Shades of Blue


    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.”

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