As a child prodigy, Jonathan “J.R.” Rotem started out wanting to be a musician and began to play the piano at an early age, and, with the support of his parents, went on to be schooled in the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. Up until then, J.R. was classically trained, but Berklee gave him a completely new set of tools to work with—jazz.
Combining the strict discipline of classical and the improvisations from jazz, J.R. was able to draw from both styles. Once the formal schooling was done, it was off to the San Francisco Bay area, where J.R. began to develop his style in the urban/pop music scene. Very shortly, a couple of tracks came out on Destiny’s Child’s Survivor album (Columbia, 2001).
“When that happened, I moved to Los Angeles,” J.R. says. While making his way down there, he was able to meet the right people and hooked up with Zack Katz as a manager. Connecting with Katz lead to dealings with G-Unit/Shady/Aftermath and producer placement for artists like 50 cent, Stat Quo, Lil’ Kim, Snoop Dogg and Fabolous. “Then, Rihanna’s ‘S.O.S’ hit went worldwide and all the pop doors opened up for me. I continued working with rappers like The Game and Rick Ross, but I also started regularly working with pop artists like Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, Natasha Bedingfield and so on.”
J.R. tries to make every song he works with “jazzy,” but due to his knowledge of harmony and music theory, most people tend to say he’s more on the musical side of producing.
“Sometimes, I must just do a club beat or a simple piano ballad, or something in-between, but I would say my foundation of jazz kind of comes out in anything that I do.” One of his main influences is jazz pianist McCoy Tyner, whose style was something out of left field for J.R. “The way he played the piano was like, ‘Whoa, I’ve never heard anything played like this.’”
Tyner also worked with the legendary sax god John Coltrane, another huge influence on J.R. “To me, John Coltrane fundamentally was so spiritual; the music was all about feeling. He had this advanced harmonic and technical side to him, so he would be so free. Anything he would play would just come out so pure. I look at music as a language, and he was like a Shakespeare of music. He had such a vocabulary; he could express himself in any way possible. He wasn’t limited to anything but really, really bring it out from his heart.”
As for how much of that is infused into his work, it’s safe to say that J.R.’s earlier works leaned more towards the elements of jazz; whereas, now it’s more of making it a common denominator, not letting the music go over people’s heads when producing an artist. He’ll use bits of jazz that are reminiscent of that, but still give it a more palatable feel.
I try to do it in a way that feels natural and organic, as opposed to, ‘Let me stick jazz down your throat.’
As for work ethic, that’s carried over from the Berklee days. He knows that production schedules and managing his time become just as important as the music itself.