Charismatic lead singer with the dance music group Faithless
Maxi Jazz, who has died aged 65, was a founder member of the British band Faithless. During the late 1990s and early 2000s they became one of the biggest names in electronic dance music, creating globally popular rave compositions such as Insomnia, God Is a DJ and We Come 1.
The group’s charismatic singer and lyricist, Jazz was a sinewy, almost beatific presence on stage, able to hold huge crowds in the palm of his hand just with the gaze of his eye or by jumping on the spot with a finger in the air.
As fellow Faithless founder Sister Bliss acknowledged, he also “gave proper meaning and a message” to the trance-like music she laid down in their core years between 1995 and 2011. In contrast to some vocal offerings associated with dance culture, Jazz’s words frequently exhibited a social consciousness that stimulated the mind as well as the body.
He was born Maxwell Fraser in Hackney, north London, but was brought up by his Jamaican parents, Harold and Ivet, in south London, attending Selhurst high school and living for most of his life in the Thornton Heath, Brixton and West Norwood areas. He took on his stage name as a DJ in London clubs in his 20s, also working on pirate radio stations such as LWR and supplementing his income with a variety of jobs, including for BT and as a council parks gardener.
In 1984 he set up Soul Food Cafe, a Brixton-based hip-hop collective, extracting sounds from his vast vinyl collection over which promising young London rappers would be commissioned to provide vocals. “I’d give them a cassette of beats and I’d say ‘Go and write some words … ,” he remembered. “[But] three months later you haven’t seen this kid, and either his girlfriend’s pregnant or he’s gonna have to go to court, or some bollocks is going on, and he hasn’t written the lyrics. So it was like: ‘If I don’t start writing some lyrics [myself] here, I’m never going to get anywhere’, and that’s why I started writing words.”
With Jazz now upfront, Soul Food Cafe released three EPs on his own Namu Records label, touring with big acts such as Jamiroquai and Soul II Soul. But their success was limited and they disbanded in the mid-90s, paving the way for Jazz, by then in his late 30s, to form Faithless with fellow Londoners Sister Bliss (Ayalah Bentovim), Rollo (Rowland Armstrong) and Jamie Catto (who remained with the group until 1999) – all around 10 years his junior.
With Bliss providing the melodies and Rollo the remixes and production, Jazz came up with lyrics that often hit poetic heights. “I usually started writing at night, and most of the words that came out to begin with would be rubbish – stuff you wouldn’t even show your mum,” he said. “But then it would stop coming from your head and begin to appear from your heart, and that’s when it got good.”
The first Faithless album, Reverence, released in 1996, included the singles Salva Mea (with guest vocals from Dido, sister of Rollo) as well as Insomnia. Both received relentless play on the Ibiza rave scene and subsequently sold more than 1m copies each in the UK, instantly putting the band in the vanguard of an electronic dance music craze. Insomnia reached No 3 on the singles chart and shot to popularity almost everywhere in mainland Europe, topping the charts in Finland, Norway and Switzerland.
Touring for more than a year afterwards, Faithless returned to make their second album, Sunday 8PM (1998), which contained God Is a DJ, a celebration of the semi-religious healing power of the dance floor. By now a major force in club culture around the world – as well as on the wider music scene – they followed up in 2001 with their third album, Outrospective, featuring the UK No 3 single We Come 1, with Jazz’s memorable opening lines: “All the subtle flavours of my life have become/Bitter seeds and poisoned leaves without you”. Their relentless live commitments included a performance on the pyramid stage at Glastonbury in 2002, followed by sprawling global tours after the release of their fourth album, No Roots (2004), and then a greatest hits compilation in 2005, both of which reached No 1 in Britain.
Jazz enjoyed the live experience – “I find studios difficult but performing easy,” he said. But by 2006 he was close to burnout and, with Bliss and Rollo having recently had children, the group decided to press the pause button after the fifth studio album, To All New Arrivals (2006).
Following a four-year hiatus Faithless’s next album, The Dance, made it to No 2 in the UK in 2010, pipped to the No 1 spot by the Rolling Stones. There was another headline appearance at Glastonbury that year, along with stadium gigs across Europe, before Jazz made a final showing at the Brixton Academy in 2011 that was beamed live to cinemas across Europe. Bliss and Rollo continued as Faithless 2.0, and although Jazz briefly rejoined them for live performances in 2015 and 2016, they have remained a two-person outfit (with guests) ever since.
After Faithless, Jazz set up his own more traditional band, the E-Type Boys, playing a mixture of self-penned blues, funk, soul, jazz and reggae compositions that showcased his hitherto hidden virtuosity on the guitar. They toured widely, including with UB40.
Unassuming, unfailingly polite and an entertainingly enthusiastic talker, Jazz had a peaceable, friendly nature that was guided by a long held interest in Buddhism, making him a well-loved figure in the music business and beyond.
Having been interested in cars since childhood, in the late 90s he gained a licence that allowed him to use his new-found wealth to compete in various touring car events. “Most of the racing I did was against professional drivers, so you’ve got no chance – but it was so satisfying,” he said. “I’ve finished 14th and have been punching the air.” A fan of Crystal Palace football club, in 2012 he was appointed an associate director at Selhurst Park, where he was an affable and knowledgeable presence in the boardroom on match days.
In later years he often spent part of the British winter in Jamaica, where he had a small studio in a home he had built for his retired parents before they died.
He is survived by his brother Mark.
Maxi Jazz (Maxwell Alexander Fraser) musician, born 14 June 1957; died 24 December 2022