By Blake Gillespie July 20, 2022
French composer and arranger Janko Nilovic lives as if his best work is still ahead of him. At 80, Nilovic has no intention of retiring. He has lost neither his joy nor his passion for songwriting, although he has recorded over 30 albums since the late 1960s that effortlessly blend soul, jazz, funk, psychedelia and classical. But his most famous work falls into the genre commonly referred to as “library music” – music that might be licensed for use in radio, television and film. Later, library music became essential to the development of hip-hop; Nilovic’s work has been sampled nearly 60 times, and he earned a Grammy nomination for No ID’s use of one of his tracks in Jay Z’s 2009 song “DOA (Death of Autotune) “. Dr. Dre sampled Nilovic’s “Underground Session” for a beat on his 2015 album Comptonand excerpts of his work have appeared in songs by The Alchemist and Freddie Gibbs, Yr Old Droog, The Beatnuts, Joey Bada$$ and Schoolboy Q. “My fans always wonder how an 80 year old man is able to write current and modern songs that are so different,” says Nilovic.
Raised in Turkey by parents of Montenegrin and Greek descent, Janko Nilovic was drawn to music from an early age. He learned the traditional ways in his early teens, but proudly says, “I hated school.”
“[I was] almost exclusively interested in music,” he continues. “I was already playing bebop at the age of 15 in 1956. A year later, I was offered a place as a pianist in a jazz club.” For Nilovic, music was the only thing worth studying, and a Fats Domino record given to him by a friend changed his life. “I discovered songs like ‘Blueberry Hill’ and immediately picked up the sheet music and started singing almost all of his songs,” he said. “Rhythm and blues started to sink into my head.” He started playing the piano in a jazz band when he was just 16 – the other members of the group were between their 30s and 50s – working through a repertoire that included the jazz of Charlie Parker and Duke Ellington , the Latin sounds of Perez Prado and even Argentinian tangos.
In 1960, Nilovic left Turkey for Paris, where his perseverance and passion helped him find the courage to approach the club’s musicians and ask for work. He struggled for years until in 1969 a library music publisher named André Farry heard his arrangements for French singer Davy Jones (not the Monkees’) and signed Nilovic to his publisher Éditions Montparnasse 2000 – or MP 2000 for short.
Over the course of his 10 contract albums, Nilovic’s eclecticism is unleashed. His first six records for MP 2000 bear names like Psychic impressions, pop printsand Supra-pop impressionsand beautifully showcase Nilovic’s eclecticism. pop prints opens with an orchestral concerto called “Concerto Pour Piano Compressé”, which sounds like something you might hear score an old black and white movie, until Nilovic flips the concerto on its head to create a bebop cover . “The director left me completely free to choose things on each record,” he says. “I had total freedom. That’s why I composed in many styles of music. He remembers coming home from work one day listening to Europe 1 radio when the first arrangement of Psychic impressions came on the air. He was so shocked he had to stop. It was followed by the second track on the album, then the third. The station ended up playing the entire album as Nilovic cried with joy.
It was a rare moment of commercial recognition. Because Nilovic’s music was essentially anonymous—such is the nature of library music—he never achieved mainstream success. But recording under a host of aliases – Andy Loore, Johnny Montevideo and Mad Unity among them – he quietly revolutionized the genre with his stylistic mash-ups. his album funky tramrecorded under the Mad Unity moniker, eventually became a holy grail for crate diggers looking for that rare 70s French groove.
Hip-hop helped boost his notoriety, as did a series of re-releases and a 2020 collaboration with Russian funk band The Soul Surfers, maze of sounds, eventually got Nilovic’s name off the library shelves and into record stores. Recorded at CBE, an analog studio in Paris with a rich history of library recordings, maze of sounds goes from the jazz funk piano of Ramsey Lewis on “Wavy” to the Nigerian afro-boogie on the aptly titled “Tha Boogee”.
Soul Surfers member Igor Zhukovsky recalls being impressed with Nilovic’s freedom and stamina in the studio. The band are in their late twenties to early thirties, but have often struggled to keep up with the octogenarian. “He told me that the [the] sessions, he felt as young as us,” Zhukovsky says. And there are still no signs of slowing down for Janko. He has a second album with The Soul Surfers in progress, a jazz trio record, a groove jazz band record and a crooners tribute called American singers. “As you can see, only death will stop me,” he said. Added: “As late as possible!”