Wednesday, March 2, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 839: Guru

Another day trying to get healthy and meet deadlines at the same time. I’m knackered.

Disc 839 is….Jazzmatazz Volume 1
Artist: Guru

Year of Release: 1993

What’s up with the Cover? The Guru himself, breathing smoke out of his nose and looking cool. Also he has listed all of his jazz collaborators on the front cover, in a fitting show of solidarity and also cool.

How I Came To Know It: My friend Casey introduced me to this album and with it a whole journey into not only the music of Guru, but of his original rap band Gang Starr as well. Thanks, Casey!

How It Stacks Up:  Guru did four Jazzmatazz albums. I once owned three of them, but Volume 3 (reviewed back at Disc 631) it scared me off getting the fourth. Of the three I own (or have owned) Volume 1 is far and away the best.

Ratings: 4 stars

Whenever I listen to “Jazzmatazz: Volume 1” I find myself wishing jazz could always be like this; providing a little flavour around the edges of an actual song but not wrecking it. Jazz is the millwork that dreamed it was the entire building.

Guru knows better – jazz needs musical boundaries as a backdrop to showcase its creativity. In his words (spoken in the album’s introduction), Jazzmatazz:

“…is an experimental fusion of hip hop and live jazz. Hip hop, rap music, is real. Real cultural expression based on reality and at the same time jazz is real and based on reality.”

Hmm. Guru’s quote is a little too focused on keeping it ‘real’. Fortunately, musically he is much better at creating the fusion of jazz and rap than he is at describing it.

“Jazzmatazz” is an album where Guru gathers old school and new school jazz musicians alike and marries their talents to original rap songs. The result is a what jazz fusion would sound like if it were fused with something good. The songs on “Jazzmatazz” are grounded in hip-hop beats and Guru’s measured, smooth raps. The jazz musicians provide the flair around the edges without disrupting the core of the song.

This works perfectly. Rap relies on a constant understanding of a song’s underlying beat, while the vocalist plays around that beat with his phrasing Jazz is very similar, but it is the musician noodling around on top of the beat. Both musical forms rely on syncopation in different ways, and when combined they come off as natural friends.

Guru’s smooth rap style is the perfect accompaniment. By sliding in and out of his rhymes in such a round and relaxed way, he gives his jazz collaborators the freedom to come in and out and fill out the song’s sound without feeling intrusive. The album’s ever-present hip hop beat grounds vocalist and musical soloist with equal success.

Thematically, these songs have a definitive urban flair and many feel like they were inspired by the New York subway system. “Transit Ride” reminds you to watch the closing doors and “No Time To Play” captures the feverish intensity of people on their daily commute. The jazz flairs are the perfect urban accompaniment to the themes. Sometimes it is a touch of Lonnie Liston Smith’s piano here and there (“Down the Backstreets”) other times it is a shade of Donald Byrd’s trumpet (“Loungin’”) but Guru always seems to choose the right partner for each song.

On “When You’re Near” and “Trust Me” he brings in soul/acid jazz vocalist N’Dea Davenport. These are two of my favourite tracks. Nowadays it is commonplace for a rap act to incorporate a soul singer to belt out a hook for their song, but it often feels like an empty manipulation to make a boring song more likeable. On “When You’re Near” and “Trust Me” N’Dea Davenport’s vocal doesn’t feel tacked on, it feels integral to the song’s development.

Despite all the jazz flourishes this record rarely feels frantic or overstuffed. In fact, tracks like “Loungin’” and “Down the Backstreets” are chill and relaxed. I think it helps that this is still early enough in the development of rap that the arrangements remain sparse and focused on vocal delivery, leaving space for the jazz to explore.

This album just exudes cool, and I admit the flourishes of jazz around the edges has a lot to do with that. Branford Marsalis, whose saxophone annoyed me on Sting’s solo albums was a welcome addition on “Jazzmatazz.” Context (and restraint) is everything.

Although Guru would go on to release three more Jazzmatazz albums, he would never recapture the perfect mix of dope beats and jazz noodle that he captured on “Volume 1.” This album finds the perfect middle ground between two musical cousins, and then gives them the freedom to dance together.

Best tracks:  Loungin’, When You’re Near, No Time To Play, Take a Look (At Yourself), Trust Me, Slicker Than Most

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