Jam On It

Hippies, Jazzbos, and Beat Junkies Build One Nation Under a Mutant Groove

Let us now praise great Americans: Louis Armstrong, Jerry Garcia, and Grandmaster Flash made their history with equal parts pioneer cojones and improvisatory derring-do. They had a lot in common. Back in the day, each would move their crowd, playing off dancefloor energy, freestyling musical fragments into data streams, blowing minds, slapping behinds. They began by playing for their own tribes—who liked to boogie, liked being surprised, liked smoking weed—and found bigger audiences than they could ever have imagined.

It makes a certain 21st-century information-superhighway sense that their scenes would converge. Jam-band-land is overrun by blues-rock bores trying to reanimate their '60s forefathers. DJ music could use some new forms of human interplay, and its jazz jones has yet to forge the right alliances (sorry, sampling old Verve sides doesn't count anymore, and Guru's done all he can). Jazz, meanwhile, needs to drag its ass out of the archaeologist's hole Wynton Marsalis has dug for it, dig some new vernacular, and free itself from the ever shrinking necktie of public arts funding (the Bloomberg era is upon us).

These musics have been playing footsie for a while, but lately they've been getting downright promiscuous. Exhibit A: Jazz-funk guitarist John Scofield. Best known for logging time with latter-day Miles, he's also played with Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, and Billy Cobham, and collaborated with Berklee chum Joe Lovano on a series of excellent bop-ish quartet LPs. But something funny happened on the way to the Ken Burns American Studies museum: In 1998, Scofield made a record called A Go Go with jam-fusion gurus Medeski, Martin & Wood and found himself a brand new bag. Fast-forward to Irving Plaza, 2002, where "Sco," as he's now known on Jambands.com, was launching a 60-city tour to promote the shamelessly target-marketed Überjam. Bald, paunchy, cheerfully avuncular, he built cubist riff-rafts atop a young funk band who spit free-floating samples, live breakbeats, and electro-flotsam. A post-Deadhead gaggle of DIY bootleggers compared notes, their matched Neumann mics on telescopic stands feeding laptops and DATs. Meanwhile, Phish fans frugged, Guitar World subscribers nodded, and hot junior stocktraders, who no doubt tailed Dave Matthews Band tours as undergrads, drained the bar. Sneer all you like, but as a night out on the town, it beat the fuck out of the Blue Note.

Leaders of the New School Medeski, Martin & Wood
photo: Danny Clinch
Leaders of the New School Medeski, Martin & Wood

And the music? Well, while it opened up some live, Überjam unfortunately isn't. The melodies are largely PBS, and Scofield, for all his rhythmic and harmonic skills, never musters the flow or epic spaciness that defines great jam journeying. Yet despite the dubious rhymes on "I Brake 4 Monster Booty" ("Weak rappers wanna flex/Sco rocked for Miles and he's one of the best!"), his players bring good ideas: Adam Deitch's breakbeat drumming on "Jungle Fiction" brought down the house at Irving, and Avi Bortnick drops some wiggy samples along with his antsy rhythm guitar work.

There's plenty of precedent here. Sco's mentor Miles scripted a jam/jazz/electro-funk fusion 30 years ago and brought it to hippie ballrooms like the Fillmore East. Fellow Miles alumnus Herbie Hancock introduced turntablism to the masses with "Rockit." Ornette Coleman sat in with the Grateful Dead and invited Garcia to get harmolodic on Virgin Beauty. But what were once sidetracks have become viable career options. According to Soundscan, Scofield's early-'90s quartet recordings on Blue Note moved between 10,000 and 15,000 copies. Relevant numbers aren't in yet for Überjam, but A Go Go passed 98,000 in February, and last year's Works for Me, a fairly straight-ahead set with Brad Mehldau and Kenny Garrett, tipped 20,000, suggesting a crossover bump from jambos. While small by pop standards, the numbers haven't gone unnoticed. "A lot of [jazz] people have dollar signs in their eyeballs. I think it's hilarious," says John Medeski, who's made a healthy career hopscotching the line twixt jam and jazz. "The jazz scene is looking for an outlet for improvised music, and the jam-band scene is the most vibrant scene for that now. I'm not saying it's all the best improvised music, that's for sure. But what these kids are looking for is that cathartic experience you get from music created in the moment."

Medeski, Martin & Wood are the leaders of this new school, if anyone is—working the groove, probing the cosmos, and avoiding jazz-lite clichés. They've always studied beat science (see especially Combustication), but on Uninvisible they get their degree. They have help: Music-reading Kid Koala cohort DJ P-Love gets impressive play, as does illbient old-schooler DJ Olive. And producer Scotty Hard (no relation to Hardkiss) becomes a bona fide band member, pitch-shifting tracks on the noir-funk "Take Me Nowhere," salting riddims on "First Time Long Time," and dubbing out the title track, which gets an Afro-beatdown from Brooklyn Fela-tiasts Antibalas, who've also become major players in the current gathering of the tribes.

Maybe it was the proximity of the late hippie-cum-hip-hop haven Wetlands and jazz-cum-whatever watering hole the Knitting Factory that made New York the locus for the new fusion. (Giant Step has helped, too.) But the language is evolving here, and Black Cherry (Aum Fidelity) is a good example of the newspeak. Credited to ethno-techno dubmaster Sasha Crnobrnja, the Swiss expat who records and hosts DJ-centric jam sessions under the moniker Organic Grooves, it remixes last year's Piercing the Veil by William Parker and Hamid Drake, the seismic, globe-trotting bass'n'drum team who've become the Sly and Robbie of the free-jazz set. Cherry isn't always worthy of its source material (e.g., the Enya-ish cheese puffery on "Satta Pox"), but it gets deep, translating Parker-Drake's collage of African, Middle Eastern, Indonesian, and American trance-swing into modern digi-loop traditions. Parker also lends a hand on Matthew Shipp's new Nu-bop, an intermittently brilliant set of abstract jazz-funk pumped up by Chris Flam's beat programming.

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