For the better part of six years now, Thirsty Ear has documented the work of forward-thinking jazz artists like pianist Matthew Shipp in their quest to liberate the music from its stylistic confines by collaborating with similarly adventurous hip-hop and electronic artists. Over time, that vision has widened to the point of cross-pollination as new releases on the label are equally dedicated to Mike Ladd or DJ Spooky expanding their vocabularies with horns and pianos as they are to Shipp improvising over hip-hop beats. New York-based MC/producer Beans is no stranger to the label’s aesthetic, having collaborated with Shipp when still a member of the acclaimed avant-garde hip-hop collective Antipop Consortium. Although his former bandmates have maintained relatively low profiles since the Consortium’s demise, Beans has continued to develop his idiosyncratic style with a series of solo recordings—first for Warp, and now with his debut for Thirsty Ear. Only connects itself to the label’s mission by partnering Beans with what many consider to be avant-garde jazz’s preeminent rhythm section, bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake.
The story goes that Beans provided Parker and Drake with a series of rhythmic ideas, which the duo then recorded for Beans to electronically reconstitute into Only‘s ten tracks. It’s an intriguing concept, but one that ultimately collapses under the weight of its own postmodernity: a major factor in the Parker-Drake tandem’s allure is their uncanny ability to lock into a groove spun from the most abstract of origins, which has made for some of the swingingest avant-garde jazz in the music’s half-century existence. But it’s the way in which they mold those grooves out of freedom that accounts for much of the magic associated with them; here, removed from any sense of organic flow, Parker and Drake’s presence loses much—if not all—of its impact.
On some of the instrumental tracks, which comprise exactly half of the disc, Beans’ non-producer role is difficult to decipher beyond the occasional drum machine stab or synth wash. Conceivably he’s attempting to be an equal improvising partner with Parker and Drake via post-production techniques—after all, much press has been dedicated to his perceived status as the hip-hop equivalent of Ornette Coleman or Sun Ra—but the absence of real-time interaction renders that notion senseless. For example, “Only 20”, the disc’s lengthiest—and, unfortunately, most aimless—track at over nine minutes, finds Drake playing an in-the-pocket beat that’s more John Bonham than Ed Blackwell while Beans surrounds it with seemingly random passages of Parker’s bass playing. The shorter “Only 3” is much more effective, with Beans’ minimalist static adding ambience to a loose Parker ostinato that contains sufficient rhythmic essence to carry the track without a stated percussive beat.
The other five tracks that feature Beans’ vocals construct a similarly mixed bag. “Only 7” is a rather messy pastiche of sampled Drake drum fills, electronic beats that never coalesce, and a lackluster verse reminiscent of any handful of his previously recorded performances. “Only 4” and “Only 118” fare much better, with Beans offering verses more characteristic of his reputation as the premier hip-hop outsider, whether dissing “hairy-palmed narcissists” or concocting what could very well be the wittiest simile ever, “like two bald men fighting over a comb”. The penultimate “Only 56” is also a standout among the vocal tracks, even though Beans waits two minutes to finally jump in over Parker and Drake’s finger-popping nightclub vamp.
Because of Parker and Drake’s involvement, many listeners will make the mistake of trying to approach this as a jazz record, or at least a record with jazz-like tendencies; it’s neither, but like many previous attempts to mine similar territory, it’s also not the groundbreaking mash-up that it aspires to be. In many ways, Only suffers the same fate as Antipop Consortium vs. Matthew Shipp: namely, the absence of any real interaction between the jazz and hip-hop elements. Which is not to say that there aren’t some noteworthy instrumental hip-hop compositions contained within, but those looking for something more unilaterally profound will likely be disappointed.