Alternate Takes Week #8: Album for the Week

Alternate Takes Readers!

Thanks for your patience.  Sorry about the Album for the Week hiatus!  It’s been a busy summer!  But this album is worth the wait.  Closed my eyes, and ran my fingers across the library and came up with THIS gem!

Ahmad Jamal’s 1970 classic The Awakening is a preeminent outing, which embodies and fuses a range of pianistic heritage and innovation, making this album a timeless reference for every modern pianist to follow.  This album explored the trio in ways that had not been done before.  Jamal’s warm, gospel feel and lush re-harmonizations on “I Love Music” are so ahead of their time; a mass appeal to hip-hop producers and DJs.  The mix alone is raw, edgy and moody.  Sampled by the incomparable Pete Rock for rapper Nas’ debut album Illmatic, “The World Is Yours” was one of the most stand-out tracks on this seminal hip-hop album.  (I spent many days with my investigative ears on, determined to figure out exactly how Mr. Rock chopped this song.  And I did!)  Nas’ brilliant and jazz-inspired phrasing over Jamal’s haunting progressions and Pete Rock’s gritty drum programming and scratching created a modern day masterpiece.

Jamal Plays Jamal, released in 1974, is another hip-hop treasure, with songs like “Swahililand” and “Pastures” being sampled by J Dilla and producer Ski, who created an impeccable New York inspired backdrop to Jay-Z’s “Feelin’ It” from the classic Reasonable Doubt album.  But unlike the funk/groove oriented Jamal Plays Jamal, with all original compositions, the use of electric keyboards, and intricate string arrangements, The Awakening is a musical love letter to integral artists like Herbie Hancock, Jobim, and Oliver Nelson, whose compositions Jamal interprets most bewitchingly.  Songs like “Dolphin Dance”, “Wave”, and “Stolen Moments” are transformed without compromise, or even intricate rearrangements; a testament to the elastic possibilities of the acoustic trio, and Jamal’s obvious openness to all that was modern and happening around him in the present.  Like Herbie Hancock, and Hank Jones, Jamal always sounds ahead of his time because he always embraced what was both current and on the horizon.  As stripped down as this album is in theory, at points it sounds almost symphonic, thanks in big part to the deft and melodic bassist Jamil Nasser, and the agile Frank Gant on drums.

This is just one of those perfect records.


The Roots Bring the Late Night Jam Session to Late Night Television

If you’re at home, channel surfing after midnight, you just may see Chick Corea…or Herbie Hancock…or Christian Scott.  Not on PBS or Ovation – but on network television.  And you have The Roots to thank for it.

NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon is changing the look of late night talk shows, and the fresh-faced Fallon is just one of the differences.  The tradition of the late night band has been elevated under the direction of Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson and The Roots, as the house band for Late Night.   The show has brilliantly simulated the jam session, bringing in various notable musicians to sit in and play with the band, showcasing the interplay and spontaneity of a jam session at an after-hours jazz hang.  The Roots crew has brought not only their top-notch musicianship to NBC, but their ethics, too.  “I told him [Fallon] that there has to be the real trade off,” says Thompson.  Exposing musicians to a broader medium is a potential game-changer for jazz musicians who aren’t normally afforded (though completely deserving of) such a platform. Following Fallon’s opening monologue, he reintroduces The Roots and their special guest.  Once settled behind his desk, he promotes the guest, showcasing their album artwork or CD, plugs any upcoming shows they may have, and chats them up a bit — a major opportunity for any artist.  As a musician first, Thompson understands the importance of  this kind of recognition.  “We really wanted to have effective ways to, you know, to really maximize on that.  That one song in the last slot of the show [from the band actually slotted to perform on the show] could equal [the] spotlight at the top of the show plus all the commercials in between.”

Most recently, The Roots welcomed jazz pianist Robert Glasper to sit in.  Described as his “musical comrades”, Glasper tips his hat to the band for their stance.  “I’ve known Ahmir for a long time; it’s great to see them being exposed on such a major level. And for them also to be able to expose me and other musicians who wouldn’t get that kind of recognition on a normal basis is great and inspiring.  I don’t know of any other circumstance that a jazz pianist or any other musician in general that plays jazz would get that kind of spotlight on a regular basis and they’re making that happen.”

While this is not an entirely new idea (saxophonist Branford Marsalis’ powerhouse quartet was the band for The Tonight Show from 1992 – 1995, with Marsalis as MD, showcasing a plethora of jazz legends), the Roots are certainly bringing the brand power of “the band” to pop culture in an unprecedented way, and it seems to be rubbing off. For example, after my interview, they were rushing off to play for President Obama at a mid-town gala.   Pop, and even hip-hop artists are opting for the organic sonance of the live band instead of playing to track.  Artists like Ludacris, Lupe Fiasco, Nas and Lil Wayne are employing musicians with diverse musical backgrounds to deliver their songs.

Jazz musicians could not be happier, I’m sure.  “For the fist time in a long time I was actually nervous,” says Glasper through a hearty laugh, “realizing half way through my solo piano part that I was playing for millions of people which I’ve never done before on my own…promoting myself.  I’m playing my song by myself for millions of people. So, the fact that [The Roots are] still breaking ground in the music industry and for the good of the musician, it was an amazing situation for me to be in.”