The new future

I heard the future here and now — let’s call it the present! — in the form of trumpeter Igmar Thomas & The Cypher with MC Raydar Ellis the other night at a public party produced by Revive Da Live, which promotes the jazz-hip/hop mashup in realtime performances, and I was surprised — not bad at all, in fact it was a lot of fun.

The gig was at Crash Mansionan underground joint on Manhattan’s newly chic Bowery. The crowd was young, 20-somethings dressed for leisure more like students and the nascent working class than bond traders. The Cypher opened for better known rappers Guru of Jazzmatazz and Superproducer Solar, with assists from star trumpeter Roy Hargrove. The music was all made by humans in the moment, no samples or loops far as I could tell, but both acts were steeped in rap and hip-hop, the inescapable pop vernacular so many jazzbos feel ideologically compelled to embrace yet just can’t. I know whereof I speak, as I’ve been among them. Do I now see (hear?) the light?

The problems rap & hip-hop pose for those who privilege jazz styles from Jelly Roll and Pops through Duke, Count, swing and standards to bebop, modal jazz and 21st century global improvisation include the preponderance of mechanized sound, spoken word over melodic content, static harmony and unbending rhythms. Though rap & hip-hop emerge from the same multi-culti, helter-skelter cityscapes that have given rise to great black music since New Orleans circa 1917, rappers and hip-hop or acid jazz bands — according to many a “serious” jazz critic — abjure the advances jazz musicians over the decades have discovered and asserted in pursuit of transcendent glory, restricting their own efforts to tuneless chants over leaden beats that seldom go anywhere. And I’m characterizing the music here, not sending up the diverse poses and affectations rap and hip-hop artists aim at their hardcore audiences rather than produce for the comfortable consumption of mainstream types or even boomer hipsters. 

Such considerations fell away when goofy, gangly (don’t be deceived: also smart and articulate) Raydar Ellis grabbed the mike a little after 10 pm on a Monday night to introduce the evening in the guise of “Walter Ego”, then retreated into the musical ensemble, joining rather than fronting it. He spent the set slipping around the instrumentalists, freestyling funny, self-consciously theatrical and frequenlty insightful metrical rhymed commentary. Meanwhile Igmar Thomas, a small fellow whose face was obscured by his trumpet and billed baseball cap, eked out slippery, decadent lines in sync with tenor saxophonist James Casey, who boasted a strong, urgent but unworried tone. Both hornmen stretched out in persuasive solos, employing good chops in the service of connecting and advancing the music rather than merely showing off or embellishing a riff.

Electric bassist Nate Jones provided bouncy, grooving ostinatos a la Michael Henderson with mid ‘70s Miles Davis. Keyboardist Yuki Hirano was willing to be simple, supportive, and wait for the right break in which to dazzle, Drummer Justin Brown  — who has been working with ex-Miles alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett — pushed time aggressively, splintering the beat to avoid repeat patterns, hitting hard to prod the solos and keep the motor running. What made it work was that these individuals all flashed their idiosyncracies but played well together, same as in any good jazz band. They were also self-deprecating, rather than outright boastful, though Raydar rightfully noted, with different shades of attitude each time, “New York is in the house!”
Guru, long ago of Gang Starr and since 1993 the power behind the early jazz-meets-hip-hop recordings Jazzmatazz, was not so modest heralding his new mixtape Back to the Future as “in stores now!” — this information became a running ad through the rap-heavy stand. Though keyboardist Marc Cary, often an enlivening presence, was at the center of the rockin’ rhythm section, and Hargrove stepped out of the wings frequently to shoot hot brass arrows through the thick mix, the overall effect was less appealing to me. Too exhortatory, not as playful as Thomas and The Cypher, Hargrove’s intensity hardly made a dent on the cheer-leading-like surface of the action and no, this music didn’t move deftly or groove compellingly — more like it trudged in place. 

Any such perceived failure might fairly be accounted for by inherent biases of my personal taste, and related to defensible, self-determined distinctions between two groups that are both trying to revive da live — redesign music that was initially concocted virtually as collages b
y deejays with turntables and samplers so that it pulses with the deep breath and coursing blood of people interacting with each other through their instruments. 

That format may be old school, but it’s still good school, leading who knows where? Not only back to the past. Admittedly, it’s not your daddy’s jazz or mine (Robert E. Mandel was more of a Frank Loesser guy, actually), and maybe not as far out as is presumed of jazz-beyond-jazz, but the sound was fresh and something my teenage daughter might relate to, which is, you know, how it oughta be.
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  1. Charles says

    Nice to see some hip-hop in in the beyond, though it is worth noting that there is in fact a lot of hip-hop that is much more beyond, Mathew Shipp and his work with the very out, and quite aptly named rappers, Anti-Pop Consortium springs to mind, but there are lots of others.
    We need to get away from our prejudice against samplers and drum machines in the same way that certain jazz spokespeople can’t understand wah-wah pedals. It is still a real live person pushing those buttons. There is a distinction between looping done well and done poorly and not unlike jazz, those that do it in the most bland and repetitive nature seem to get on the radio a lot more often. Those who do it well maintain a strong connection not just to the surface qualities of jazz via samples of hard bop tunes, but in the aesthetics of improvisation and freedom by radically refiguring the original sources like collage artist might do (which can be paired with similar aesthetics in improvised freestyle rapping, DJ scratching, etc. etc.)
    Not only did hip-hop emerge from “the same multi-culti, helter-skelter cityscapes,” (brilliant way to put it!) it emerged from the same tradition that nourishes jazz. All these rappers worship Gil Scott Heron and the Last Poets, who worshiped Coltrane in the same way as those interested in jazz beyond jazz do.
    At any rate, I enjoyed this post and wish I would have been there.
    HM: Thanks for the wisdom of this note, Charles — I don’t mean to tag samplers, drum machines or turntables as the culprits in rendering new music inoperable for many listeners (even those who’ve grasped the wah-wah), just citing some of the superficial turnoffs (same as the wah-wah was. I still have jazz associates who think electric gtr *without” the wah-wah is a subversion of the jazz aesthetic!, excepting Barney Kessell and Wes Montgomery,) You’re absolutely right that it’s the skill of the manipulator and sensibility of collaboration which makes the difference, which gives the music it’s valued elements, whatever style.
    Incidentally, I was lucky to hear the Last Poets and Gil Scott on a double bill produced by the Colgate Black Student Union in 1971. On that same daytrip from Syracuse U, where I went to school, I met and spent some time with Andrew Hill, which led to a long acquaintance and eventual friendship. That was a great day — the Poets were baaaad.