Thursday, July 13, 2006

Def Jazz or Deaf to Jazz?

Jazz has always responded to new developments in popular music, so it is hardly surprising that some jazz artists would explore fusions with hip-hop. Yet, despite the number of attempts made, there has yet to be the jazz-hip-hop Bitches Brew that captures the attention of fans of both genres, pointing the way for scores of imitators.

Greg Osby’s late 1980’s-early 1990’s groups reportedly performed some blistering jazz-hip-hop explorations that were never adequately documented, although Black Book has some very strong moments. Many thought Us3’s Hand on the Torch might be that break-out CD, but their follow-up flopped. Instead of becoming the next Bitches Brew, their big hit “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)” went on to be a Madison Avenue cliché, heard in scores of commercials and the Get Shorty soundtrack.

El-P’s High Water might be the most artistically successful fusion attempt to date. While the darkly intense set of original instrumental compositions does feature some breaks and beats, composer-producer El-P refrained from rapping, most likely alienating most of his fan base from the worthy project. Overall, many jazz-hip-hop fusion attempts lack a cohesive sound, consisting of rap passages, alternating with instrumental interludes, with no unifying feeling.

Recently, GRP collected a diverse group of musicians to cover tunes from the Def Jam catalog on Def Jazz, but again the results are mixed. Probably the most successful track is the opener, “All I Need,” featuring real-deal jazz musicians like trumpeter Roy Hargrove and Hammond B-3 cooker Joe DeFrancesco. The organist also contributes to a strong closer, “Give It Up.” “Bring the Pain” featuring Hubert Laws is at least interesting, in that it successfully recalls the feel of his flute & vocal CTI work of the 1970’s. Not surprisingly, Oran “Juice” Jones revisiting “The Rain” is the guaranteed skip track on the set.

Overall Def Jazz is uneven, often demonstrating why it is on Universal Music’s designated smooth jazz imprint, GRP. Many smooth-oriented players are featured, sometimes generating more smoke than usual, but never any real fire. As usual the results are mixed. Somehow no artist has yet perfected the alchemy.

In Listen-Up Quincy Jones compared the improvisational ability of rappers to that of jazz musicians. However, integrating the two schools has proved difficult in practice. Some fear such fusion, concerned that the excesses of hip-hop could seep into jazz. One understands their worries, but I suspect jazz artists of today are too well disciplined and have too much integrity to fall into such traps.