwriting with an eye toward community and a deep appreciation for lasting friendships.
The album is the culmination of so many things, not least of which is a nomadic lifestyle as a kid. The road to Imani’s even being in Santa Fe is a long one, and includes stints in St. Louis, Missouri, Abiquiu, Washington, DC and elsewhere. He attended Knox College in Illinois for a music degree, though he tells SFR it took time for that training to kick in. By the time he found the now-transient nonprofit teen arts center Warehouse 21 as a teenager, though, Imani discovered what he calls a “begrudging home.”
“I think I’d really sort of been displaced in a lot of ways,” he tells SFR of finally finding a community. “Maybe that’s not quite the right word, but I moved around so much as a child and felt so tugged around by my parents that I never felt like part of a consistent group of people who showed up for each other.”
Thus, Ayllu was born of Imani’s realization that he does have people in his own micro-community. He was one of the 201 people laid off by Meow Wolf at the outset of the pandemic, though, he says, having that time to make music was one of the best things to ever happen.
“I know saying that comes from a place of privilege,” Imani explains, “but I realized I had to focus on what the dream is, not just prepare to focus for the dream.”
The songs are about his friendships, though they’re more emotionally open than just about love. Yes, that love is obvious throughout the first seven tracks that make up the first part of Ayllu, but take a song like “Frenemies,” wherein Imani sings, “I want to be just like you, you’re all the things I can’t be/when you fail I cheer softly.” That’s about a close friend of whom Imani says he has been jealous. Writing the song helped him identify and address those issues; the blatant honesty is refreshing and relatable. To put it simply, he’s growing while writing, and that ain’t nothing. The later parts of the song express joy and love, Imani notes, and the sacred nature of experiencing friendship.
“I think it was a process of putting down in form the things I’ve felt for a long time,” he says. “There were some cool discoveries aesthetically, with the sounds of the songs, but not about my feelings.”
Seems Imani already had those on lock. He wrote and recorded the bulk of Ayllu on his own at home, but also enlisted help from Santa Fe jazz weirdo Chris Jonas, singer Cara Trziz from Vermont, Los Angeles saxophonist Eilish Wilson and, maybe most importantly, New York City-based drummer Dimitri Buckler-Burtis. The pair met ages ago, in Santa Fe, and Buckler-Burtis returned to New Mexico to capture his drum tracks with producer Kabby Kabakoff at his Kabby Sound studio. According to Imani, Buckler-Burtis perfectly captured the pre-written drum elements, but added his own twists where possible. The next album will apparently be more of a collaboration.
“We’re writing,” Imani says plainly. “And the idea is to hit the road in September for a small regional tour.”
Before then, he says, he’ll take singing lessons, though given his vocal work on Allyu that seems unnecessary; it’s just part of his commitment to the band. He’s also practicing for hours a day and continually tightening his songwriting chops.
“There’s this really cool confluence of jazz harmony and a more complicated and theoretical [understanding of music],” he explains. “I just want to be part of that wave, smashing shit together. The record came out of my practicing a lot and these people in my life. These people are like family to me, I just want to make a whole suite about them.”
Hear some songs and pre-save Ayllu here.