Strickland and his band Twi-Life are working a juicy vein of the latest jazz fusion.
Saxophonist Marcus Strickland and his band Twi-Life are working a juicy vein of the latest jazz fusion – with hip-hop – and People of the Sun is the band’s latest, dynamic output. Of course, fusion with both rock and hip-hop is really a kind of intergenerational encounter. Rock ’n’ roll started out as a variant on jump blues, an off-shoot of jazz, combined with some other elements of country music. Hip-hop’s roots go straight back to soul and jazz from the 1960s, and the music has found inspiration and rhythm impetus in bebop as well the work of Ray Charles and Gil-Scott Heron, artists who operated once removed from jazz, but barely.
The so-called fusion jazz of the 1970s was concerned with finding ways to channel the rhythms and energy of rock into the jazz tradition. Whatever you think “jazz” is, its history is that of African-American artists creating a new American music that fused West African rhythms, scales and formal elements with European harmony and form. Jazz, at its core, was music of fusion from its beginning, and it has never stopped further diversifying itself with collaboration: working with Tin Pan Alley show tunes, blending Afro-Cuban music into “Latin jazz,” creating new forms and harmonic concepts by looking to classical European impressionism, and on and on it goes. “Fusion” happened to get that name, but almost every form is jazz is marked by a kind of fusion.
In the last ten years, the once-maligned fusion of rock or funk and jazz has been vibrantly transformed as brilliant and university-trained jazz players who grew up on hip-hop have sought address its innovations and bring them into jazz’s creative corner. Artists such as pianist Robert Glasper have directly sought to bring the innovations of hip-hop artists into jazz or, even, to make hip-hop directly that is informed by jazz elements. In the end, it’s not clear that there’s a difference. But it is increasingly common for “jazz” players to talk about J Dilla or A Tribe Called Quest as key inspirations.
The result is music that grooves like hip-hop – which, by the way, does not mean simplistically or in a bid for bigger sales, as hip-hop rhythms and practices are every bit as complex as jazz rhythm – but incorporates more improvisation and arrangements that are orchestrated in the jazz tradition, with horns and harmonies that are layered in a complexity that builds on elements of the jazz tradition, from Ellington to Gil Evans to Bitches Brew to the Art Ensemble of Chicago. When rappers who appear on these projects sound like trumpet soloists or like Billie Holiday, they are not pop additions to a jazz project but proof that the music is all connected.
People of the Sun is a fine example of how this new fusion can succeed. Even if you start by listening to the strictly instrumental material featuring themes and improvisations in the form of a jazz performance, there is a dynamic adventure underway. “Build” features the core Twi-Life band of Strickland’s horn with keyboardist Mitch Henry, bassist Kyle Miles, and drummer Charles Haynes. The drum groove stutters and struts in a fusion of old soul and modern hip-hop, with a smooth backbeat always cracked open and syncopated by the crackling staccato interruptions that the new music favors. Strickland’s melody has a bop angularity but also uses sharp repetitions and surprising bobs that come as much from Steve Coleman’s M-BASE approach as from Kanye or Q Tip. The role of bass here is less to drop grooves on the one than to glide as harmonic commentary through the track’s momentum, like a slick, slippery Jaco Pastorius on a Joni Mitchell record. On “Timing” the band also includes percussionist Weedie Braimah, who adds an additional level of syncopation to the brew. Strickland plays a supremely vocal solo here, never straying too far from the melody as Henry’s organ and synthesizer fill out the tune with body and mystery.
In the tradition of many old-school hip-hop albums, People of the Sun features some short, minute-plus tracks that act as transition or introduction. Also in the idiom are several interludes that features spoken word elements that are conversational or poetic rather than rapped. “On My Mind” is a vocal track for singer Bilal, but it opens with a spoken meditation on love and nature that is interwoven with Strickland’s snaking bass clarinet. “Black Love” is a graceful hip-hop waltz for bass clarinet and a gentle rhythm section that underpins a set of recorded phone calls exploring the question of what “black love” means to various people.
There are tracks focused more completely on vocal performances. “Aim High” has the vibe of a classic Meshell Ndegeocello track (Ndegeocello produced Strickland’s prior Blue Note recording in 2016), with a rich orchestration that also includes trumpeter Keyon Harrold backing up the harmonized vocals of Jermaine Holmes. The trap beat is always there, but everything else slips in and out deliciously: riffing horns, phased synth patches, luxurious electric piano chords that ring with analog pleasure, that slippery bass sound. The music doesn’t move in a line as much as it circles about a set of ideas that wash over each other in episodes for seven enjoyable minutes. Strickland and Harrold improvise together toward the end in that spirit, creating a kind of hip-hop sound that mirrors old New Orleans jazz in its pleasurable counterpoint. “Marvelous” features a slightly more conventional vocal performance by Akie Bermiss and another Harrold solo, but the drama from Haynes’s drums highlights the track, as he demonstrates the new ways that funk and hip-hop grooves can become the center of any performance. Haynes, who has played with Kanye Weset, Ndegeocello, Queen Latifah, Lady Gaga, and Ed Sheeran, is also a jazz player at heart: part of a tradition that has always connected dance and pop traditions to art and improvisation.
If you know Strickland from his considerable work as a jazz player in the modern, post-bop tradition, the one thing missing from People of the Sun is a healthy dose of his individual imagination as a saxophone player. But long solos and individual virtuosity is not what defines this recording—and if you didn’t know that Strickland was the reed specialist, you might not guess that this was a horn player’s recording. There are just as many tasty organ solos on the instrumental tracks, and though the themes on “Lullaby” and “Relentlessness” are delivered with full-bodied saxophonic power, only the latter track really comes off as a thrilling feature for the leader’s playing.
But, of course, Strickland doesn’t want us to think of this as a “jazz” album, even if it is on the storied Blue Note label. But in today’s market this also is not music designed to make it on the radio or to sell significant quantities. Today, this kind of art music is simply being made with the production and trappings of blockbuster pop, filtered though a “jazz” tradition that embraces a history of innovation and recombination rather than emulation.
On its own terms, this new connective tissue between jazz and hip-hop is successful, rich and full of possibilities.