Photo: Kristy Benjamin / Courtesy of Fat Possum Records

Cassowary Debuts with a Jazz-Funk Gem

After debuting on a 2015 record by childhood friend Earl Sweatshirt, Cassowary merges jazz, funk, soul, and hip-hop on his self-titled debut album and creates a jazz-funk gem.

Fat Possum
24 April 2020

According to Wikipedia, cassowaries are flightless birds that live in the tropical forests of New Guinea, East Nusa Tenggara, the Maluku Islands, and northeastern Australia. These birds are “very wary” of humans, and probably know nothing about jazz or funk. And then there is Miles Shannon, otherwise known as Cassowary.

With the release of his self-titled debut album, it is time to add Cassowary to the list of young artists who are moving 21st-century soul music in all kinds of intriguing directions. Cassowary is a thoroughly modern album that happens to be filled with music that might intrigue old school fans, especially those who are looking for new music that takes off in adventurous directions from musical touchstones of the past.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, the 25-year-old artist who calls himself Cassowary is a multi-instrumentalist with musical roots that dig deep in jazz, funk, soul, and hip-hop. Cassowary had an early break playing piano on his childhood pal Earl Sweatshirt’s 2015 album, I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside.

Cassowary opens the album with “114˚ (part 1)”, a straight-up jazz instrumental that nicely sets the tone. Parts two and three of “114˚” (named after the temperature on the sweltering day the track was recorded) pop up in the middle and at the end of the album. While it might have been interesting to hear “114˚” as one nine-plus minute piece, it seems more effective having the piece spread out, giving Cassowary a jazz touchstone that ties the album together nicely.

“She Funked Me”, the album’s second track, brings the pop-funk, highlighted by a skittering, slightly herky-jerky rhythm, slinky synth lines, and an ’80s-style vocal performance by Cassowary. Cassowary continues in the funk vein with the slinky “Belt Notch!”, before moving on to the fourth track, “Starlight”, a lo-fi ballad that is both strange and beautiful, the most ethereal moment on the album. “Price Went Up”, a somewhat more conventional ballad leads into part 2 of “114˚”.

Cassowary keeps the second half of the album interesting with “Roach”, a showcase for saxophone and oooh-and-aaah wordless vocals, and “Moth”, a similar, but funk-based semi-instrumental with a focus on keyboards, as well as sax. “Superhiro” gives Cassowary another effective showcase for his more reflective tunes.

While Cassowary’s rap influences are most evident in the album’s beats, he does bring on Tyler Cole, who, as half of the Anxiety with Willow Smith, spent 24 hours in a glass room in LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art before releasing a debut album in March. Cole adds some lyrical flow to the edgy “Cyclical”, just before the song’s surprise technopop/video game soundtrack ending. While rap verses can sometimes seem extraneous, or worse, as a bid to add hip-hop cred to a track, that’s not the case here. Cole’s rapping feels like an essential part of “Cyclical”, and a very natural collaborative effort.

Cassowary arrives at a satisfying conclusion with the final part of “114˚”, reminding listeners of the jazz-based roots of both the album and artist, as well as demonstrating how vital the intersection of jazz, soul, funk, and hip-hop continues to be.

RATING 8 / 10