El-P: High Water

[14 June 2004]

By David Morris

Well, let’s just say it’s slightly less disappointing the third time you listen to it. I had dreams, you see, dreams of what El-P, easily one of the 10 greatest hip-hop producers working, could do with a full jazz band at his command. His beats and bites, from his days with Company Flow down through his own 2002 solo album, have had the dingy fervor of a subway-grate propheteer, and there are many paths for those impulses to travel in jazz—the grindhouse get-down of Jimmy Smith or the messianic mantras of Sun Ra, the heartbreaking sweetness of Louis or the white light/white heat of Coltrane’s Interstellar Space. All of these have been echoed in touches and starts, in the shadows or in the foreground of El’s own work, and could have been jumping off points or stepping stones.

But of course, as a non-instrumentalist helming a jazz album—with all performances recorded in a studio rather than flipped to his plate from a hot wax griddle—he’s inevitably stuck behind the boards, doing charts, sound management, and, okay, the odd bit of sampling. But he can’t step out into the studio and beat the brains out of the drums, or blow the needles in his stomach through every horn, as his work up to this point would indicate his inclination to be. Instead, he has to nudge and prod a group of musicians in the right direction—and to speak the blunt truth of it, he’s saddled here, in the Blue Series Continuum, with a group of musicians with whom he shares relatively little aesthetic common ground. Sure, the essential mission of the Blue Series (of which this is, what, the 13th installment? 15th?) is to be a meeting point between jazz, electronic music, and hip-hop, so it sounds like he’d fit right in, but in truth the players here have far too light and lingering a touch to effectively translate the concepts of a man who’s written two of the most emotionally brutalizing songs about domestic violence ever.

Everything here is far too organic and harmonic. I think that “Please Say (Yesterday)”, in which a piano and muted trumpet slinkily lounge around one another, is intended as some sort of “calm before the storm”, but really it just serves to lower your expectations. If you squint your eyes just so, you can kind of see what El is going for on tracks like “Get Your Hand off My Shoulder, Punk”, with subcutaneous Moroder-hornet synth swells and vaguely tough drums that sort of whisper Bladerunner, but are undercut by a genially dueling saxophone and horn. You can also hear the intention in the Gershwinesque “Get Modal”, which sports perhaps El’s most overt contribution in its snippets of roaring, stuttering scat, as well as Matthew Shipp’s most linear and muscular piano work. But the track’s crystalline guitar tinkle and noodly trumpet work keep full realization just out of reach. Fully controlled by neither captain nor crew, High Water Mark is an attempt to balance the smooth and the bad, the urbane and the urban, that just doesn’t quite come off, because urbane wins out so handily in every smooth bass fingering and loving brass glissando.

Aside from the album’s tenor, there are problems in the tension between songwriting and improvisation. El-P is most definitely a songwriter, and a powerful one, but his attempts to use post-production editing to wring concise ideas out of hours of jam tapes are spotty. Even with a compelling hook in hand, as on “Modal”, the methodical development that marks his own work is sorely missing, replaced by a typically jazzy ebb and flow that, while often essential to work more firmly within the genre, here sometimes simply seems like it’s going nowhere.

The one shining moment when the ingredients seem to truly gel is the single, “Sunrise Over Bklyn”, which Shipp can again be credited with steering (though I sense El’s hand in the magnificent theme). It unfolds slow and fierce, showing an economy of performance that’s missing from most of the rest of the album. One of El-P’s signature moves is the melodramatic buildup to a thunderous drop, and he pulls it off in slightly modified form here with sudden, perfectly timed moves from poetic noodling to sheer velocity. Also putting his stamp on the track, and perhaps even single-handedly separating it from the pack, is the rancorous bass growl that ties together and motivates the whole thing. So when, at the 2/3rds mark in its ten-minute length, the previously understated players let loose in cacophony, it’s both the same and different as the blitzing climaxes of “Stepfather Factory” or “Deep Space 9mm” or “Pigeons”.

A hip-hop producer heading a jazz album is roughly equivalent to Puffy doing “A Raisin in the Sun”—same ballpark, different game. El-P has dedicated this album to his father, a onetime jazz pianist whose voice appears briefly à la Hova’s “December 4th”. As an homage, an exploration of roots, and an experiment, High Water Mark makes sense, but it lies well outside of the canon of El-P’s work, and I imagine most of his fans will find it disappointing. Hopefully, he can take the experience and move back towards expressing his own ideas more directly—with, perhaps, a few new tricks up his sleeve.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/elp-highwater2/