Hip-Hop and the New Jazz Funk

Yesterday’s New Quintet
Angles Without Edges
Stones Throw

Russell Gunn
Ethnomusicology Vol 2
Justin Time

As a reaction to Ken Burns’ complete disregard of jazz outside the borders of the USA, there has emerged the ridiculous theory that the States is now lagging behind Europe as far as innovation and the production of new-directional jazz is concerned. This view, most loudly voiced in the UK, is largely based on a dislike of Lincoln Centre preservationism and a preference for European jazz’ various fusions with classical, folk and dance forms.

Fond as I am of many of those hybrid developments, the argument is shallow and untenable. It does not even work for Marsalis and his besuited brethren and would certainly have to ignore records like these two. Actually, both Ethnomusicology and Angles Without Edges may find themselves falling down a gap between genres, some multiple forms being more acceptable than others. Hip-hop is the grafted on genus here, and that many-limbed monster still terrifies plenty of jazz fans. Only this month the estimable Jazzwise featured a letter bemoaning “talking” over records (where has he been?) and the dire results of the turntable and the “space invader machine” (where has he been?) replacing “real” instruments.

Now, I must admit to having been less than excited by most recent trends in hip-hop. On the whole the mixing of rap and soul has been to the detriment of the latter. However, for some reason (possibly the urban secularism of both forms) jazz and hip-hop have generally made sympathetic partners. From the days of Guru/Jazzmatazz to the Keb Mo stuff on the last Charlie Hunter album, the cross-fertilisation has usually worked. European acts like Booster and Eric Truffaz have made some interesting recent contributions, but you will go some way to beat these two US releases for that creativity which has supposedly sailed back to the Old World. More importantly, there is an enthusiasm and a sense of flair about both sets that even the currently high flying French will find hard to match.

To be fair, they are not hip-hop albums in even the loosest sense. Even though the Russell Gunn says file under hip-hop/jazz and the Yesterday’s New Quintet is the brainchild of Madlib best known for his work with the Alkoholics, if its Busta Rhymes or Tupac you’re expecting, look elsewhere. The Gunn set is a straight jazz session with some turntablism plus a few nods to early ’80s hip-hop and DC Go-Go rhythms. The Yesterday’s New Quintet album sounds like a cut-up Headhunters album (circa 1973). Both should therefore be, at best, a little dated and, at worst, totally redundant. They are in fact fresh and vital – the Gunn disc because of its exuberance and energy and the Yesterday’s New Quintet record because of the breakbeat weirdness that gives the ’70s sounds a welcome edginess.

Gunn takes some standards that you thought you never wanted to hear again (“Epistrophy”, “It Don’t Mean a Thing” and “Caravan”) and toughens them up with some no-nonsense beats (courtesy of DJ Apollo). His excellent band (bassist Lonnie Plaxico and keyboardist Marc Cary being on particularly good form) then deliver a mixture of post-bop funkiness and some old-fashioned pre-bop swing. What you get is like a compressed jazz history in one take, but with a contemporary hipness to it that stops it just short of pastiche. There is an initial archness about the project but it soon fades.

Gunn as a trumpeter is muscular and melodic in a Lee Morgan/Booker Little fashion and has a field day. He played with the exceptionally gifted but rather under-achieving Buckshot Le Fonque and this is really the full-on, jazz-rich Buckshot album that the outfit never delivered. The uptempo cuts are irresistibly bouncing (must be great live) and the intervening slower tunes fluid and sensual. It represents a perfect approach to heritage and “the tradition”. Everything is recognisably what it used to be but the overall feel is absolutely of our own time.

Lalo Schifrin’s “Del Rio” has already seen hip-hop service, but seldom sounder sweeter than on the take included here, while the self-penned “Lyne’s Joint” is a hard bop ballad given a jazz/funk arrangement that would give some old Freddie Hubbard or Donald Byrd records a run for their money. It is all very accessible stuff and therefore may not appeal to highbrows. It is jazz playing of the highest order though and open-minds will see it as such. Gunn has as good a tone as any current trumpeter and more swing than most. If you want a record that is exploratory but feelgood at the same time this one fits the bill.

This is where it perhaps scores over the European versions, which can be a little dour and self-conscious. The Ethnomethodology musicians are clearly playing at Home. Gunn is an African-American jazz man who grew up in the hip-hop era. Both forms are his and the ease of the amalgamation is evident. This is music that feels no need to theorise or explain itself. The cultural reference points are obvious but devoid of clich√©. The past and the present “collide” melodiously and to the mutual benefit of each. As an example of a dialogue between distinct phases of the black vernacular, musically speaking, this set wears its scholarship lightly. This is because Gunn et al know the different texts off by heart. It is of course a conscious montage process, not some “natural” outpouring, yet it is unforced and therefore completely engaging.

Yesterday’s New Quintet produce much stranger fare, but the past/present juxtaposition is if anything more pronounced on Angles Without Edges. At first I thought it was a collection of ’70s samples strung together in the manner of a jazzier, funkier DJ Shadow. It is however all played by a real improvising group. What generates the collage effect is the fact that 36 separate sessions were recorded and then spliced together with a breaks and beats sensibility.

What could have been both messy (and not a little pretentious) is, I think, the most interesting set of sounds to come out of leftfield hip-hop/nu jazz vibes for ages. If this set had been on Ubiquity or had emerged from some West London studios the UK dance magazines would have been all over it. As it is, it comes with the tag hip-hop and reeks of Mwandlishi-era jazz/funk and so gets sent to the R&B and jazz journals who can only see the eccentricity and not feel the groove. Despite the unvarnished, experimental feel of most of the numbers, tracks like “Thinking of You” and “Sun Goddess” are potential future club classics.

The instrumentation (plenty of Fender Rhodes, kalimba, vibraphone and synths) manages to be both organically nostalgic and futuristic and Madlib supplies some bass heavy beats to nail the whole package down. At first listen the spoken samples and the jazz intertexts sound too close to trip-hoppy, downtempo meandering but once the the rhythms kick in (there is some wonderful percussion throughout the set) you realise this is something closer to the source than most of that product. Postmodern it most certainly is, not in that anemic, cerebrally playful fashion we have come to be so bored by, but in a dynamic and challenging manner. Meet the new funky experimentalism.

Madlib and Russell Gunn make Black music. Rootsy, but forward-looking. Gunn’s is the more straightforward package. It is not just closer to orthodox jazz, it is a model of orthodoxy, in the best sense. Madlib is probably even truer to the jazz aesthetic, although his singularity will be the harder for the mainstream to digest. Neither has lost sight of the core strengths of African-American musicality. Both are making music that should silence those who would deny jazz’ home a say in how that musicality might develop in years to come.