There’s a curious strain of ‘second album syndrome’ that afflicts downtempo and instrumental hip-hop artists. Most successful rock musicians start out enthusiastically imitating their influences with the most rudimentary equipment available, only to be overwhelmed by the creative freedom offered by commercial success, a dedicated fan following, and a studio full of tricks. For artists who depend on sequencers, it’s the other way around: lacking the resources for an uncomplicated statement of influences, they typically craft astonishingly resourceful and innovative first albums. When a label is willing to put up cash for a second album, the temptation to hire ‘proper’ musicians, pay for expensive samples, and produce the range of sounds boasted by their influences is often overwhelming. In recent years, artists like Bonobo and Quantic — both of whom got their start on the Brighton-based Tru Thoughts label that is home to Nostalgia 77 — have produced second albums that (while worthy of attention) are less interesting, and more derivative, than their debuts.
Ben Lamdin — better known as Nostalgia 77 — shows the same tendency for different reasons. His 2004 debut, Songs for My Funeral, outlined a number of jazz influences, clearly suggesting the extent to which he was willing to make a detour from straightforward downtempo- and hip-hop-flavored funk. The Garden follows the same path. For all its strengths — and it has many — this album is drawn from a narrower palette than its predecessor. The opening track, “Cheney Lane” is the funkiest track on the album; an impressionistic, wandering introduction gives way to a propulsive bassline and a bold horn loop. But the most notable thing about it — as with much of the album — is its fidelity to the sound of a certain period of post-bop jazz.
Bonobo’s Dial ‘M’ For Monkey was plainly indebted to shamefully under-appreciated jazz-funk classics like Dizzy Gillespie and Lalo Schifrin’s 1977 Free Ride. The Garden owes more to the work of Horace Silver — particularly 1964’s Song for My Father. Silver prefigured funk by basing his compositions around simple repeated figures, usually voiced by his own piano. The strident and loping themes were typically stated by two horn parts; the solos that followed remained grounded by the quintet’s resilient rhythm section. Silver cranked out one song after another in this mode for years; a typical Horace Silver Quintet album featured a handful of mid- or uptempo tracks, one experiment with Latin rhythms, and one tenderly bittersweet ballad.
The Garden features a handful of mid- or uptempo tracks, one experiment with Latin rhythms, and one tenderly bittersweet ballad.
“You and Me” has Silver’s piano tone just right: mournful and evocative while remaining somehow strangely flat and without nuance. “The Hunger” opens with a bounding bass part before an intriguing and wandering Fender Rhodes figure drifts over the top. “After Arafat” is the experiment with Afro-jazz rhythms.
To be fair, the influences are slightly wider than that suggests. “Changes” is built around a circular chord progression first used in Songs For My Funeral‘s “Metamorphosis”; the tightly-harmonized horn figures that uncoil over the top plainly recall Oliver Nelson’s arrangements, especially 1961’s classic Blues and the Abstract Truth. The Nelson influence is more convincing here than it was on, say, Matthew Herbert’s 2003 Goodbye Swingtime, not least because it lacks that album’s worthy but tiresome political baggage.
There are other tips of the hat. The closing track, “The Garden”, is a gorgeous and tenderly phrased ballad; it recalls the compositions of Duke Pearson: modest, pretty, understated. Elsewhere, winsome bits of horn harmonies occasionally suggest Don Cherry and Ornette Coleman. At its more formless moments, the album does indeed — as the press materials insist — echo the “free and spiritual jazz” of Sun Ra and Archie Shepp, particularly in the dense harmonies and extended improvisations of both “The Hunger” and “After Arafat”.
“Seven Nation Army” stands out from the rest of the album; a huge success as a single last year, this reworking of the White Stripes song strips the metallic sheen of the original in favor of a blistering vocal by Alice Russell and a loping bassline that puts weight of the song at the front of each measure. It punches its way forward with a belligerence and determination that the original lacks.
If any of this material feels like pastiche, it is nevertheless very well done. There is just enough hip-hop to keep things grounded: the breaks at the start of “Freedom” have a pedigree that goes back to Mantronix. The attention to period texture is particularly refreshing, given the tide of neo-jazz schlock that is increasingly upon us: Riaan Volsoo’s bass is recorded with a wonderfully acoustic rattle and throb; Kelsey Jones’s trumpet and Jon Shenoy’s sax have a up-close spittle to match the density of the arrangements. Above all, the tracks themselves have a purpose that is typically missing from the worthiness of hard-bop revivalism or the meandering of jazz-influenced hip-hop. This is a solid meal, even if you can still pick out the ingredients.