The intersection between jazz and hip-hop is one fraught with the pressures of achieving balance. Massive overproduction can lessen the purity of the jazz sounds, while overemphasizing the jazz side can lead to loss of interest from anyone looking for a hip-hop CD. The mere presence of an emcee rapping over live instrumentation of any sort, much less jazz, severely compromises what the instrumentalists involved can do—if they don’t establish some sort of groove, some kind of steady beat, the emcee is going to fall on his face trying to keep up with things like meter changes and oddly-placed syncopations.
The Crown City Rockers are one of the few bands that have managed to find that balance, achieving such success by adding one more ingredient to the jazz/hip-hop mix: funk. Adding funk to the mix allows the band to find a groove and stick with it, as jazz improvisation can occur behind a rapping emcee as long as the backbeat sticks. The result is that the Crown City Rockers are one of the only successful jazz/rap hybrids making music today.
Plate Fork Knife Spoon, then, is Crown City Rockers without the emcee. Max MacVeety holds down the drums, Kat Ouano plays the keyboards, and Ethan Parsonage a.k.a. Headnodic pulls double duty, playing bass and taking on the production. Without vocalist Raashan Ahmad, the three become a funk-jazz trio with the potential of removing hip-hop entirely from the equation. Indeed, Plate Fork Knife Spoon’s self-titled debut is a snapshot of a band freed, a band finally allowed to experiment with things that would be outright impossible with someone trying to rap over the top. Even so, they know their audience, and they reign themselves in enough to be appealing even to those with a preprogrammed disdain for instrumental jazz and funk.
In fact, the album is structured in a way that calls directly to the Crown City Rockers audience. Plate Fork Knife Spoon opens with “D M@#$%er F@#$%er D”, a hard-driving tune with the type of killer groove that most emcees would kill to rhyme over. Eric Krasno of Soulive provides guitars that alternate between distorted funkadelic licks and jazzy runs up and down the fretboard, yet none of it feels inaccessible in any way. As a matter of fact, the first few tracks follow this general formula, as if they’re still making music for someone to rhyme over. “Double Dribble” is dominated by bass but always returns to earth with a repeated keyboard motif, while “Down in It” expresses itself with a smooth, film-noir feel.
As Plate Fork Knife Spoon progresses, however, it’s as if the band gets more comfortable playing without the crutch of a vocalist. “Point” retains some of the downright funkiness of the earlier tracks, but unexpected rhythm changes combine with keyboards that create their own lead lines to create something that functions much better on its own than it would with vocals. The lovely “Oyayi” forgoes drums altogether—it’s simply a short, quiet jam on a Rhodes with gentle bass in the background. The latter, more experimental half of the album ultimately culminates with “The Kraken”, a sprawling, seven minute plus jazz epic every bit as tremendous as the monstrous squid of its namesake, alternating from thick beats to none at all, piling on the delay and featuring some gorgeous interplay between Ouano’s keys and guest David Boyce’s saxophones. It’s a fantastic piece that finalizes the transition from jazz-funk hip-hop to straight-up jazz with a hint of the funk left over.
After the post-“Kraken” cool-down of “Charles River”, Plate Knife Fork Spoon rewards the listeners who stuck with the album long enough to give it a chance with “Wonder”, which basically reunites Crown City Rockers by featuring Ahmad, who pulls off a smooth, fun guest rap, evoking thoughts of Q-Tip with a slightly jazzier bent. Really, though, anyone who’s sat through this much of the album won’t need the promise of such candy at the end to make it through—as it turns out, Plate Fork Knife Spoon does just fine on its own, as something of a Jazz for Dummies workout. They stay true to their roots, but make the end result accessible enough that damn near anyone can listen to it and be swept away in the groove.