Prior to the stagnation brought on by the last thirty years or so, the result of clashing theories on how the music should be treated, jazz was a vital art form that changed with the times, going so far as to be labeled as popular music for a time before becoming the museum piece it has gradually settled into (at least within the broader popular conscience). Rather than pushing boundaries, jazz musicians became content exploring already-charted territory, honing their skills on existing sounds and styles rather than looking to create their own.
While the previous generation of black musicians largely found their voice in rap and hip hop, putting their own voice and artistic stamp overtop samples of the previous generation’s musical statements, today’s artists seem to seek a more holistic approach by incorporating some sixty plus years of musical traditions into a fresh amalgamation that could potentially serve as a cultural re-entry point into genres long since relegated to the halls of academia.
Fortunately, a new breed of jazz-influenced musicians are seeing fit to explore the music’s once seemingly endless possibilities, developing a new vocabulary that incorporates a myriad contemporaries styles and ideas alongside the traditional notions of what jazz could or should be.
Making a clear point to distance himself from the a cappella work for which his father is most famous, the younger McFerrin shrouds his compositions on his debut album, Early Riser in a wide range of contemporary and throwback sonic textures that simultaneously look to the past for inspiration and the future for direction. Largely eschewing vocals, McFerrin lets his instrumental chops do the talking, crafting lush soundscapes via his various keyboards within which he then incorporates a number of hip hop-indebted touches.
Skittering beats, odd synth textures and hushed, bedroom vocals all compete for supremacy, entering and exiting the mix in a gauzily lysergic manner that lends the music an organic, undulating feel. Inhabiting the same sonic terrain as fellow jazz-progeny Flying Lotus, opening track “Postpartum” plays with the titular theme, creating a very specific mood tinged with melancholy as the surrounding music plays like a 21st century take on the CTI label’s best mid-’70s efforts.
Utilizing the talents of like-minded contemporaries Robert Glasper, Thundercat and Marcus Gilmore on “Already There”, McFerrin dives headlong into a modern creative approach to contemporary jazz, utilizing elements of the genre’s mid-’70s commercial peak alongside contemporary sonic textures and motifs. This is music that operates at the crossroads of jazz, hip-hop and contemporary R&B, becoming the logical extension of the black musical experience, incorporating the past, present and future into what could, along with a number of contemporary releases from like-minded artists (Glapser and Thundercat included), serve as the vanguard for a new creative movement and a revitalization of a long-dormant American art form.
One of the briefest tracks on the album, “4 am” is also one of the more overtly throwback jazz tracks here, featuring a skittering drum beat and gentle Rhodes line before fading back into the 21st century with “Stepps”. Featuring a mechanized drum beat and shimmering synth lines that create a disorientating effect as the world moves in and out of focus, the progression of “Stepps” as a track is sharpened by the arrival of keys and a more consistent rhythm, both of which help lock everything back into focus.
Of the other featured musicians present here, RYAT’s guest vocal on “Place in My Heart” is one of the more compelling. Possessing a Björk-like tonality in her vocals and phrasing, RYAT’s coupling with McFerrin’s Radiohead meets Alain Goraguer circa La Planete Sauvage arrangements, results in a highly rewarding listening experience. One of many subtle successes on Early Riser, “Place in My Heart” leaves the listener hoping for a future pairing of these two.
Coming far enough into the album to have created a buffer between the work of this emerging artist and his established vocalist father, the younger McFerrin uses the penultimate track “Invisible Visible” to showcase his vocal skills, emulating the work of his more famous father as he skillfully navigates a wordless vocal passage that descends into a shuffling, fluttering jazz groove with prominent double bass work behind his tasteful piano statements. It’s a clear acknowledgement of his roots, embracing the jazz idiom and looking to move it into a new, more vital (and perhaps even commercially viable) form.
Closing track “PLS DNT LSTN” features frantic drumming, a distorted bass prominently exploring a melodic figure and McFerrin’s rock solid keyboard work. The result is a highly celebratory and revelatory conclusion to an album full of subtle surprises. With McFerrin and this latest crop of open, creative minds exploring the hallowed halls of jazz, there seems to be hope the form can and will continue to exist and evolve with society, remaining a relevant and integral art form on the musical and cultural landscape.