“This is not a record of El-P remixing jazz tracks,” Thirsty Ear’s press release for El-P’s High Water (formerly High Water (Mark)) warns. A remix implies a new, albeit secondary, authorship after all, and all signs point to hip-hop producer/emcee/impresario El-P being seriously committed to the spirit of collaboration in making this record with Matthew Shipp, William Parker, Guillermo E. Brown and other members of the enigmatic New York City free jazz collective the Blue Series Continuum. So if High Water isn’t El-P remixing jazz tracks, what is it?
Similar questions have pervaded critical responses to Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series records, usually a good sign that a label is pursuing a course that’s vital and legitimately contemporary. According to an interview of El-P by Matthew Shipp in the fall 2003 issue of Bomb, Shipp wanted to work with El-P as soon as he heard Fantastic Damage, El-P’s 2002 album. El-P’s role on High Water is essentially that of composer and producer. He provided bare-bones song skeletons for the jazz players to improvise on, then collected the material for his signature studio production that has made his hip-hop label, Definitive Jux, on par with Thirsty Ear in terms of releasing always-interesting albums that simultaneously acknowledge and destroy extant traditions.
This is not hip-hop proper, nor jazz proper. At times it comes off as a mysterious deconstruction of a jazz session, at times an overly languid jam session and, at its best, a more organic integration of hip-hop/jazz conflation (although El-P doesn’t rap on the album) pioneered by Antipop Consortium’s 2002 album on the Blue Series, Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp.
“Sunrise Over Bklyn,” from the EP of the same name released in July 2003, is an extended epic of slow-developing ambience in the vein of the Blue Series Continuum’s Sorcerer Sessions. El-P adds heavy doses of reverb and phase effects to the horns, and the product is a thing of understated beauty, something of a theme for High Water.
A cluster of three songs in the middle of the album represents the high point, largely because this is where El-P integrates his production most forcefully. “Intrigue in the House of India” is the best of the bunch. It opens with a definitively El-P beat, and is gradually complemented by two layers of Shipp’s perfect piano accompaniment, Brown’s rapid-fire Cuban-style drumming, Daniel Carter’s reeds, and El-P’s synth gurgles. This is the perfect coming-together of the eerie soundscape that characterizes the Def Jux sound and the repetitive hypnotism of the Blue Series players.
My only real criticism is that the High Water listening experience can oddly be a little too pleasant — nothing close to the crushing atmospherics of most Def Jux albums. Not that El-P is one to be intimidated, but he does admit in an interview distributed by Thirsty Ear that he “didn’t want to hurt what these guys do.”
Understandably so. Working with Shipp, Parker, et al as a first experience in producing classically trained musicians while simultaneously making a record dedicated to your father, also a jazz musician, is an intimidating prospect. But the album is made under El-P’s name, and when he steps up most forcefully is when he nudges the Blue Series ever further toward the unclassifiable but distinctly urban-post-millennial territory of music that it’s threatening to monopolize.