Jacob Najor: Drummer With All the Right Grooves
At age forty-five, drummer Jacob Najor has more career accomplishments than most musicians have in their lifetime. A first-call drummer with a stellar reputation in myriad bands, studio recording, sessions and other artists’ projects, the San Diego native and Horizon Senior High grad is a busy man on all fronts of the local music scene and beyond.
Najor’s journey on drums commenced when he started banging around on older brother Zak Najor’s drum kit. “It felt good and I started to think I could do this,” he explained. “Then when I was in eleventh grade my high school added a pep band, which got me really inspired. It convinced me that drums were the only thing I wanted to do…I even got an A in the class,” he quipped. Although mostly self-taught, he was able to take advantage of Zak’s tutelage in the Najor household. “He was definitely a big influence in my development, especially when his band the Greyboy Allstars would rehearse in our garage…I would just soak it all in.” Zak’s current impressions are duly noted in recognition of his younger brother’s career successes. “The family is proud of all of Jake’s accomplishments. He has a singular focus and has come through many obstacles to get where he is.”
Najor’s early drum heroes definitely leaned toward the funk/soul side of things as he reflected back. “I could list a lot of names but certainly Andy Newmark (Sly & the Family Stone), Clyde Stubblefield (James Brown), David Garibaldi (Tower of Power), John Bonham (Led Zeppelin), and Idris Muhammad, whom I first heard with soul/jazz guitarist Grant Green. I had never heard that kind of drumming before; it blew my mind.”
Najor’s first band was called Disengage along with guitarist Nate Jarrell, whom he had met in the high school pep band. “We were sort of in the Christian rock circuit,” Najor said, “so we got to open for the group P.O.D once as well as playing gigs at SOMA before we eventually broke up.” Jarrell recalled fondly those early days playing with him. “From day one Jake has had such an incredible sense of time and groove combined with really great musical intuition. You always know that he’s going to play just the right thing for whatever he is doing to make it exactly what the music needs no matter the situation or style,” Jarrell concluded. Najor at that point began meeting and networking with other local musicians, which led to his joining Lamont, a keys, bass, drums trio that had ties to the fellow Christian Rock group Switchfoot as he recalled. “We were booked heavily for two years; we played almost all of the major venues in town including the Belly Up and 4th & B.”
While playing with Lamont Najor was spotted by Indie artist Moses Leroy at the then-popular local nightspot, Canes, in 1998. “He approached me and said he needed a drummer for his band. I was hungry for gigs at the time, and he seemed like a nice guy and the music was cool, so I joined his band.” After about a year with Leroy’s band Najor joined a newly formed band with keyboardist Robert Walters, who had just split from the Greyboy Allstars, called Robert Walters’ 20th Congress. “I had to get on that offer,” Najor recalled. “It was my first legit touring gig.”
In 2007 Najor decided to go for some auditions in Los Angeles and test the waters there. Through some work with the P-Funk band Weapon of Choice, he was able to network with others that have played with the hip-hop group Breakestra, ultimately getting a gig with them. “They would do hip-hop samples live through a 90-minute show medley,” he remembered. “We would literally play 20 seconds each of these samples with all live instruments, employing all different tempos and tones. It was kind of insane… I don’t know how I got through all that now that I think back about it,” he laughed.
The singer from Breakestra then recommended Najor for what would be his 2008 stint with the funk/hip-hop band Connie Price and the Keystones, a group that was backing up noted rapper Big Daddy Kane.
Additionally, they were the backup band for other golden era Hip-Hop artists including the Beatnuts, Slick Rick, and Redman to name a few. “I jumped into that for about a year,” he noted., “It was different but exciting for me to back some of these legends in that genre,” he reminisced.
“What an amazing performer Big Daddy Kane was. He wouldn’t just stand there and rap, but instead it was like a whole revue with costume and choreography. We got to travel, too, as we played some gigs in New York and Japan…it was great.”
In 2014, Najor got to record with noted saxophonist/vocalist Mindi Abair on her album Wild Heart. “I got the call through my friend, trumpeter Todd Simon, who is based in L.A. and was producing her record. I did all my tracks for her in one day,” he said. “I loved working with her. She was great, really nice.” Another two gigs that year through Simon’s recommendation was a recording session and follow up gigs with the rock band TV on the Radio as well as a recording session with the Australian electronic dance music group Empire of the Sun.
NOTABLE LOCAL BAND HISTORY
In 2007, Najor enjoyed a six-month run with Greyboy Allstars co-founder, saxophonist Karl Denson, whose credits also include Lenny Kravitz and the Rolling Stones. “He had let his drummer go at the time, so it was perfect timing,” Najor said. “We had a residency at Winstons locally in addition to traveling to gigs all over the country too.”
Najor enjoyed a five-year stint from 2009-2014 with the Styletones, an eight-piece funk/soul group that included keyboardist Ben Moore and frontman Stevie Harris. “That was a powerhouse group. We had a lengthy residency at Bar Pink in North Park,” Najor stated, “and in 2013 we were heard on TV during a 60-second Super Bowl Sunday commercial in a Got Milk’ ad, performing the Sam & Dave classic ‘Hold On! I’m Comin’.’”
Between 2014-2019 Najor worked with musical artists from the Redwoods Music label, which gave him the opportunity to drum for many high profile local artists, including the Midnight Pine, Birdy Bardot, Rebecca Jade, and Cardinal Moon. Guitarist Ian Owen was on board with Najor in Jade’s group. “Without question, playing with Jake made me a better musician,” Owen said. “He brings out the best in whomever he plays with.”
Singer/songwriter Chloe Lou added her plaudits working with Najor in her band Chloe Lou & the Liddells. “Jake is one of the best drummers I know. He is a great human and wonderful to work with!”
Speaking of drummers, fellow local drummer Nathan Hubbard weighed in with his thoughts about Najor’s drum work. “Jake Najor has a beautiful rhythm pocket and is deeply involved with bettering his craft, whether it’s his sound or his historical knowledge… he’s also a great lunch buddy and a good hang.”
In 2017, Najor was hired by the Sure Fire Soul Ensemble, a nine-piece soul/jazz outfit headed by keyboardist Tim Felten. “No drummer has inspired me and pushed me to play or write at my best like Jake Najor has,” Felten stated. “On stage or in the studio, he is constantly finding ways to push the music to the next level…San Diego is lucky to have him here,” he concluded. Najor added, “I’ve played on two of their albums—great project and good friends, although we don’t play live that often but it’s a fun gig when we do.”
One of the more recent artists Najor has worked with has been singer/songwriter/guitarist Heather Nation. “We’ve performed together dozens of times as he’s become a part of my musical family for sure,” Nation said. “You can’t let his off-stage coy demeanor fool you. As soon as he gets up there on the drums it’s straight energy, funk, and in-the-pocket goodness. It’s been a joy and a blessing getting to know Jake both musically and personally.”
Bassist Jodie Hill, who has worked with Najor in different local musical settings, chimed in singing his praises. “He’s the funkiest drummer in town and well versed in all styles of music,” Hill said. “He’s one of my favorite drummers to play with.” Najor has also been consistently hired by the long-standing working cover band I-90. “It’s a fun gig,” Najor said, “I can let loose a bit, mostly straight-ahead classic rock tunes…it’s an entertaining group where the crowd really has a good time.”
THE MOMENT OF TRUTH ARRIVES
Concurrently, in 2017, Najor decided to form his own group under his own name, Jake Najor and the Moment of Truth. It was an opportunity for him to form his own band as he described, “Originally I wanted it to be a drum break-oriented group [short segments of drum accompaniment used as sample loops], but then I thought what if I put some music on top of it, so I called in some musician friends and let them do their thing.” The nucleus of the group featured Felten on keys; Nick Costa, guitar; Matt LaBarber, bass; and Andy Geib, trombone.
LaBarber reflected back on his times playing with Najor. “Playing with Jake was always so much fun because even if it was a song we had played a hundred times, it was always just a little bit or a lot different. He has such a great sense of timing that the variations on the beats and vibe of a song are just endless with him. He is fearless and not afraid to take risks and push the boundaries rhythmically. His fearlessness gave me courage to try new ideas and approaches that I would have been afraid to try in other situations.”
Having a project under his own name led to the group recording the album titled In the Cut, which features some very funky and highly syncopated original grooves in the old-school tradition of James Brown and Tower of Power. “We did two pressings of vinyl and it’s done okay,” Najor stated. “It’s on all the streaming platforms. I’m happy with it and we got some airplay, although nothing major.” A single came out of it, titled “High Costa Living,” which featured Los Angeles DJ and musician Mixmaster Wolf on vocals. “I gave him the tune title as a theme and he proceeded to create the lyrics for it,” Najor recalled.
In July of 2021 Najor was rushed to the emergency room at Sharp Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa. “I was diagnosed with pancreatitis in addition to having gallstones,” he recounted, “and I went into sepsis, which is very serious. They admitted me into the ICU,” he continued. “I could barely sleep; I had tubes going in and out of me and I was taking every type of antibiotic. I was on the brink of death. Thank God I’ve recovered fully.” Najor feels he’s had a second chance at life and has been going to the gym on a regular basis. “I’m feeling a lot better and I’m enjoying drumming a lot more now with renewed energy…I’m diggin’ it and having a lot more fun than I’ve had in a long time,” he beamed.
A NEW LOVE
“It’s one of those things that when you’re not looking for someone that someone comes into your life unexpectedly,” Najor divulged. That’s the moment he met Sabrina Paul in 2019. “It’s been great, she’s been such a light in my life. She was with me almost every day when I was in the hospital,” he exuded. “We’ve now moved in together with her son, and we also have a dog named Rocky Wrinkles. Sabrina has just been so supportive. She’s an amazing girlfriend.”
TUESDAYS WITH THE ROMEOS
Over the past year Najor has been a regular attendee with a group of other men, some musicians, some not, who meet every Tuesday informally for breakfast under the moniker the Romeos. “I’m really enjoying the company and the friendship while having breakfast and shooting the breeze with the other guys,” he said. “It’s not only about music and gigs but life in general. The kinship is nice and the support for each other overall is there, too, especially these days with so many people living in their own bubble,” he concluded.
One of the breakfast regulars is blues guitarist Robin Henkel, who uses Najor on occasion as a drummer for his full band gigs. “I have used many drummers on gigs and for recordings over the last 30 years,” Henkel said. “What I really like about Jake is that he is very solid and steady. I am constantly impressed with all the people that want to include him in their performances and projects…but that’s no surprise.”
Another Romeos regular, drummer Ric Lee, recalled seeing Najor early on. “I met Jake years back when he was playing drums for Billy Thompson. I was really impressed with his masterful command of the funky grooves at such a young age! The more I watched him play over the years, the more I could see him progressing as a first call, versatile drummer! As our friendship has grown, I feel lucky to be his friend…he has a bright future.”
“I never would have dreamed the things I’ve accomplished so far, remembering back to the time I started, when all I wanted was to just play that first gig….and now at this juncture I’m just happy to always be working. If you want to be working consistently you can’t be too choosy about your gigs,” he continued. “The music is important, but you have to like the people around you to make it last. I like to have a balance among cover band gigs, original projects, and recording—original projects to satisfy my creative side and recordings for people to hear what we sound like, which can get you work.” Bassist Harley Magsino, who has worked with Najor in the studio and on many bandstands, leaves us with these closing words: “Jake is an awesome drummer, but, most important, he is an outstanding musician. He plays music for the music and people love it… and I love that about him!”