For most of his 76 years, from his ’60s-era jazz sideman days to his current elder statesman status, Roy Ayers has dedicated himself to spreading joy. The vibraphonist and songwriter’s discography – including such beloved funk, soul and disco hits like ‘Love Will Bring Us Back Together’ and ‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine’ – feels like a decades-long effort to get his fans to smile, dance and live life to the fullest. Hell, even a break-up song like 1977’s ‘Running Away,’ coming from Ayers, feels euphoric. He’s still a powerhouse live performer, too, bursting with charisma and chops, and is blessed with levels of credibility and cool that artists a quarter his age would die for.
Ayers’s long-running residencies at London venues like Ronnie Scott’s and The Jazz Cafe have made him a London institution since the ’80s, but what’s remarkable is that his mystically soulful approach to songwriting has seen him remain a pivotal figure in modern music. He’s a deep influence on everyone from Pharrell to A Tribe Called Quest to the whole neo-soul movement.
This summer, Ayers headlines two of the coolest festival bills on the planet: Soundwave Festival in Tisno, Croatia, and Sunfall in London, where he sits above acolytes as varied as Gilles Peterson, Horse Meat Disco, Theo Parrish and more.
Time Out recently caught him at an intimate rooftop gig in Brooklyn, and the man’s still got it: his vibes work is as fluid and dynamic as ever, and his voice, imbued with a just a hint of grit, still rings clear. It’s that mellifluous voice, full of exuberance, that greets us on the phone when we give Ayers a call: ‘I just want to keep playing till I drop dead,’ he tells us right off the bat. ‘But that won’t be for a long time!’
You started off as a jazz guy, but unlike some of your muso contemporaries, you seemed to welcome dance music – funk, disco, even house – with open arms.
‘Oh yeah. It came very natural for me. All different forms of music affect me in different ways, and I think I have the versatility that allows me to play in lots of different styles. It’s wonderful.’
‘Everybody Loves the Sunshine’ alone has been sampled 117 times, according to Whosampled.com. What are your feelings towards sampling?
'I’ve been sampled so much by rap artists, I can’t believe it! And I think it’s great – it gives young people the chance to hear me.’
Do you think those younger fans have a full grasp of the scope of your career?
‘Yeah, I do. I mean, I’m 76 years old and I’m still vibrant and still kicking – so they better know about me! [laughs].’
Do you prefer big festivals like Soundwave or playing intimate club dates?
‘I prefer everything! I love big crowds, and I love small crowds. I always get a good feeling from any kind of crowd – I love the energy they give me. But mostly, I just love the excitement of playing.’
Soundwave Festival. Dan Medhurst
Even though you’re from the States, you’re something of a staple on the London gig scene. What is it about London that keeps you coming back?
‘London is just one of my favourite cities in the world. People are so enthusiastic there. Playing there, it’s what we call a stupid gig – people are completely insane, you know? They’re all like “Aaaahhhhh!” They go crazy!’
Touring obviously keeps you busy, but are there plans for any new releases?
‘Yeah! I was just talking to the record label, and they want me to put something out. So I started thinking about pain as a theme. There are all different kinds of pain: There’s lovers’ pain, there’s physical pain, there’s frustration… all kinds of pain.’
Knowing you, you’ll find a way to make pain seem buoyant.
‘You know, you may be right – and maybe I’ll get a smash hit out of it!’