Monthly Archives: September 2012

Does Hip-Hop Belong in Jazz?

Since the late 1980s, hip-hop has embraced the influence of jazz, both through beats made from jazz samples and through rappers who recognize the relationship between the flow of rap delivery and a bebop improviser. Groups like A Tribe Call Quest, Gang Starr, and De La Soul are notable for bringing jazz-influenced hip-hop to the mainstream. In the past year, two of the biggest jazz stars have reversed this relationship with their new albums, incorporating elements from hip-hop and modern R&B music into their “jazz.”

The two albums to which I refer are Robert Glasper’s Black Radio and Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society; these albums have a lot in common (besides the word radio in their titles). Both incorporate a more electric band than most jazz, hip-hop-style drumbeats, and tight song structures. Neither album features extensive extended solo sections, but rather offers concentrated moments of their creators’ ideas in pop song-length pieces. Glasper, who has been musical director for the rapper Yasiin Bey (nee Mos Def), made a record that truly walks the line between jazz and hip-hop music by featuring significant guest appearances from rappers and R&B singers, like Yasiin Bey, Lupe Fiasco, Erykah Badu, and Bilal.

However, the reciprocal influence of jazz and hip-hop artists has been going for at least the past decade. Back in 2003, jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove released the first RH Factor album, Hard Groove, which is an earlier album that combined jazz musicians with hip-hop music. Hard Groove features Erykah Badu (like Black Radio), and rapping by Common and Q-Tip. Even when there are no guest vocals, Hard Groove still draws heavily from hip-hop in the drum, bass, and guitar grooves. Hargrove shows how great be-bop-informed improvisation can sound over this kind of music. The excellent bass work by Pino Palladino and Reggie Washington is particularly notable.

Another early example of a beautiful union of hip-hop and jazz is 2001’s The Philadelphia Experiment, a collaboration of the great jazz bassist Christian McBride, the classical/jazz pianist Uri Caine, and the hip-hop drummer ?uestlove of the Roots. Though this album is firmly jazz (and even swings at times), ?uestlove’s signature drumming adds some funky hip-hop beats to give the album its wonderful unique sound.

And even though it was his most recent album that partially inspired me to start this piece, I also want to mention Robert Glasper’s 2007 In My Element, which was recorded with Glasper’s acoustic trio. It features a number of tracks that use straight, hip-hop drumming, played tastefully by Damion Reid. Among them is “F.T.B.,” which appears again on Black Radio with added vocals Ledis and the same kind of groove. The song “J Dillaludes” may serve best to illustrate how well hip-hop music can translate into jazz. “J Dillaludes” is a medley of beats composed by the great rap producer J Dilla performed by Glasper’s trio. To hear music originally composed as hip-hop sound so great played by a jazz trio shows exactly how interconnected hip-hop and jazz are. In the case of hip-hop and jazz, influence is not a one-way street.


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Fred Hersch: What Is Jazz, Anyway

Fred Hersch Live at the Maverick September 8th, 2012

Defining jazz has always been a challenge. There are certain generally agreed upon elements that occur frequently in jazz: swing, syncopation, improvisation, blues-influence, and perhaps polyphony. Obviously, there are countless counter-examples of music that can only be considered jazz that do not share all of these elements.

Last night (September 8, 2012) I had the opportunity to see Fred Hersch at the Maverick in Woodstock, NY, a beautiful concert hall in the Catskill wilderness first opened in 1916. Though the Maverick Concerts are normally notable for their impressive classical music events, Fred Hersch played as a part of their new Jazz at the Maverick Series. At times his music walked the line between jazz and classical very delicately. His music rarely swung and often showed the influence of classical and impressionist composers more observably than that of the blues, but syncopation, improvisation, and polyphony ran rampant, creating highly expressive music that could never be mistaken for anything but jazz. Of the twelve numbers he played, only “Dream of Monk,” a composition of Hersch’s based on a coma dream he had featuring Thelonious Monk, and Monk’s own “Blue Monk” truly swung.

The first piece was Hersch’s original “Whirl,” which invoked images of ballet with its spinning, twirling, whirling arpeggios and flexible tempos. The second piece came from Hersch’s setting of Walk Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which he released in 2005. This was “At the Close of the Day,” and it is as beautifully lyrical as Whitman’s poem. His third number was Jacob do Bandolim’s “Doce de Coco,” which Hersch embellished with melodic block chord figures and an impressive left hand. The next two pieces were inspired by dreams Hersch had in his 2008 coma: “Pastorale,” based on a dream of Robert Schumann, and “Dream of Monk.” “Pastorale” is a delicate invention that recalls childhood images with the evident influence of Schumann’s own Scenes of Childhood, and “Dream of Monk” is firmly Monkian with its frequent, accented minor seconds, angular melody, and chromatic movement.

Up until “Dream of Monk” the evening may not sound like it’s been a jazz concert at all. However, on a piece like “Pastorale” Hersch’s improvisation is steeped in jazz even when it doesn’t swing. The melodies Hersch constructs embrace a tradition that combines blues with European classical elements, a combination that has always been instrumental to jazz music.

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