[17 January 2007]
Almost for as long as hip-hop has been around, it’s been flirting with jazz. For one thing, pretty much all those original breaks and rhythms came from ‘70s funk tunes, which in turn were largely played by musicians coming out of a jazz tradition, using jazz instrumentation, picking up on super-fine-super-heavy templates laid down by Brothers James Brown, Gil Scott Heron, and Miles Davis. As if all that weren’t enough to make the lineage clear, ever since the late ‘80s heyday of jazz-rap and the birth of acts like Gang Starr, A Tribe Called Quest, and Stetsasonic, hip-hop producers have consistently borrowed elements of the jazz sound to lend their cuts a certain something that heavy beats and razor-tongue lyric-spitting alone cannot provide: perhaps a sense of class, of depth, of maturity, of musical ambition.
Meanwhile—at least since Miles Davis’ final album, Doo Bop, posthumously released in 1992—jazz musicians wanting to inject a little urban contemporaneity into their sound or attempting to reach out to younger audiences have not been afraid to borrow from hip-hop, laying out their chops over crunching beats, or allowing a rapper to take the middle eight. So the question is, how come no one can seem to get it quite right? Why is it that attempts to fuse jazz and hip-hop so often end up as neither one thing nor the other, but some kind of insipid, toothless mongrel—no matter how heavy the players or how deep the production?
Sadly, Scotty Hard’s Radical Reconstructive Surgery is probably not going to provide any answers. Here, renowned hip-hop producer Scotty Hard (famed for work with the Wu Tang Clan, among others) brings together two top keyboard players from differing ends of the contemporary jazz spectrum—avant-jazz pianist Matthew Shipp and jam-band organist John Medeski—in a grouping that also features heavyweight free-jazz bassist William Parker, drummer Nasheet Waits, and everyone’s favourite left-field turntablist, DJ Olive. And guess what? In the final analysis, the sum of these promising parts is pretty underwhelming.
It’s not as if the contributors aren’t trying their best. Waits throws down some wildly inventive, fractured-funk beats. Parker digs into some hypnotically heavy, trance-bass riffs. Medeski churns up a host of interesting textures from his bank of analogue keyboards, including a Wurlitzer, a Moog, a mellotron, and a clavinet. And Shipp’s spidery notes and sparse chords provide the same slightly unsettling feel he brought to DJ Spooky’s remarkably similar ‘jazz meets hip-hop’ project, Optometry, also released on Thirsty Ear back in 2002. But, as on Spooky’s previous experiment, you just can’t shake the feeling that these heavyweights are kind of phoning it in.
For example, though he invests his role with as much darkness and intensity as he can muster, using the almost supernaturally talented Parker to play these plodding bass hooks is something like employing a brain surgeon to apply a Band Aid. And frankly, what’s the point in trying too hard when your grooves are just going to be smothered by pedestrian beats, over-produced ambience, and an already-dated aesthetic of some mythical 20th century urban darkness? That said, with musicians of this calibre, there are, of course, moments of depth. At best, the tracks approach the slow and heavy cosmic grooves of Sun Ra’s Lanquidity, or the twitchy funk of mid-‘70s Miles Davis—but they’re a long, long way from reaching those heights.
In the end, whether you view this album as a brooding, atmospheric exercise in mood and restraint, or a lacklustre missed opportunity will probably depend on how much truly spiritual jazz or dangerously exciting hip-hop you’ve listened to. If you’re passionate about either of them, you’re probably better off giving this one a miss.