Joel Holmes. Courtesy of Frank Johannes.
Four-time Grammy-nominated jazz pianist Joel Holmes explores the world of electronic music with his first solo EP, Osmosis, out today, March 12. The four-track body of work, released via Toy Tonics, fuses live jazz elements with electronic music, thus creating a deep, soothing and sultry sound with Holmes’ goal of “bringing Blackness back into house music.”
The EP kicks off with “It Feels Good,” which offers warm, soulful and smokey beats designed for pure dance floor euphoria. “Playing With My Mind” brings the funk with groovy and upbeat melodies, while “Pose” is sonically diverse, layering enchanting vocals with playful piano riffs and deep house beats. Closing Osmosis is “Got To Survive” delivering smoldering vocals alongside uplifting and jubilant melodies. Indeed, Osmosis brings tons of sonic flavor as it effortlessly blends live jazz with electronic music.
This first solo EP from Holmes proves to be an impressive career step from a man who already boasts an illustrious career to date. The jazz pianist was the keyboardist in the Grammy award-winning band of legendary jazz artist Roy Hargrove, as well as the keyboardist for Detroit techno group Carl Craig’s Synthesizer Ensemble. The renowned artist has toured the world with Nnenna Freelon and other world-class musicians and hosts a jam in Berlin every month dubbed Urban Based Community, which brings musicians, vocal artists and rappers together in a creative space. Urban Based Community—which is known to fuse jazz, neo soul, house, hip hop and more—has even been attended by Erykah Badu’s band and Kamaal Williams.
Here, Holmes took the time to share with Forbes the inspiration behind Osmosis, his intention of bringing Blackness back into house music, how his extensive travels have influenced his sound and more.
Lisa Kocay: What was the inspiration behind your forthcoming EP Osmosis?
Joel Holmes: “My Osmosis EP was inspired by my life experiences in Berlin and this fresh direction of house music that I’ve been hearing over the last few years. Generations X, Y and Z are all here in Berlin. It’s a very interesting time musically, at least prior to the pandemic and hopefully after. This has all been inspiring—life. The key for me is converting these files of life into music, hence I got the idea for the song ‘Got to Survive’ coming at the time of the protests and a worldwide pandemic. So there is plenty to be inspired by. Over the last few years, I’ve been working on a particular blend mixing my jazzy neo soul vibe into dance music and other forms of electronic music. Also for the first time on this solo EP, my fans can hear me singing just a bit. I guess I was really inspired.”
Kocay: For the EP, you began experimenting with live jazz elements and electronic beats to create a smooth, deep sound with the intention of bringing Blackness back into house music. Can you elaborate more on that and why it’s important to you?
Holmes: “I began experimenting with live jazz elements and electronic beats to create a smooth, deep sound with the intention of creating timeless soulful classics. Sharing my heritage with the world and reconnecting with my people is a beautiful thing and very important to me. Who would not want to value that? If the right elements are there in the music, then my people are there. When it comes to the music, I try not to get in the way of my creative processes. It’s spiritual in that sense for me, so I am aiming for chakras and hearts as the music flows through me. House music is an evolving wheel coming from my roots, and I’m happy to see what I can contribute. My album is a true blend of downtempo groovy stuff to up-tempo broken beat and house music, so I hope you all enjoy the vibes.”
Kocay: Can you share any stories behind how some of the tracks on Osmosis were created?
Holmes: “My song ‘Playing With My Mind’ deals with the dynamics of dealing with tricky people and the games people play on our minds. So I made a hook after reflecting on an argument and decided to use a bit of humor. I understood back then even when writing the lyrics that one day, that scenario would be funny but relatable. I believe most people can relate to these lyrics.”
Kocay: How did you pick the name of the EP? What does Osmosis mean to you?
Holmes: “I can relate to the scientific definition of osmosis, and I feel simply that there is a parallel of my life moving as water, which has brought me to Berlin where I got hit by the electric scene and sound, started producing and fusing all of my elements—and the rest is history.”
Joel Homes was the keyboardist in the Grammy award-winning band of legendary jazz artist Roy … [+]
Kocay: You’ve lived in many countries throughout the world, such as Latin America, Poland and Ukraine. Has that influenced your music at all? If so, how?
Holmes: “I feel traveling consciously around the world is definitely an education that I wish all people can have. It is an education of the world, people, culture, etc. There is something special that comes out of learning about other cultures—native indigenous cultures and rhythms—and how they dance and move, all the way up to their modern-day music and the general lives of the people. I aimed to absorb it all. On the song ‘Beyond the Stars,’ a song written by Cody Currie and myself, one can hear my South American influences from Brazil and Peru. Certain elements become a part of me and can come out at any time. Sometimes in music, sometimes in other areas. Traveling and living in other countries is also educational and helpful for my live performances, as well. It is indeed important for me to know what people like. I also write music differently in each country. In certain cities, the vibe is very strong for composition, like in Lucca and the overall region of Tuscany, Italy. Germany is full of creative vibes, and Ukraine is like an open portal. I hear totally different things in my mind and the memories of those frequencies stay with me and definitely add depth, spirit and life to my mental processes and music in general. Somehow, it makes me a better person on and off the stage.”
Kocay: Prior to the pandemic, you created a jazz-dance world in Berlin dubbed Urban Base Community, which was a bi-monthly jam session in an underground location where top international expat musicians meetup. Can you talk about this project and how it later inspired your My Expansion band?
Holmes: “My Urban Base Jam stems from my Urban Base Community. My jam originally began as a rooftop/jam back in 2015 in Berlin. A couple of my friends came together, and we decided to work on neo soul [and] hip hop, and quickly we began fusing it with jazz. We decided to have an open house and play for the locals as we had an amazing view on the top terrace and good enough acoustics to get a cypher happening. This eventually turned into a weekly jam at a place known as the Green House. The sessions were full of Berlin’s top jazz and funk musicians, R&B and neo soul singers, rappers and instrumentalists of all sorts waiting in line to play. Then it grew so much that we had to move locations. The jam would focus on different themes over the years. We’ve been contributing to the culture of Berlin for six years now. It has been many years of jam sessions, concerts, art exhibitions and house dance classes, with thousands of people in attendance. The Urban Base Community includes many talented people in all areas of the arts, including dancers and visual artists. My band members all come out of my community jam as it was the coolest place for musicians to hang out on Wednesday nights in Berlin. The jams were a place where we would deal with live loops and improv using groovy jazz and all of the unique electronic elements and vibrations found here in Berlin. The vibe became a concept and it seemed to be spreading worldwide. My Expansion band worked on this concept focusing on neo soul , jazz, funk and house music over the years, and eventually the sophistication came in.”
Kocay: How did you initially get into making music, and how has that shaped the music you make today?
Holmes: “I’ve been playing the piano since I was 10-years-old. My father was a professional trumpet player in the Army’s Old Guard Fife and Drum Corp, which is the President’s band. So I was inspired through hearing him practice daily and his colleagues from time to time who were very high-calibre musicians. I was inspired by the musicians in church and by legends like Scott Joplin the King of Ragtime music, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum [and] Mccoy Tyner—just to name a few. My producing came much later. Actually, I had an awakening once on stage while performing with the Carl Craig Synthesizer Ensemble. I remember the music running through my bones. It was my first concert with them, and we were in Paris. From that moment, I have produced over 300 songs.”
Kocay: If you could go back in time to when you first started making music and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?
Holmes: “For producing, here is my advice to myself: ‘Finish what you start and learn to back up your files on an external hard drive.’ I’ve learned the hard way.”
Kocay: What are your plans for the future?
Holmes: “When it comes to music, to continue making music and releasing my music. I always enjoy performing, as well. I have some more releases on the Toy Tonics label to come and many other collaborations in the making, including a virtual reality project. I am here for the long run and hope to see many of you after this pandemic.”
Lisa Kocay is a journalist interested in music, food, wine, spirits, travel and architecture, and she covers those interests for ForbesLife. Full-time, she works as a