As music goes, I have a confession to make—I really don’t get jazz. It’s not like I don’t have an open-mind. I want to like it. I’m hip, I’m down. Objection! Your honor, motion to strike that from the record. Sustained. Apart from bro-country and the deathrock genre and everything ever recorded by Maroon 5, I listen to, enjoy, and own just about every kind of music imaginable—hardly any of it’s jazz. There’s just something about the genre that takes so much mental energy, and any attempt to get deep in the cut causes me to lurch around like Elaine Benes, furiously trying to keep rhythm, and more than I’d like to admit, I just end up stopping the song dead in its tracks.
That was until 2015, when rapper Kendrick Lamar changed all that. Maybe not the dancing part, but the album was certainly eye-opening nonetheless.
To Pimp a Butterfly was released in 2015 and upon hearing it, I was immediately rapt, struck by the fact that it was such a powerful and at times poignant record. Complete with stinging lyrics and themes which explored contemporary societal, cultural, and political issues, it’s a damning account coupled with a dynamite sound. On the surface, Butterfly is often labeled as a hip hop album. That’s a bit misleading. While it has customary spoken word cadence of rap, the album incorporates elements of funk, electronic music, and soul, and has been described as “an ambitious avant-garde-jazz-rap statement.” An amalgam of musical styles, the kind of genre-bending music is at the nucleus of what appealed to me most, and it’s the conduit that led me on a year-long journey where I discovered three phenomenal artists whose contributions to the album gave it so much flavor, panache, or jazz—if that’s what you call it.
Saxophonist Kamasi Washington whose string and horn arrangements are featured on Butterfly is one such artist. To put it bluntly—he’s cosmically dope. Complete with a dashiki and Jordan’s, Washington is one of the most accomplished jazz artists the genre has seen in decades. Sorry Miles. His aptly-titled, critically-acclaimed first album Epic was released in 2015, and it’s something to behold. Featuring a 10 piece band, a 32 piece orchestra section, the record clocks in a bit just shy of 3 hours long. It’s sure to appeal to both jazzophiles as well as those of us who need a more modern reintroduction to the genre.
Steven Ellison, the visionary. Under the guise of Flying Lotus, his beats are hard to escape once they seep into your consciousness. In addition to being a musician in his own right, Ellison is an animator, filmmaker, collaborator, and producer—one of twenty on Lamar’s aforementioned award-winning album. If you’re still scratching your head wondering if you’ve heard his auditory concoctions, there’s a good chance you have. Gamers in particular—for which I’m not—might recognize his bumper music courtesy of FlyLo FM, a radio station in Grand Theft Auto V. Or possibly you’ve seen him as the DJ on Comedy Central’s, Why? With Hannibal Buress. Impressively, his record label Brainfeeder, is a repository for more or less thirty artists—including Washington—who are at the vanguard of the alt-electro-dank-jazz-funk-fusion-hip hop movement. If that’s even a thing. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ While Flying Lotus’ music is oft-classified as electronic, the thread of jazz permeates throughout, and it’s this remarkably fresh and layered sound that can be heard on his 5th studio album You’re Dead, which was released in 2014.
Which brings me to Thundercat, aka Stephen Bruner, bass guitarist virtuoso, and former member of Suicidal Tendencies, whose album Drunk released in February, may be my newest audio obsession. In fact, in the past week, I’ve purchased everything he’s ever made. Drunk, produced by Flying Lotus, is a sonic gateway drug for sure. An eccentric and surprisingly lighthearted (courtesy of some juvenile humor, meowing, and musing lyrics) album which features Kendrick Lamar, Pharrell and Wiz Khalifa, as well as some surprises, namely legendary and soulful white dudes—Kenny “Danger Zone” Loggins and my own personal favorite, Doobie Bro., Michael “Sweet Freedom” McDonald on the song “Show You the Way”. What more could you want fam? Thundercat’s falsetto voice coupled with his trifurcated velvety noise is immediately mesmerizing. Imagine if Stevie Wonder and Pat Metheny had a baby—the result, a fusion of a multitude of genres including jazz. And somewhere between 70’s R&B, akin to The Brothers Johnson, with bass licks straight from P-Funk, layered with the shear psychedelia of The Vampires’ Sound Incorporation. Thundercat, just like Sturgill Simpson, can’t be categorized and they both are deconstructing, reimagining and reinterpreting a long, storied and sometimes misunderstood—and therefore, neglected—genre of music.
Washington sums it up, “the funny thing is, you’ve probably been into jazz all along, you just didn’t know it!” So if loving jazz is wrong, then….well…you know the rest. Listen for yourself!