Tuesday, August 31, 2010
After a few practice-run EPs and a collection of Stevie Wonder covers, Yesterdays New Quintet released Angles Without Edges in 2001. As I understand it, all five members of the group (Malik Flavors, Ahmad Miller, Otis Jackson Jr., Monk Hughes, and Joe McDuffrey) are Madlib, playing instruments, sampling himself and overdubbing. Angles is my favorite of Madlib’s jazz releases not only for its consistency, but also because it solidly combines so many of the things I love about hip-hop and jazz into one delicious cocktail. The rhythmic tension of great jazz is there, but so is the strophic structure and hypnotic head-nod of great beatsmithing. It’s one of the few records that actually manages an equal marriage between jazz and hip-hop, something that should be a cinch, since both genres revolve around an ethos of personal expression and individual skill, creating an open space for improvisation easily infused with any number of musical directions.
It’s not an easy thing to do, though, and with very few exceptions (parts of Blowout Comb, maybe) most hybrids of the two are really just one or the other. I love A Tribe Called Quest, but live stand-up bass and samples from jazz records do not a subgenre (“jazz-rap”) make, no matter how much it reminds your Pops of bebop. When Guru collaborated with actual jazz musicians on his Jazzamatazz, it was a missed opportunity: generic hip-hop beats played by live musicians are still generic hip-hop beats. When the combination comes from the other side, it is usually little more than a jazz musician including token gene signifiers in a failed bid to assert his relevance. (For reference, listen to Miles Davis’ Doo-Bop or Ornette Coleman’s Tone Dialing. Or better yet, don’t.)
Releases after Angles had less kinship with hip-hop and became more and more about homage: In 2003, Madlib got access to master tapes in the Blue Note vaults and put out Shades of Blue. Ostensibly a remix album, it features more covers than remixes, as the members of YNQ cover Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. In 2004, Monk Hughes and the Outer Realm put out a tribute to Weldon Irvine. In 2005, Sound Directions put out The Funky Side of Life, which teamed Madlib up with guest musicians to cover David Axelrod and Cliff Nobles & Co. In 2007 we got Yesterdays Universe, a compilation of YNQ offshoots and side-projects, tracks supposedly taken from actual forthcoming albums. Earlier this year, two of those releases became reality: The Last Electro-Acoustic Space Jazz and Percussion Ensemble put out Miles Away, a percolating set featuring covers of Phil Ranelin and Roy Ayers tunes alongside originals dedicated to Sun Ra and Woody Shaw, and Young Jazz Rebels put out the Arkestra-style free-improv gem Slave Riot. Interestingly, most of these releases contain original compositions that sit remarkably well next to the covers.
High Jazz, like Yesterdays Universe, is a compilation of music by Yesterdays Universe, the “loosely connected group of jazz musicians performing under several elusive group names, all produced and arranged by Madlib.” This format works well for Madlib: While some of the YNQ offshoot releases have been a little monotonous (like the Otis Jackson Jr. Trio’s Jewelz and Malik Flavors’ Ugly Beauty), each imaginary group sounds wildly different from the others. As a result, High Jazz is constantly changing and surprising.
We get some frantic free-jazz from The Russel Jenkins Jazz Express, low-fi funk from R.A.M.C. and that stupendous title-track, which is just a sweeping string arrangement away from a classic Blaxploitation theme. Elsewhere, Generation Match plays a polyrhythmic groove for a strangled synthesizer on “Electric Dimensions” and The Joe McDuphrey Experience do their best imitation of Pete Jolly’s Seasons. “Pretty Eyes” (by The Jahari Massamba Unit) swings with beautiful piano and organ work, as well as a trumpet solo that reminds me that somewhere along the way, Madlib started including more contributions from other musicians (a good decision, since jazz, unlike the more hermetical process of beatmaking, is best produced socially.) We even get fifteen minutes of a “live performance” from Yesterdays New Quintet, including a Stevie Wonder cover and a rendition of Angles highlight “Broken Dreams”. Ostentatious demonstrations of virtuosity are nowhere to be found, and each player, real or imagined, is equal in these arrangements. The way these halting electric pianos, free-time drums and staccato woodwind honks wind around each other is messy and incredibly fun. Spontaneity and energy are the big draw.
The liner notes tell us a little bit about the (ostensible) releases from which these recordings were taken: Japanese and Brazilian releases, private pressings, and things only found in Madlib’s personal collection. Even if Stones Throw puts out a few of these records at some point in the future, it is safe to assume that most of them will never fully exist. Play along, though, and you will be reminded of certain joys that have been lost for music lovers. There was a time when a person could comb through record bins, stumbling across mysterious records that have languished in obscurity, and only know what the liners on the sleeve told them. A professed fan of a certain jazz maestro might stumble across a release he didn’t even know existed. In the internet age, that mystery and adventure is lost. Discographies are a click away. Every album you want to hear can be found via the internet, legally or otherwise. Madlib’s alternate reality brings that elusiveness back, even if only for pretend. Looking at the album covers in the booklet and listening to the selections included on this CD, I can wonder about Poysner, Riggins & Jackson or The Big Black Foot Band. It is nice to think about music that remains tantalizingly out of reach.
Building this imagined discography, Madlib has become a kind of musical Sergio Leone, creating a universe of homage that has taken on a life of its own. Just as Leone’s films are impressively badass even if you don’t realize how they borrow and subvert Western iconography and conventions, music from Yesterdays Universe is great even aside from all this conceptual coolness.
Madlib's jazz releases are getting more and more ambitious, though there is one major frontier I'd like to see him cross. Other than "Great Day" on Madvillainy, the world of YNQ has been segregated from Madlib's hip-hop forays. Listening to some of the more groove-oriented moments on this release and others like it, I can't help imagining DOOM or Strong Arm Steady or Guilty Simpson dropping verses into the mix. A record of MCs rapping over grooves provided by Yesterdays New Quintet would be amazing. If there is anyone who can marry hip-hop and jazz without simply cobbling together genre cliches, it's Madlib.
This is my second favorite of all the Medicine Show releases so far, after History of the Loop Digga. The second half of 'Lib's monthly endeavor is off to a great start. Next up is a jazz mix. Stay tuned.