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Monthly Archives: January 2007

People have rap all wrong. Well, mostly wrong, anyway. Rap is not synonymous with hip hop. Hip hop is much bigger than rap; and rap is just a part of hip hop culture. Rap didn’t start out from thugs and gangs. Contrary to what you may have heard in the nineties with the likes of Snoop Dogg, Warren G, and DJ Screw, a lot of socially conscious rap exists, within an underground hip hop culture that is still alive and strong.

Among the live MCs around today are J-Live, Common, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli. Even some of the artists that made it big, such as Kanye West, have humble beginnings and are what I would consider true practitioners of an important American art form.

There is an expression of a group of people for whom life isn’t yet satisfactory. These are a people oppressed by a powerful minority, whose history is marred by injustice and prejudice. This group of people is not confined to persons of color; it is the Everyman’s struggle.

This is not to deny the strong racially conscious element that exists in a music dominated by African Americans. Yet these are merely the poets of a generation, telling their story to anyone who will listen. Most are making a valiant if not understated effort to lure the next generation away from the loud, pompous, denigrating yelling that too often parades as rap.

The culture of hip hop is about the emcee. It’s about the taggers and the break dancers and the DJs. It’s about people getting together to create unique music and a positive community. In the tradition of jazz, there is a huge element of improvisation in every aspect of this rich culture that I definitely have respect for.

The work above is by an artist out of California named Justin Bua, who’s definitely among my favorites. I had two of his works, “Piano Man I” and “Jazz Trio” hanging on my walls for years. The one shown is entitled “The DJ,” and typical among Bua’s work, it’s an intimate portrayal of an agent engaged in his craft. I dig almost everything Bua does! Check it out.

Gary Giddins is the premiere jazz critic of our time. Ok, honestly, I don’t really know of too many more, save the ones that I read anonymously on the newsstand once in awhile in periodicals like Downbeat or JazzTimes. Of course there are also the fine folks over at, whom you should hit up if you’re looking for some (more) jazz reviews.

Giddins, however, is a long time columnist for The Village Voice, the alternative New York weekly, and his books are phenomenal. His prose is lyrical, descriptions complete, and he is – by far – the most efficient writer I have ever read, in any discipline. Giddins strings stories together within sentences, often with meaning so dense it really does take a close, almost academic style reading to absorb them.

Visions of Jazz is not a typical jazz history. It doesn’t start it Storyville in 1907 or even a decade before when Jelly Roll Morton was claiming that he singlehandedly invented jazz. Giddins doesn’t profile the “swing era” and most certainly doesn’t have a chapter entitled “Post-Bop.”

Rather, as explained in his introduction, Giddins set out to create something that almost reads out of “A People’s History” series of books first pioneered by Howard Zinn. Thus this would be A People’s History of Jazz, except the people in question are really the unique artists in jazz whose legacy has been relegated to obscure recordings, shrouded in the snobbery of jazz academics.

These artists were not merely obscure or unique; they were chosen and profiled by Giddins because they contributed something unique to the jazz tradition, a “distinct musical vision” (p. 6).

It was my first jazz history primer and, since it is not written for that express purpose, it was a terribly confusing introduction. However, for years I have kept it on my bookshelf, and as my appreciation of jazz has grown, the book has served as an invaluable reference to understanding nuances of these wonderful artists.

Both of my perennial favorites, Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk, are featured at various points in this book, which served as a wonderful glimpse into their lives in music.

For a suitable introduction to African American music traditions, with nice sections on traditional jazz histories, I highly recommend Eileen Southern’s The Music of Black Americans: A History. But once you’re up to speed, Visions is an incredible body of work from the premiere jazz appreciator of our time and is certainly a worthy read.

I first heard of Maktub because of their lead singer, Reggie Watts. A novel approach, right. Well Reggie performed with — and depending on whom you ask, is a part of — Soulive, an east coast funky jazz based trio of my favorite musicians.

Reggie Watts’ voice knocks you over; it doesn’t matter if you happen to be the biggest ladies man in the world. It’s rich and ridiculously smooth, and if you’re not careful you just might try imitating it yourself (prepare to get laughed at), because it is the new voice of soul. His dynamic range is excellent, as it transitions from soft to loud effortlessly.

I think he is most in his element as the foreman for Soulive – jazzy, funky neo-soul grooves. But his Seattle based band does the rock thing too, though I can’t really comment on that except loud incessant guitar chords generally make my ears bleed. The first two tracks on Khronos, “You Can’t Hide” and “So Tired,” spotlight Reggie’s voice nicely, giving him a nice seventies funk feeling that’s laid back, easy to absorb, and just a lot of fun to listen to.

Apparently at Soulive shows, Reggie fancies himself as somewhat of a comic, often trying to prime a set with his hilarious comedy routine. But contrary to Dave Chappelle’s conjecture, talented musicians certainly don’t make good comedians. (Read: Reggie stinks in the standup.) Thankfully, he leaves the pseudo-comedy for inebriated audiences at live shows and leaves it out of this very nice studio session.

From Soulive’s album Break Out:

Tru3 Magic :: Mos Def. Something strange happens when you’re listening to this album. It starts off rap and transitions into song, from what Mos made his bones on to something he honestly doesn’t do well.

I dig what Mos does. All of his collaborations with Talib Kweli, anything released as Black Star have been hot, but his solo joints have not. Mos’s first solo album, Black on Both Sides still contains some of my favorite tracks, including “Mathematics.”

There was a five year hiatus between Black and his next album in 2004, The New Danger, whose concept was to take rock and roll back for black musicians. However interesting and novel an idea, it failed terribly, weak in everything Mos is known for. It seemed to try to say too much and thus only succeeded in confusing the listener. True Magic certainly signifies another Re:Definition of Mos, as some amalgamation of hip hop + rock n roll.

The track “Thug is a Drug” has a subtle melodic callback to “What it is,” a mixtape release from Mos and Talib a couple of years ago. Possibly Mos Def’s best work in the last couple of years has arguably been on collaborations on other albums, especially his track with Talib “Supreme, Supreme.”

Nevertheless, several tracks on this album are worthwhile. “Dollar Day” is a serious political statement about victims of Hurricane Katrina: “And if you poor you black / I laugh a laugh / they won’t give when you ask / You betta off on crack, dead or in jail, or with a gun in Iraq.” It represents the raw spirit of an underground movement in hip hop that’s hotter than you hear on the radio.

Other notable tracks include “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Perfect Timing.” And where I couldn’t honestly proclaim a single favorite track on The New Danger, I’m definitely feeling “Sun, Moon, Stars,” which rips a nice chorus over a funky beat.

Interestingly, the album comes with a simple plastic case but no liner notes, spines, or back insert. Thus there is no track listing or credits listed officially with the CD, a minimalist effort that is novel if not poorly executed in its poor choice of case, which fails in simplicity and as a wrapper to the disc.

This album reminds me of Talib’s last effort “Right About Now,” which was good but honestly disappointing in comparison to what we know and love from them. To all those who think every single new album from an artist is a suitable reinvention, I can only say that it’s okay not to understand the place an artist ends up on the journey. Where an album ideally represents an artist at a given time, it’s very difficult to depict any artist at any time by a single album.

Mos definitely has some gems in this album, especially in consideration of the last album, which ended up on eBay about a week after I bought it. I get excited about any of his music, however, and this album represents the transition that we were probably missing last time around.

A new joint from the album (Explicit lyrics warning):

Steal Away, by Hank Jones and Charlie Haden, was the first jazz album I ever listened heard. It exudes the idea of beauty in simplicity. It’s not even strictly jazz, though both musicians are within the tradition. I found at a used record store in West Houston several years ago, and it remains among my favorite albums.

For the personnel, it’s just Jones on piano with Haden playing a bass, as they alternate melodies in a pleasing, often solemn style. A collection of church music at its core, it served as a fascinating introduction into the interface between jazz and gospel.

Even within two instruments, a range of emotions are conveyed. This is evidenced by the forceful staccato heard in the piano throughout “Wade in the Water,” one of many such songs that had a double entendre, sung by escaping black slaves in 19th century America. I understand that “Wade in the Water” was a call for blacks on their journey to enter the banks of the river in order to throw off their scent for the pursuing captors. The rhythm accurately expresses a sense of urgency in the song.

I appreciate the solemnity in this album, and it helped shape my appreciation of the typical jazz rhythm section, which includes the piano, standing double bass, and usually drums. This section is also called a piano trio, which continues to be my favorite jazz ensemble.


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