It's been done before. Guru's Jazzmatazz. Us3's impossibly
catchy remake of Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island." A deejay drops a
greasy beat, smothers a Hammond B-3 organ riff in reverb, cuts a howl
from Nina Simone and some jive-y banter from a bandleader, and voila:
hip-hop jazz. When Blue Note, the most famous and revered jazz label in
history, gave Madlib the keys to the vault, they took a chance on what
could have ended up a tired retread. But Madlib pulled through with a
classic that is really more jazz than hip-hop.
From the start, we are in Blue Note Land, as Madlib spins --
unadorned -- the auspicious introduction to one of the label's most
recognizable and rollicking hard bop classics, Art Blakey and the Jazz
Messengers' rendition of Cedar Walton's "Mosaic." The martial horn line
ascends to a precipice, only to topple magnificently under a frenetic
Art Blakey percussive assault. Fade out immediately to an impossibly
funky beat, old school cuts from DJ Lord Such, and a sample of some
campy 1970s jazz strings. Forty years forward and thirty back in twenty
Madlib puts his signature on the first three cuts, remixing three of
the most sample-able Blue Note veterans: Donald Byrd, Gene Harris and
Hammond hero Ronnie Foster. The rest of the album turns most of the
innovation over to new interpretations of Blue Note staples by live
groups led by Joe McDuphrey, Morgan Adams and Ahmad Miller, all
blanketed in Madlib's balanced treatment.
I say "balanced" because Madlib walks a fine line between
experimentation and groove. The beat on "Stepping into Tomorrow" --
which sounds like a narcotized "Immigrant Song" -- is indestructible,
and most of the rest of the album hustles. But Madlib knows that these
beats are harder hitting when they disappear temporarily for his
psychedelic flights of fancy, such as the sudden launch of "Footprints"
into outer space courtesy of some tweaked out Fender Rhodes keyboard,
whirling synthesizer and spastically syncopated ride cymbal.
Every once in a while, the album devolves into flute riffs
and hype beats that have already been done by A Tribe Called Quest and
DJ Shadow, and the smoother cuts sometime sound like a rococo St.
Germain or old Jamiroquai. But overall, Shades of Blue
works, as it definitively reveals the early 1970s Blue Note sound as a
progenitor of hip-hop. It works both as a tonic for jazz fans losing
faith in modern African-American music and for hip-hop fans who have
been waiting for years to hear a mix of jazz and hip-hop that doesn't
sound like a car commercial.
The album is more jazz than hip-hop, really, and Madlib is intensely
reverent of the Blue Note label. The blue-tinted album cover could have
been shot in 1962. Most songs end on playful testimonials from swinging
sentinels such as Leon Spencer, Melvin Sparks and Ruben Wilson. The
last few tracks are classic Blue Note, introducing fascinating
reinterpretations of label landmarks such as Horace Silver's "Peace"
and "Song For My Father," Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance" from Maiden Voyage,
and Wayne Shorter's "Footprints." Madlib also knows when to drop out
and leave the reinterpretation to his musicians; on "Song for My
Father," he merely limns the track with some stutters on the drums to
shake up the beat when it gets tepid.
But "Alfred Lion Interlude," says it all. A biography of Blue
Note founders Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff plays while a reprise of
"Mosaic" spirals around the speakers. A voice describes Alfred Lion,
and -- unwittingly -- Madlib: "He was interested in you and your
thoughts and getting you to have an unrestricted flow of your ideas in
his recordings. Not many people have that."