Mos Def Presents: Amino Alkaline-The Watermelon Syndicate (?) with special guest Gil Scott-Heron
photo by Terrence Jennings
Saturday, June 28
Gil Scott-Heron, the now 59 year-old “Godfather of Hip-Hop,” wrote and sang this in the early 1980s:
“I take pride in what’s mine—is that really a crime—When you know I ain’t got nothing else? / Only millions of sounds picks me up when I’m down, let me salvage a piece of myself / What it has will surely last, but is that Jazz?”
Jazz, that most benighted of African American genres and my late Mother’s favorite, still powered many dimensions of my world then with the music fighting off its coming moribund era characterized by pop-rock artists such as Sting seeking longevity and legitimacy in the bosom of Mama Afrika and the aural wallpaper of smooth radio formats. When Scott-Heron sang that lyric in Robert Mugge’s 1982 tribute film to his genius, Black Wax, jazz was still a totality, a feeling, a culture which far exceeded its Afropean origins in New Orleans—and sometimes saved sensitive, mostly African-descended folk from themselves. It made sense for this ascendant apprentice bluesician and Lincoln-educated public intellectual to invoke the spirits of jazz masters past and present—Count Basie, Lady Day, Sir Duke Ellington, Lester “Prez” Young, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, his sometime collaborator Ron Carter—whose struggles and innovations he benefitted from. In his yearning voice of trademark grit-and-sunshine, Brotha Gil seemed to be presciently taking a last stand not just for a lost aesthetic but an entire way of life and sensibility nurtured by black folks well before the glory years of revolution in the 1960s and ‘70s that put the young artist on the performance and political stage. It seems no accident now—when the cradle and lifeways of jazz looked to be fatally imperiled by natural devastation and human neglect in New Orleans—that the long period of the genre’s anemic freefall coincided with Scott-Heron’s personal saison en Enfer and his crucial voice being sidelined. Where did our love, our semblance of freedom, our hope for social justice go?
Gil Scott-Heron is one of my few lifelong heroes. News of his guest star billing with Mos Def made this year’s JVC Jazz Festival a must-see destination. Many casual fans and detractors nowadays consider Scott-Heron to be a man in pieces—per a notable early recording of his – a cautionary signifier of a generation’s will to self-destruction. Yet while the man is flawed, the artist has mostly remained without peer in his “agit-rap” form.
At Carnegie Hall last Saturday night, this pairing of Scott-Heron, who was reared in Chelsea during adolescence, with Brooklyn-bred Mos Def—a brotherhood minted at Jimi’s Electric Lady on the cosmic tip—seemed necessary and inevitable. The abiding challenge before the JVC Jazz Festival organizers is to reckon with public apathy regarding jazz beyond an audience largely restricted to moneyed elites who fancy themselves patrons of the arts, self-conscious urban students and aesthetes, and engaged musicians. Summoning rapper-turned-actor Mos Def to the hallowed gilt-and-plush of Carnegie’s Isaac Stern Auditorium was a major symbol of vital outreach. Yet the event was imbued with a greater significance: the passing of the torch between mentor Gil and grateful acolyte Mos. Was it not only jazz but destiny when Scott-Heron finally took the stage during the program’s second half referring to the emcee who helped salvage hip-hop at the end of the ‘90s as “Tomorrow” and reducing Mos Def to tears?
Before the intermission, Mos Def had already held thangs down, exploiting the notion that jazz, like his benefactor hip-hop, is ultimately indefinable. Fortunately, the proceedings never descended into chaos for his stalwart big band, the Amino Alkaline Orchestra presented by the Watermelon Syndicate on its fifth live date, was deftly piloted by one of the new millennium’s Great Hopes in jazz, Texan Turk keyboardist Robert Glasper. Glasper—assisted by drummer Chris Dave, alto saxophonist Casey Benjamin, a DJ, a section of sista strings, and horny horns—ably accommodated a repertoire encompassing black pop low (Bell Biv DeVoe’s “Poison”), high (Mongo Santamaria’s immortal “Afro-Blue”), politicized (Fela’s “No Agreement”) plus the slinky Dave original “Saturday Night Dance,” demonstrating the impressive wrangling of jazz and urban sonics most recently tamed on 2007’s In My Element. Leaping forward from last February’s celebrated stand at BAM, Mos Def, Glasper and their collaborators appear to be conjuring true jazz musicality and hip-hop realness with a fluidity heralded by Nas and his sire Olu Dara’s great single “Bridging the Gap.” That he spit a Jay Electronica rhyme on the fly and there was a smidgeon of conceptual drift as Mos dialed up the meta-nome in his mind, that a duet with Renee Neufville (formerly of Zhané) on Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams” never quite became electric only signaled on-the-spot daring and grasping that makes vital art. If only the Amino Alkaline Orchestra could be afforded the chance to properly develop and thrive rather than being sidelined by its host’s multiple commitments.
Despite his recorded output being rather erratic and threatening to be eclipsed by the rise of his Hollywood star, Mos Def displayed great dedication to this project in the moment and the will and flexibility to redefine jazz—whatever it may truly be.
Early cries from the upper balconies for his masterpiece “Umi Says” underscored that Mos Def has yet to musically trump his revered solo debut Black on Both Sides (1999), but by the time he closed with that space-rock mystery I always considered a generational response to Gil Scott-Heron’s sound and approach it was clear that the big band gig was his moment of redemption. Blessedly, Mos Def didn’t limit his own reverence to mere sonic affection but also emphatically exhorted the masses on behalf of Barack Obama, crooning “Congratulations Mr. President…” and half-jokingly angling for an Inaugural Ball slot with an ennobled, almost pious black-and-white portrait of the campaigning Soul Brother projected in triplicate behind the band. He also channeled some Scott-Heron humor throughout the night, amusingly switching between standard English and Black English Vernacular for precise effect and ending his stage turn with a petulant stamp of foot and the in-joke cry of “Sexual chocolate!” as the P.A. stirred to life with Herbie Hancock & the Headhunters’ spooky, sly, Meters-nodding “Watermelon Man.”
Echoing my perpetual inner feeling, Mos Def recently told New York magazine about Scott-Heron: “He’s one of my heroes, an incredible source of energy, power, and truth in the world.” So there was some disappointment that Scott-Heron, who came out to a standing O, only performed two songs: an achingly sweet and tender take on 1974’s “Song For Bobby Smith” and, fitting but surprisingly It’s Your World’s muted jazz-poesy gem “New York City” rather than any of the legend’s incendiary raps one might expect. As done by the master Gil and Mos from BK’s polyglot streets, “New York City” latent Afro-Latin bounce was teased out further by the band and tripped back in time to the sophisticated proto-funk fusion of its core Spanish tinge in early jazz in 19th century New Orleans. Still, something like “Third World Revolution” or a rousing, cleansing “Johannesburg” might’ve been the thing in light of the past week’s horrors surrounding the Zimbabwe elections (and the loss of truth teller George Carlin).
With no end in sight to the treachery of either Mugabe or this nation’s government, it’s no small mercy though that Mos Def is also using this project to carry his love beyond the agape to restore power to the people—as he’s deployed his might in the past, protesting in Katrina’s wake in 2005 and after the Jena Six incident last year. The poetry in motion extended to the Orchestra donning almost unrelieved black and smart-billed caps that invoked either James Reece Europe leading a military jazz band during WWI or a West African colonial unit, one. Mos Def certainly spoke for them all when declaring: “Who needs a gang when you’ve got this community?…If you gon’ bang, bang for freedom!” I was ecstatic and, above all, hopeful to bear witness to his process, recognizing the fearlessness in the Orchestra beginning to undertake this journey. And it was all best underscored by Mos Def’s professed mantra to all plain folks and true artists like himself—“Be yourself!” (the hardest thing to do in this society which loves to undermine all artists and Africans), illustrated by vintage footage of we Chocolate City natives’ late great hero DJ Petey Greene hilariously and brilliantly urging us to deliver our watermelon consumption from the bourgié closet and enjoy it with relish rather than dressing it up in distancing trimmings. The stunning closure of this year’s JVC JazzFest certainly made it seem that Gil Scott-Heron and his Tomorrow will soon be enjoying spitting watermelon seeds with Obama on the White House lawn. That will be jazz –as-lived-expression restored to its pride of place, fo’ sho’—and will doubtless spawn a popular YouTube sensation, aside from salvaging the bitter-scattered pieces of us. Evolution out of devolution is starting to look and swing like a good thang.