The Curmudgeon: How Do You Put Hip Hop and Jazz Together?

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No jazz artist has received more column inches in the press over the past six months than Kamasi Washington. The L.A. tenor saxophonist released his debut album, The Epic, in May as a 172-minute, 17-track, three-CD box set featuring a 10-piece core band, a 20-person choir and a 32-piece orchestra. Despite its pricey bulkiness, it quickly rose to No. 5 on Billboard’s jazz charts.

But it’s not the project’s scale that has attracted so much attention; it’s Washington’s collaborations with several hip-hop stars. Washington added his saxophone to Snoop Dogg’s Ego Trippin’, Flying Lotus’s You’re Dead and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, and released The Epic on Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder label. But Washington has also recorded with such jazz stars as Stanley Clarke, Kenny Burrell and Gerald Wilson. He’s living proof that the same musician can work in both camps.

Many of us have been anxious to hear what the inevitable fusion of jazz and hip hop will sound like. I say “inevitable” because jazz has always built its elastic interpretations and spontaneous improvisations on whatever is the popular African-American dance music of the day. When it was ragtime, they worked with that. When it was swing, they used that. When it was jump-blues, they took hold of that. When it was funk, they grabbed it and ran. So when hip hop became America’s dance track, jazz had no choice but to tackle it.

There had been many attempts to bring the two genres together before Washington ever came along. Hip-hop DJs started sampling jazz records and even improvising with turntables early on; jazz soloists started soloing over programmed beats, and jazz rhythm sections began translating such beats to actual instruments. Some of those attempts were disastrous; others were brilliantly successful, if more or less ignored by the non-jazz press. Perhaps because of his celebrity links, Washington has broken out of the jazz ghetto to become the personification of this whole aesthetic quest.

When you actually listen to The Epic, however, what’s surprising is not how much hip hop is integrated into the jazz but how little. Instead of being too radical for jazz fans, it’s not radical enough. Much of the music consists of simple melodies overlaid with strings, tinkling piano and ghostly female vocals till it sounds like cheesy soundtrack music for a low-budget kung-fu flick.

It often sounds like those Creed Taylor-produced records on the CTI/Kudu labels that swaddled famous jazz soloists with synths, strings, wordless vocal harmonies and polite rhythm sections to make jazz more palatable as background music. The releases sold well in their day but now are mostly forgotten. The Epic also reminds one of those overblown concept albums concocted by Quincy Jones (another Washington employer) after his Michael Jackson triumphs.

If you strip away the strings and voices on The Epic, as Washington does for most of the second disc, what you hear is a good band imitating the John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis recordings of the 1950s. They do a good job, but this is hardly groundbreaking stuff. Washington himself has a warm, brawny sound on the tenor that demonstrates how carefully he has listened to Coltrane.

The most exciting part of his band, though, is the seven-member rhythm section led by Lamar’s bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner and his brother, drummer Ronald Bruner Jr. The two bassists, two keyboardists and three percussionists play the primary groove and the syncopated counter rhythms with a physicality and energy that’s hard to resist. But why are they getting all this attention for playing 20th century rhythms in the 21st century?

By contrast, if you listen to Jason Moran & Bandwagon, perhaps the best combo in jazz today, you can hear how actual hip-hop beats can be translated to real instruments. Moran grew up in Houston as a hip-hop fan and says he only became a pianist because he couldn’t rap. When he plays the keyboard now, he employs the funk and hip-hop vocabulary to shape how he phrases both rhythms and melodies. Instead gliding and swinging, he “gets down on the one,” as George Clinton or James Brown might say, and even uses the rubbery wobble that bassist Bootsy Collins supplied for both bandleaders.

That’s the challenge in integrating hip hop and jazz. How do you reconcile the former’s industrial hammer on the one with the latter’s desire for rhythms that can stretch and contract at will, that can imply as much as they state? Moran solves the problem the same way Duke Ellington solved the problem of swing, Thelonious Monk the problem of jump-blues, Horace Silver the problem of R&B or Joe Zawinul the problem of funk: by first accepting the rhythmic vocabulary and then shifting or eliminating certain accents and adding others.

The trick is to retain enough of the new sound that listeners recognize it but also change it enough that it sounds unlike anything those same listeners have heard before. Like his predecessors and unlike Washington, Moran does this spectacularly well. He sounds like the child of hip hop that he is, but he also sounds like a jazz musician determined to deconstruct and reconstruct every music he has ever loved. And his triomates, bassist Tarus Mateen and drummer Nasheet Waits, do the same.

Moran’s albums range far and wide, but most of them include a variation on the pianist’s composition, “Gangsterism,” his ongoing dialogue with hip hop. He has also recorded a solo-piano version of Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” improvised on spoken-word samples from Turkey and China, and invited hip-hop bassist Meshell Ndegeocello to sing on his album of Fats Waller songs.

And Moran’s not the only jazz pianist doing this. Lafayette Gilchrist has made several terrific albums adapting hip hop’s first cousin, the go-go music of his native D.C., to a totally live jazz band. Thirsty Ear Recordings asked Matthew Shipp to curate its Blue Series that included not only Shipp’s wonderful hip-hop-flavored jazz piano but also such non-jazz acts as DJ Spooky, El-P and Spring Heel Jack. Vijay Iyer has also incorporated electronica into his recent albums. Robert Glasper is usually included in this list, but I find his solutions to the hip hop/jazz challenge less elegant and less interesting.

Neither Kamasi Washington’s The Epic nor Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is really satisfying as a hip hop/jazz fusion. But Lamar’s project at least is pushing one of those genres into new territory.

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