Karriem Riggins is a musician who single-mindedly refuses to be single-minded. As his new album, Alone Together, will inform you, Riggins stands “right at the intersection of jazz and hip-hop”. He’s the son of a jazz musician, and he has extensive experience as a jazz drummer, working with people from all over the spectrum, including big names like vibraphonist Milt Jackson and bassist Ron Carter and traditionally-minded singers like Diana Krall. But he’s also played with Donald Byrd, who is famous for his 1970s albums which combined the explicitly accessible groove base of funk with the loose improvisation of jazz, and Roy Hargrove, a trumpeter who associated himself with the neo-soul of Erykah Badu and D’Angelo. Riggins is also well connected as a hip-hop producer, helping the Roots, Common, Talib Kweli, Slum Village and Slum Village member J Dilla in his solo work (Riggins’ label, Stone’s Throw, put up a podcast mix of Riggins’ hip-hop production work on their website that’s worth checking out). To top it off, Riggins played on the most recent Paul McCartney album. He moves easily among the elite in many worlds.
Alone Together is a 34-track album of instrumental beats. In interviews, Riggins has suggested he wanted the album to reflect the diversity of his listening, and it does. He runs through some ‘70s funk samples—“F_rd Jingle” sounds like it pulls a slowed-down guitar from Isaac Hayes’ Shaft soundtrack, and there’s a tasty disco concoction underlying “I Need Love”. He also likes African and Brazilian rhythms, using Hugh Masekala’s African-funk-jazz to provide vocals for “Boy Is Doin’ It Right” and looping Caetano Veloso. Some tracks lean more electronic, like “Up”, which rides slippery bits of synthesizer. Riggins even pulls in a harpsichord for one song.
Riggins likes to insert snippets speaking human voices into his beats, using these interjections to provide biographical details, comic relief, and self-promotion. He weaves in a hilariously pompous recording of Art Garfunkel talking in the studio, telling an engineer or producer what he believes the next step should be in the recording process: “Something like starting from the beginning feels like the right thing to do, because it seems to me to be tremendously respected.” There’s also a live shout-out Riggins received from a rapper he was backing up on drums (the rapper sounds like Common), and Riggins sneaks in a bit of an interview with a writer who tells us about Riggins’ accomplishments in both jazz and hip-hop.
Riggins ends his album with a tribute track to J Dilla, who passed away in 2006. Inevitably, since Dilla and Riggins worked together and Alone Together shares some formal similarities with Dilla’s Donuts, the albums will be compared. A track like “Summer Madness S.A.” from Alone Together, where Riggins takes a Brazilian funk track with a wonderfully melodic bass line and makes it hum and jump (or the way he plays around with Isaac Hayes’ “Walk on By”, giving it a stuttering heft and making it his personal puppet; check it out on Youtube), recalls the way Dilla took L.V. Johnson’s “I Don’t Really Care” and transformed it into the song “Airworks” from Donuts. Both producers manage to reconstitute and reorder extremely funky songs, seemingly doing little but somehow making everything more funky. But Riggins is his own man. He includes some of his own instrumentation in his beats (Donuts was mainly put together from samples since Dilla was bed-ridden at the time), and he relies less on recognizable funk and soul samples than Donuts, instead inserting more talking human voices.
Riggins segues smoothly from the start of an interview with Bob Moog, inventor of the Moog synthesizer, to a clattering, squeaking electronic beat, and then to a glistening rearrangement of the Moments’ “Next Time I See You”, from 1974. With another artist, the rapidly changing mélange of styles might seem disjointed, but Riggins’ talent for shape-shifting, his ability to play comfortably with both Common and Paul McCartney, carries over to Alone Together. Riggins is full of ideas, and he wants to share them.