Whether it was the 1990s downtempo boom or electronica’s push into the mainstream, jazz-tinted music has been emerging with an increasing rate. For those of us who have always had a keen ear, but not quite a fanatical heart, for jazz, it has been a mixed blessing. On one end of the spectrum has been the notch above elevator music with beats as authentic as a P. Diddy girl group. Then there is Nostalgia 77’s newest release, Everything under the sun . The group’s nearly flawless fusion of elements of hip-hop and electronica makes it sound like updating jazz for the next generation is easy. It isn’t, and it’s filled with pitfalls, including scorn from jazz purists displaying severity on par with the original Herbie Hancock fallout. Sure, musical dexterity plays a part, but Nostalgia 77 is able to slyly update the previous sound because of its deep love and understanding of jazz. And it shows by giving the album more than the typical cut-and-paste feel.
Tribal drums mark the entrance of Lizzy Parks as she sings on “Wildflower” with a sultry delivery that recalls Carole King with a touch of Ella Fitzgerald. The man behind the curtain is Oxford native Benedic Lamdin, and he knows just when pull the strings on the trumpets to accentuate Parks’s power. Aside from composing, he also took his first crack at writing the lyrics, which would fit in the mouth of Nina Simone as well as they do for Parks and Beth Rowley, who also contributes. “Little Step” harkens back more to the group’s early work with its lazy and light hip-hop drums underneath a Charles Mingus-like haunting horn blast. Nostalgia 77’s hip-hop origins are dampened on this latest release, which sacrifices some of the groovy and free-form energy they unraveled on previous work, though with the increased attention to vocal in terms of song structure, the earthy beats may be the element that had to be toned down.
Lamdin is still not quite ready to forfeit his free-form jazz workouts to conventional song structure. For instance, “Eastside” builds from snares to a subdued groove that threatens to break out, but is subdued by Parks’s poetic musings. Equally as talented as Parks is Rowley, who graces “Quiet Dawn” and “Steps to the Sun”. Parks brings the brassy bombastic lounge sound like that of Shirley Bassey, whereas the Peruvian songstress Rowley has a more breathy style. Her vocals flittering between spoken word and song give the minimalist “Quiet Dawn” the shot in the arm it needs for the new approach. This is not to say Lamdin’s mainly instrumental work was lacking, but his recent work is that of songs, not compositions.
The worst that can be said about the album is that it is too respectful of it predecessors. Lamdin had tempered down his hip-hop roots much like Madlib’s side project, Yesterday’s New Quintet. There doesn’t need to a single, per se, but something with a little more momentum and a harder groove to counteract the album slowing pace toward the end would be the ticket. Still, the album makes the next small step toward jazz’s constantly evolving fate. The jump is nothing compared to that of Miles Davis or Sun Ra’s work in comparison of traditional jazz, but even little baby steps can sound real good.