April 1999

The concept which Bill Laswell and Alan Douglas conceived for this CD has been tackled by various musicians with varying results, taking the jazz tradition of the past and updating them for the present, with hip-hop beats and the like. This mixture has often enough resulted in lukewarm acid jazz or, worse yet, cynical cash-ins, although gems can be found. Thanks to Laswell's unique vision, however, the music on this disc is nothing short of amazing. The renditions of vocalese jazz standards (including "Moody's Mood for Love," Stan Getz's "Little Boy Don't Get Scared" and Duke Ellington's "Cottontail") are built around a vocal duo from Brooklyn, Asante, and Laswell himself. He doesn't just play his dubby bass, but also programmed the hip-hop beats and contributed sounds in general (some of which were taken from his earlier releases: compare "Blue" to "33" from VALIS II). That's not all, however; apart from the soulful vocals of Asante, singers include Dana Bryant (whose voice is incredibly sexy), Alicia Renee, and even rap pioneer Grandmaster Melle Mel. Amina Claudine Myers, who plays some funky organ and electric piano on various tracks, also sings on one track. Adding to the hip-hop element are turntablists Roc Raida and DXT; Laswell himself also does some scratching. The jazz element is brought in by saxophonist Byard Lancaster and cornetist Graham Haynes (both restrained and intense at once) and the subdued, bluesy guitar work of Brandon Ross and Nicky Skopelitis. Finally, Karl Berger is an important voice on most of the tracks; he not only arranged and conducted the Material Strings (sounding romantic but cliché-free), but also plays vibes and keyboards. Two tracks deserve special mention: "Blue" (a Joni Mitchell cover) is the only instrumental track, apart from the one-minute and 47-second "Fade" at the end of the disc -- and it's pure melancholy, thanks to Berger's textures and Haynes' echoey cornet. The other one is "Cottontail," which Laswell treated with a drum'n'bass loop and some priceless "walking dub bass." Bootsy Collins has a short cameo on this track. The biggest plus of this album is that it's never afraid of being sentimental, with its full strings and lush arrangements, but at the same time it's completely free of cheese and clichés. Laswell has indeed blended various styles into a fresh and original sound which sounds traditional and new at once. Who says that staying in the tradition has to imply sounding like a xerox of it?




This review was written for the All-Music Guide on April 11, 1999.

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