Curated by Ropeadope founder Andy Hurwitz and Grammy-winning producer Aaron “Ace” Levinson, this third experiment in a series is like Live Aid for underappreciated American music hotspots. Their goal from the beginning was to gather musicians from all walks of life but a common hometown and lock them in a room full of ganja and the finest recording equipment. Then they’d wait ‘til an album came out, something that speaks all languages and prefers none, something that captures the unadulterated spirit of their city… or until all the kush was blazed and the musicians floated out the window. Experiments have risks, you know.
Andy and Ace first asserted their efforts in 2001 to shed lights on the City Of Brotherly Love. There, ?uestlove invited Christian McBride, Uri Caine, and a few friends over for some extended funk jams. 2003 was the Motor City’s turn, providing a fine fusion of Detroit’s techno and hip-hop scenes with Carl Craig and Karriem Riggins filtering a who’s who of soul and jazz legends to their ends. That must have satisfied the Ropeadope itch for a while, ‘cause it’s been four years between installments. If you enjoyed the first two, the wait was more than worth it.
Some things are a little different this time around. Instead of pooling the culture of an entire metropolis into a workable jam band aesthetic, the Harlem Experiment (obviously) focuses on one of the most storied neighborhoods in America’s greatest city. Furthermore, the line-up for the Harlem house band is more solid than ever before, featuring former David Bowie guitarist Carlos Alomar, Latin jazz drummer Steve Berrios, Tito Puente bassist Rubin Rodriguez, trumpeter Steve Bernstein (who also took over the arranging duties), and everyman keyboardist Eddie Martinez. Of course, anyone with the right address and spare time was free to stop by.
Also unlike the previous projects, the Harlem Experiment is a hosted event. Local DJ Mums does the job well, under the loose guise that the album exists in the world of a mocking bird perched by a kitchen window for 100 years. Mums’ nostalgic musings and spoken word paints a humanistic narrative of growing up and learning how to live in a majestic hood that spills over with righteous history. Pairing that with the comfortable house band results in this album clearly being the most cohesive and coherent work the series has yet to produce.
The Harlem rendition of “Rigor Mortis” is funkier than a bag of gym socks and more silky rich than Cameo could have made it with a decade of fine-tuning. Cab Calloway’s immortal “Reefer Man” is here presented with a Latin cha-cha swing under bluesman Taj Mahal, who suits the context perfectly with his raspy, gravely voice aptly emoting the mania necessary to pull it off. “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen”, originally an Andrews Sisters minor hit, adds a little Yiddish vibe to the swinging jazz affair as props to one of Harlem’s biggest demographics, while hip-hop and light electronica are represented elsewhere. And yet, no matter how far out there those tracks may be, this experiment sounds as unified and harmonious as a Dap-Kings record. Even the original contributions—the grimy rap based “One For Jackie” by the well-used DJ Arkive and the freestyle jazz exhibition “One For Malcolm” by the house band—slide into the tracklisting seamlessly, which is quite a feat in its own right considering the breadth and quality of their cover choices. Only the James Hunter street corner treatment of “A Rose in Spanish Harlem” really sticks out aurally, and even then it merely acts as a happy-go-lucky island in the jazz bomb lake that surrounds it.
That being said, there isn’t much on this album that really achieves the kind of groundbreaking immortal status of the original artists they cover. While the album is totally solid, if you didn’t know the story behind the Harlem Experiment, it wouldn’t likely impress you. The sum of the parts remains greater than the whole. They need to go a little further if they want to create something really worth remembering.