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By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Year-end, Top 10 lists are everywhere. Only The Daily Record presents its favorite records in haiku. Enjoy.

1. Arcade Fire – Suburbs

Four sides of vinyl.
Suburban sprawl? Viewing life
takes time to explore.

2. The Roots – How I Got Over

Late night’s finest band
drops another classic.
Best since “Game Theory.”

3. Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid

Ambitious concept
spread over diverse styles,
An amazing voice.

4. Bobby Watson – Gates BBQ Suite

Mouth-watering sounds
Basie, Ollie should be proud
Tribute to KayCee

5. Black Keys – Brothers

Broader sound gives pair
more room for dirty landscapes
Blues and guitar bros.

6. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Self-proclaimed jerk
Submits tortured, twisted art
Tender, repulsive

7. Cee-Lo Green – The Ladykiller

Soul man blurs genres
for nonstop party. Like it?
If not, forget you.

8. Big Boi – Sir Lucious Lefty, Son of Chico Dusty

Execs slow release,
block Andre, but can’t stop fun.
More “Speakerboxx” joy.

9. Oriole Post – Silver City

A down-home hoedown
Warm as buttermilk biscuits
Full of Midwest heart.

10. Brad Mehldau – Highway Rider

Piano maestro
back with Josh Redman.
Expansive, probing.

Keep reading:

Top 10 Albums of 2009

Top 10 Albums of 2008

Top 10 Albums of 2007

Top 10 Albums of 2006

Top 10 albums of 2005

Top 10 Albums of 2004

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 (Above: First Stephen Foster, then Ray Charles. Now John Legend and the Roots have “Hard Times.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

A little more than three months after releasing one of the best albums of their 17-year career, The Roots are back, this time with John Legend.

The pairing is inspired. The Roots have long have a reputation as the best band in hip hop. For the past couple years they’ve proved their mettle to the mainstream as the house band on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” Legend is clearly a great talent, but often gets overwhelmed by slick production and light-weight songwriting. These 10 reinterpretations of classic soul protest songs offer the perfect platform for him to shine.

Legend lives up to the opportunity, singing with grit and emotion only hinted at on his solo albums, and feeding off the Roots’ vibe. Opening cut “Hard Times,” a lost Curtis Mayfield classic written for Baby Huey, feeds off a horn line ricocheting off of Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson’s drums and Captain Kirk Douglas’ bright guitar. Black Thought’s rap in the middle reinforces the track’s message and feel. This is music to spark both revolution and revelry.

“Wake Up Everybody” features a guest rhyme from Common that feels like a verse from a lost hymn. Legend’s duet with Melanie Fiona here captures the same mood as a classic Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell number. “Little Ghetto Boy” – bolstered by another Black Thought cameo – and the buoyant gospel reading of Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free” are other high points.

Unfortunately, the album can’t sustain these moments. Legend’s vocal shortcomings come to the foreground on “Wholy Holy.”Gaye’s voice soars effortlessly on the original, while Legend strains just to lift off. His over-singing on Bill Wither’s “I Can’t Write Left-Handed” is accidentally exposed by Douglas’ understated, tasteful soloing.

Not all of the blame lies at Legend’s feet. Normally an impeccable arranger, there are some surprising issues with Thompson’s choices. Les McCann’s “Compared to What” swings and skips like a rock skimming the top of a lake. Thompson’s slower arrangement is leaden in comparison. His treatment of Lincoln Thompson’s (no relation) reggae song “Humanity (Love the Way it Should Be)” hews closely to the original, but without the Jamaican patois it seems stiff and forced. The performance should have been reworked to emphasize what Legend could bring to the number.

“Wake Up” was inspired by Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory and Arcade Fire’s song “Wake Up.” The original plan was record an EP, and truthfully Legend and the Roots should have stayed with that concept. The handful of strong cuts present would have made for an outstanding mid-player. As is, this is a solid album with plenty of outstanding moments, but ample opportunity to skip to the next cut. Or, better yet, seek out the originals.

Keep reading:

Review: For The Roots It’s All In The Music

Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell – “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”

Fans delay Maxwell’s next album

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 (Above: Damian Marley and Nas perform at the Beaumont Club in Kansas City, Mo. on June 26, 2009.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

When the rapper Nas and reggae artist Damian Marley, youngest son of Bob Marley, first teamed up five years ago, the result was solid, but not spectacular. “Road to Zion” was a typical mash-up with Nas dropping a verse into the pocket of a mostly completed composition. There was little interaction between the two.

All of that immediately flies out the window on “Distant Relatives,” the new full-length collaboration between Nas and Marley. Open cut “As We Enter” finds the pair tag-teaming stanzas. As Nas spits “My man can speak patois/and I can speak rap star,” Marley drops the line “from Queens to Kingston/gunshot we use and govern the kingdom.”

The “rhythm piranhas” – as Marley dubs the duo – started toying with the idea of producing an EP to benefit school in Africa back in 2008, but the project grew as it progressed. Predictably, the lyrics find both vocalists working in a political vein, which is not a radical departure for either.

Nas shines in this environment, weaving street parables into Marley’s global paradigm. Marley, on the other hand, brings a sense of optimism lacking on most hip hop albums. His influence permits Nas to deliver his most straightforward and affirming lines this since “I Can” on the track “Count Your Blessings.”

Although “Distant Relatives” celebrates Africa, the only musician from the continent to appear on the record in person is K’naan, who blesses two tracks. The reset of the album captures the energy and rhythm of the motherland through samples that include Ethiopian jazz, Angolan singing and the Malian couple Amadou and Miriam. And while the pulse is definitely (defiantly?) African, the concrete jungle of Marley’s Jamaica and Nas’ New York are never far.

The only time the third world spell is broken comes on the song “My Generation.” Lil Wayne’s appearance on the track is passable, but feels like a ponderous attempt at mainstream radio play. The most egregious offender, however, is Joss Stone, ruins a decent production with an over-the-top delivery that seems to parody an American Idol wannabe.

Despite the title, the worlds of rap and reggae aren’t really that distant. Afrika Bambaata and Run-DMC dipped into the reggae in rap’s first decade. KRS-One later incorporated reggae into his 1987 hit “The Bridge is Over,” which famously dissed Nas’ home borough. The decade would also find KRS-One collaborating with Sly and Robbie and Shabba Ranks.

Likewise, Marley is no stranger to hip hop. His raspy voice has always worked better in a spoken cadence than in his limited singing range. Both of his major-label albums bounce with an urban beat. “Welcome to Jamrock,” the Grammy-winning album that fostered his meeting with Nas, also featured a track with The Roots MC Black Thought. In addition, Marley’s brother Stephen Marley, who produced two of the cuts on “Distant Strangers” oversaw a remix album of his father’s songs that featured The Roots, Chuck D of Public Enemy, Guru and former Fugee Lauryn Hill, who is married to Rohan Marley, another of Bob Marley’s sons.

“Distant Relatives” flattens this musical landscape. It is an ambitious project with global aims, not only musically, but lyrically, dealing with humanity, morality and messy nuances of emotion like greed and humility that can easily come across as clichés or preaching. Few artists have the vision to imagine a project of such scope, let alone pull it off.

Marley and Nas teamed up because they wanted to respond to the disasters in Haiti, Somalia and Darfur. Their intentions should be appreciated. The results should be celebrated.

Keep reading:

Review: The Original Wailers

Jazz, hip hop collide to celebrate landmark album

Review: Toots and the Maytals, the Wailers

Review: Bela Fleck’s Africa Project

Review: Sly and Robbie

Album review – “Stax: The Soul of Hip-Hop”

Review: Lee “Scratch” Perry

Jay-Z – “The Blueprint 3″

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(Above:  “The Sixth Sense”  – A classic joint from a classic album.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Trumpet player Hermon Mehari of Diverse kept a copy of Common’s landmark hip hop album “Like Water for Chocolate” in his car for two years, but it wasn’t until he saw Les Izmore at the Czar Bar in January that he knew what he wanted to do with it.

The idea was as ambitious as the album Mehari wanted to celebrate: to combine the jazz chops of Diverse with Izmore’s hip hop style. Both outfits are staples of the local music scenes that rarely overlap.

“The people in the jazz scene often worry why people don’t go out, but the truth is some people don’t have a reason to go to Jardine’s or the Blue Room,” Mehari said. “Likewise, a lot of people may never have been to a hip hop show before. Hopefully this will give everyone a reason to get out more.”

Izmore frequently performs both on his own and with the Afro-beat collective Hearts of Darkness. Diverse made a big splash on the jazz scene when Bobby Watson unveiled the combo in 2008. They kept the momentum alive with a self-titled debut the following year and several high-profile shows and collaborations.

“Diverse has wanted to do a cross-genre collaboration for a while,” Melhari said. “I heard Les that night and was impressed. Could to tell from Les’ rhythms he liked all of that.”

By “all of that” Mehari means Common, Black Star, the Roots and the other members of the late-‘90s New Native Tongues movement in hip hop. The low-key faction turned their backs on the hard, gangsta stance of the moment to focus on socially conscious lyrics backed with soulful or jazz-influenced production.

“Hermon pretty much said he want to link up in the future,” Izmore said. “I was definitely interested, but I didn’t know he already had an idea. When he brought up ‘Like Water For Chocolate’ I was like hell yeah. That’s one of my favorite albums ever.”

On Friday, March 19, Izmore and Diverse will collaborate and celebrate the 10th anniversary of “Like Water For Chocolate” at the Czar Bar.

That album’s music, there’s no album with the sound like they have,” Izmore said. “That was my way into (Afro-beat legend) Fela (Kuti) because (his son) Femi is on there. That album can get you into so much stuff. You have the jazz guys, the hip hop, DJ Premier, Jill Scott. It’s a who’s who of that time. These are some of the best artists of their time.”

The “Like Water for Chocolate” roster also includes jazz trumpet player Roy Hargrove, rappers Mos Def and Slum Village, DJ Premier, Black Thought, Rahzel and Questlove from the Roots, soul singers D’Angelo, Macy Gray and Bilal and future Gnarls Barkley singer Cee-Lo. Producer James Yancey, or J Dilla, a longtime friend of Common’s who had worked with A Tribe Called Quest, tied all the elements together.

In keeping with the spirit of the album, Izmore and Diverse will have a few friends on hand to help them out as well. Hearts of Darkness singer Brandy Gordon will take on all the female vocal parts, and Lee Langston will stand in for D’Angelo, Bilal and Cee-Lo. Local MCs Reach and Vertigone also help out.

“We will definitely keep the jazz tradition and hip hop tradition of improve and freestyle alive,” Izmore said. “We’re not going to do the album straight through, and we might even skip a song or two. We want to leave a lot of room for improv.”

As an MC who grew up with the album, Izmore said he needed little preparation for the show. Diverse had the tougher job translating and arranging the record’s sounds and textures.

“We all expected this show to be harder than jazz shows because of a lot of the intricacies,” Mehari said. “Some of the things you have to do goes against the nature of a jazz musician. Like in jazz there are usually a lot of changes, but here because of the loops you have to find ways to be creative within that repetition.”

Izmore and Diverse worked out their parts separately, then rehearsed together in the weeks leading up to the performance.

“When I first heard them I was ecstatic,” Izmore said. “I knew it was going to be a fun night, because they got it down. It doesn’t sound like jazz players doing hip hop.”

Mehari said he was pleasantly surprised by the reaction in the jazz community.

“When Diverse played a house party at 57th and Ward Parkway, people there asked me what we had coming up,” Mehari said. “I wouldn’t have expected them to get excited, but they did.”

With its socially conscious poetry, innovative rhythms and intricate rhymes, Mehari said “Like Water For Chocolate” forced him to grow as an artist. Now he’s hoping to use the album to expand the horizon’s of Kansas City’s music community.

“This is how the scene grows,” Mehari continued. “I think people are too reliant on fans. I think it’s our job as artists to take things higher.”

Keep reading:

Releasing Jazz from Aspic

Review: Talib Kweli & Hi-Tek

Review: Sonny Rollins

Review: For The Roots It’s All In The Music

15 jazz greats to emerge in the last 20 years

Professor Griff discusses the past – and future – of Public Enemy

Buck O’Neil: Sweet times, sweet sounds at 18th and Vine

Review: Snoop Dogg with Method Man and Redman

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(Above: The title says it all: “Professor Griff drops knowledge.”)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Onstage, Professor Griff, minister of information for the veteran rap group Public Enemy, rarely smiles. Griff rarely takes center stage, but sets the tone of the show by marshalling the S1Ws, Public Enemy’s uniformed faux-security force, through their militant dance steps.

Offstage, Griff may not be mistaken for Flavor Flav, the group’s much-lampooned comedic foil-turned-reality TV star, but he is far from the grim-faced drill sergeant he appears. In fact, right now he is laughing.

“At first, I was DJ Griff,” the founding member says through a chuckle. “I laugh because people don’t see me like that. Then it morphed into minister of information, because I was always studious. I took it upon myself to be an avid reader and study. That’s how I got the name Professor.”

Griff, nee Richard Griffin, describes the early days of Public Enemy and discusses his political views and philosophies in his new book, “Analytixz.”

“Readers already know the media’s version of who Griff is. This lets me tell aspects of my story without writing an autobiography,” Griff says. “The ugly truth and the controversies are there. I don’t like it, but I can’t write it with a pink cover and make everything cute.”

The lengthy first chapter covers the most controversial part of Griff’s career, when he was kicked out of Public Enemy for being quoted making anti-Semitic statements in the Washington Times.

“The first chapter was the most difficult,” Griff says. “It was the only time I had to stop tape, because it brought back a time I didn’t want to re-experience.”

Although that rough experience is the lynchpin of the book, another hardship brought the manuscript to fruition.

“’Analytixz’ came together in 90 days because I lost the other three books I was working on when my house burnt to the ground,” Griff says. “It comes from a place of hurt and pain, but I wanted to fulfill my promise to put out a book.”

Griff laughs again remembering how Run-DMC’s DJ Jam Master Jay and Def Jam label co-founder Rick Rubin’s original plan for Public Enemy.

“When Jam Master Jay saw (Public Enemy MC) Chuck (D) at Adelphi University, he and Rick Rubin wanted to sign him as Chuckie D,” Griff says through a snicker. “Chuck and I are still laughing about that one. Basically, Chuck brought Flav along, and everyone else came from me.”

“Everyone else” is the groundbreaking production unit known as the Bomb Squad and the group’s DJ, Terminator X.

“Members of the Bomb Squad had a group called Spectrum City, which included me,” Griff says. “We brought Chuck on board to be part of our mobile DJ unit.”

Public Enemy is nearing its 25th anniversary, but Griff, Chuck and company are still intent on bringing the noise. After leaving Def Jam, the band is financing their new album through SellABand. By purchasing $25 shares, fans can help the band reach its goal of $250,000 and get everything from a mention in the liner notes, to profit sharing and input on the final product.

“It’s interesting to see how things are unfolding,” Griff says. “People say, Public Enemy, you guys were popular, it should be no problem to raise that money, but they’re on the outside of it.”

While many rap acts from the ‘80s are dismissed as old school, Public Enemy has worked hard to stay at the vanguard. The band pioneered the digital distribution model with their album “There’s A Poison Goin’ On” 10 years ago, and introduced a play-listed based album on 2002’s “Revolverution.”

“Me and Chuck are 49,” Griff says of his bandmate, who was born on the same day in the same hospital. “It’s not over. We still have to put our period at the end of the sentence.”

What’s on Griff’s iPod?

“If I lent you my iPod for one day, you’d probably say ‘What the hell?’ The first thing you’d notice is I have a large music collection – easy listening, rock, soulful stuff. When it comes to my hip hop playlist, you’ll see Rage Against the Machine, the Roots, Immortal Technique, Wize Intelligent, Dead Prez, KRS-One – because I’m still learning from him – and the new Can-I-Bus. There’s no Nelly, no Snoop Dogg and nothing produced by Jermaine Dupri.

“The most surprising thing on my iPod is (long pause) Asher Roth, which is on there probably because me and my son share a computer. I play that song when people come in the car with me and they say, Griff, what do you know about a white Jewish boy? I listen to everything, man.”

Keep Reading:

Review: Public Enemy, Rage, the Roots and more at Rock the Bells (2007)

Review: The Roots (2008)

More Hip Hop on The Daily Record

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(Above: Ornette Coleman jams with the Roots. Improbably, people respond positively to the non-traditional collaboration.)

By Joel Francis

In 1958, Danny and the Juniors sang “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay.” Although the genre was only seven years removed from the its birth on the “Rocket 88” single and three years from its explosion into the mainstream with Elvis Presley, Danny White was right. Sixty years later, it is hard to imagine American culture without rock and roll.

It is also hard to imagine what the malt-shop teens and leather jacket hoods of the Eisenhower administration would have thought about auto-tune, power pop and nu-metal. Although the seeds of today’s rock were planted in the 1950s, the resulting flora has blossomed into hybrids that bear little resemblance to the original crop.

Picture how different today’s musical landscape would be if anything that varied from the pre-British Invasion strains of rock and roll were bastardized. If songs bearing the touch of John Lennon and Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were decried as impure for straying from the “true” roots of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly.  Or if anything after the summer of punk and the rise of synthesizers was kept at arm’s length and segregated from the great Rock Cannon.

Would we expect our children to dig out old Bill Haley and Beach Boys albums if this were the case? Teach them “Fun Fun Fun” and “Maybelline” as historical exercises? Of course not. They would shrug, pay us lip service and invent their own confounding strain of music. The ties to existing music would be obvious – nothing emerges in a vacuum – but nothing we couldn’t dismiss as the impure follies of youth.

Why, then, do we place the same parameters around jazz and feign surprise with then inevitable occurs?

It seems every year a new study comes out showing the median age of jazz listeners climbs while attendance drops. The latest is a National Endowment for the Arts Survey of Public Participation in the Arts conducted through the U.S. Census Bureau. Predictably, the self-appointed Guardians of Jazz like Wall Street Journal columnist and former Kansas City resident Terry Teachout are freaking out. But all this hand-wringing is like an ordinary bicycle enthusiast fretting while the chain-driven model populates the streets. The vehicle is still very much alive, it’s just been modified and influenced by culture.

Too many jazz museums and concert curators suffer from WWWS: What would Wynton say. Would Wynton Marsails, the genre’s most prominent performer and steadfast caretaker, approve of their exhibit or event? While Marsalis is a talent trumpet player who deserves every bit of his fame and credit for bringing jazz to the masses, he is conservative and traditionalist to a fault. Museum directors and concert promoters should be following their own muse and vision, not looking to someone as restrictive as Marsalis for tacit endorsement.

The growth of jazz from Dixieland to big band to bebop is celebrated, but somewhere along the line – about 1965, shortly before John Coltrane’s death, when free jazz and fusion started to creep into the mix – a line was drawn. In shorthand, acoustic Herbie Hancock playing with Miles Davis and recording for Blue Note is “good” jazz; synthesizer-rocking Hancock’s best-selling “Head Hunters,” though, is “bad.”

If directors and promoters must get the thumbs-up from a Marsalis, could it please be Branford? Although a lesser celebrity, the tenor saxophone player and older brother of Wynton has equally distinguished jazz pedigree. He’s also allowed jazz to grow, branching into pop with Sting, serving as musical director for the Tonight Show and working with hip hop artists.

If the stodgy stylistic caretakers turned up their noses when jazz artists, the highest pedigree of musicians, started dabbling in rock and funk, they have completely ignored most jazz performers slumming with rappers in a genre oft-maligned for possessing the lowest level of musicianship.

The elitists are missing the point. At their best, jazz and hip hop are better together than chocolate and peanut better. The improvisational aspect of jazz fits the free-flowing poetry delivered by a great MC. The swing of the instruments matches the swagger of the beats. Dig the way DJ Logic’s turntable work complements Medeski, Martin and Wood’s “Combustication” album, how Mos Def and Q-Tip’s rhymes soar over Ron Carter’s live basslines, or how Roy Hargrove’s trumpet pushes and accentuates Common’s poetry.

Teachout and Wynton Marsalis’ simplified stances ignore the long history of jazz in popular culture. The enduring standard “Someday My Prince Will Come,” was plucked from Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Although both Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong released albums of Disney material, it is doubtful Wynton Marsalis would record a song from a children’s cartoon.

The Chicken Little jazz forecasts don’t show that jazz is less popular or interesting today. The news they bring is even more disturbing: hard evidence that the standard-bearers of the genre are increasing ignorant to how their beloved music has grown, changed and been embraced. They’re the ones missing the party, but don’t worry – their numbers are dwindling.

(Below: More Ornette Coleman with the Roots for all the alarmists. Note how well the musicians play together despite being from the disparate worlds of jazz and hip hop. Surely this is a sign of the apocalypse.)

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(Above: Roy Ayers dedicates “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” to Miles Davis.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Before James Brown was black and proud and Marvin Gaye asked what’s going on, the Impressions were a winner who got people ready for the train a-comin’.

The Impressions message of racial harmony and black empowerment laid the roots for the black pride movement in soul and the native tongues/backpacker strain of hip hop today. The soul trio’s performance Saturday at the 40 Acres and a Mule Activity Campus in southeast Kansas City, Mo. capped the first day of the Juneteenth Family Festival, which celebrates the end of slavery in America.

Taking the stage in matching white suits, the Impressions quickly touched the sky with “Move On Up,” a song that established their leader and songwriter Curtis Mayfield as a solo artist. Although the set bounced between Impressions and Mayfield material, the songs were rooted in Mayfield’s late ‘60s/early ‘70s prime.

“Choice of Colors” felt like a hymn and was followed by the buoyant “We’re A Winner,” which got a healthy portion of the crowd of 300 clapping or on their feet. Impression Reggie Torian donned a black cape and white hat while the bass thumped the familiar melody to “Superfly.”

Torian had the unenviable job of taking Mayfield’s place. Although Mayfield, who died 10 years ago, will never be replaced, Torian did a good job capturing Mayfield’s rich falsetto on “I’m So Proud” and “I Loved and Lost.”

In an age of reunion bands and acts carrying on with only one original member, it would be easy to dismiss the Impressions as a Mayfield tribute act. Fortunately, the singers flanking Torian onstage are Fred Cash and Sam Gooden,  the very people who sang, toured and recorded alongside Mayfield back in the day.

Backed by a seven-piece band that included a nearly obscured three-piece horn section, the Impressions were swinging through “Woman’s Got Soul” when a 40 Acres staff member came onstage. Confused, the band ended the song and announced that it was time for them to go.  Ending with a rushed version of “It’s Alright,” they departed 40 minutes after taking the stage.

The Impressions’ set was likely cut short because Roy Ayers’ ran long.  Ayers immediately preceded the Impressions, and while he made his name blurring the lines between jazz and funk in the early ‘70s, his 70 minute set concentrated on the slick R&B that made him a radio staple in the last half of the decade.

Backed by the local octet Ronnie Reed and the Millennium, Ayers took the stage halfway through a jam based on the JB’s “Pass the Peas” and quickly showed why he’s been the go-to guy for everyone from the Roots to Fela Kuti.

Ayers’ playing is at once funky and smooth. His approach to the vibraphone renders it a sonic mutant of drums, piano and guitar. His solos were so captivating that they rendered Millennium’s horn players irrelevant. As Ayers’ hammered away backed by the bare minimum of a groove, the suddenly extraneous horn section were relegated to synchronized dancing duty.

After an instrumental introduction, Ayers took over the mic and romped through four crowd pleasers. “Everybody Loves the Sun” drew many to their feet and Ayers got the rest involved by leading them through the lyrics. “Running Away” stayed in the same vein and featured a lengthy trumpet solo. Ayers was gracious in letting everyone in Millennium take long solos throughout the night.

Ayers ended his set walking through the crowd personally giving out free copies of his new live album. It seemed generous at the time, but ended up being an exchange of live music for recorded. Although the Impressions seemed ready to give more, no one was complaining either.

Setlists:
The Impressions – Move On Up; Mighty Mighty (Spade and Whitey); Choice of Colors; We’re A Winner; Superfly; I Loved and Lost; Gypsy Woman; I’m So Proud; Woman’s Got Soul; It’s Alright

Roy Ayers – Pass the Peas; Everybody Loves the Sunshine; Running Away; Don’t Stop the Feeling; Searching

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(Above: Savion Glover does his thing with plenty o’ swing.)

By Joel Francis

Continuing The Daily Record’s look at the state of jazz today, here is the final of three installments shedding light on 15 jazz greats to emerge in the last 20 years. Note that these musicians are not necessarily the 15 greatest jazz artists to arrive since 1990. A brief listen to any of them, though, should more than persuade the most ardent purist that jazz is alive and well.

Eldar Djangirov

Eldar Djangirov is the continuation of the great line of pianists to emerge from Kansas City, Mo. that stretches back to Count Basie and Jay McShann. The three have more than an adopted hometown in common, though. Although none were born in Kansas City, all experienced significant musical growth while living there. Unlike Basie and McShann, though, Eldar’s formation started before puberty. He performed at a Russian jazz festival at age 5 and at age 12 became the youngest guest ever on Marian McPartlan’s Piano Jazz radio show. Though his latest album is straight-up smooth jazz, Eldar’s earlier work has a breadth that recalls everyone from Ahmad Jamal to Art Tatum. Albums to start with: Eldar, Live at the Blue Note

Christian McBride

Bass player Christian McBride was mentored and hailed by no less an authority than Ray Brown before starting off on his own. McBride works comfortably in the traditional vein on his early albums like “Fingerpainting,” the excellent tribute to Herbie Hancock performed in a bass/guitar/trumpet setting. He gets more funky and touches on fusion with his three-disc live set recorded at Tonic and studio albums “Sci-Fi” and “Vertical Vision.” In 2003, McBride collaborated with hip hop drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson of the Roots and keyboardist Uri Caine for a spectacular collaboration known as the Philadelphia Experiment. McBride has also worked extensively with Sting and Pat Metheny. Albums to start with: Fingerpainting, The Philadelphia Experiment.

Joshua Redman

Expectations have been high for Joshua Redman since winning the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition in 1991. While Redman hasn’t fulfilled those unrealistic expectations by taking his instrument to the heights achieved by Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, he has built a strong career on his own terms. Redman’s early quintets helped launch the careers of Christian McBride and Brad Mehldau and his work as musical director of the San Francisco Jazz Collective paired him with legends like Bobby Hutcherson and new artists like Miguel Zenon. Redman’s catalog is adventurous enough to include covers of Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” with guitarist Pat Metheny and funky experiments that recall Eddie Harris. Albums to start with: Spirit of the Moment, Back East.

Savion Glover

Jazz tap may have died with the golden age of big-budget Hollywood musicals, but Savion Glover is trying his best to bring it back. He has appeared in televised concerts with Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra, collaborated with poet Reg E. Gaines and saxophone player Matana Roberts for the John Coltrane-inspired improve “If Trane Was Here,” appeared in Spike Lee’s “Bamboozled” and was a cast member of “Sesame Street.” Glover hasn’t recorded any albums, but his live performances are a potent reminder that jazz isn’t the exclusive province of those with a horn or a voice.

Bad Plus

Combining rock and jazz is nothing new, but the piano/drums/bass trio Bad Plus have done it in an acoustic setting that resembles Medeski, Martin and Wood more than Weather Report. Their early albums were filled with original material that split the difference between Oscar Peterson and Ben Folds, tempered by occasional arrangements of Pixies and Black Sabbath classics. Unfortunately, recent releases have steered sharply away from new compositions and saturated the increasing covers with more irony. While the concept of their newest album – all covers with a female vocalist – makes one wary, their early material should not be overlooked. Albums to start with: Give, Suspicious Activity.

Keep Reading 15 Jazz Greats to Emerge in the Last 20 Years

Part One

Part Two

Five Legends Still Adding to Their Legacies

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Above: Students at the Berklee School of Music break down the Roots’ “Water.”

By Joel Francis

The New York Times jazz and pop critic Ben Ratliff participated in a very enlightening Q and A with readers yesterday. It seems Kansas City jazz fans, like our friend at Plastic Sax, aren’t the only ones obsessed about the state of the genre.

Several people asked Ratliff why jazz didn’t have a bigger audience, what the media’s responsibility is to promote jazz to a larger audience, if there is a stigma against jazz in mainstream culture and, most bluntly, whether jazz was dead.

Similarly, several readers were concerned about the legacy of today’s jazz artists. They asked which contemporary artists have the best potential to join the pantheon of innovators like Miles and Duke, and whether the current crop of players are pioneers or regurgitators. One bold reader actually called out the elephant likely hiding behind many of these questions. “Pretty much all jazz sounds the same today,” he said.

It seems that just as baseball fans can’t wait to compare Albert Pujols to Stan Musial, jazzheads love debating the merits of John Medeski to Jimmy Smith or Joshua Redman to Sonny Rollins. They (we) are forever insecure that our moment in the sun won’t measure up to the established legacy. They are right. Just as no contemporary president will be as lauded as the Founding Fathers, and no slugging outfield can surpass Babe Ruth’s mythology, there is no way that the abilities of Jaco Pastorius or Christian McBride can exceed the monumental achievements of Charlie Mingus and Ray Brown.

But that doesn’t mean they can’t all be enjoyed. Trumpeter Roy Hargrove hasn’t redefined the instrument the way Louis Armstrong did in the Hot Five and Hot Seven, but I think his playing on D’Angelo’s “Voodoo” and Common’s “Like Water For Chocolate” is inventive and unique. There is no comparison between the works, because they can’t be compared. They exist in different worlds. And questions about “is it jazz” are as silly and insignificant as whether or not poker or Nascar are sports. It doesn’t matter.

One of the elements I enjoy most about jazz is watching how it absorbed in reinterpreted in new contexts. One can hear the free jazz influence of John Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders in both the Stooges and the Soft Machine, but what they did with it was drastically different.

Ironically, “fans” might be the only ones worrying or arguing about these issues. Just as Hargrove had no problem working with Common and D’Angelo, I’m sure Ron Carter didn’t hesitate before recording with A Tribe Called Quest and Black Star. Artists make art, not distinctions.

To these ears, pieces like “Water” from the Roots’ album “Phrenology” or Mos Def’s “Modern Marvel” from “The New Danger” embody the spirit of jazz as much as anything Rudy Van Gelder recorded for Impulse or Blue Note.

Just as folk music survived the birth of the electric guitar (and Bob Dylan plugging in), and Sacred Harp has peacefully coexisted with gospel, jazz will survive. It will not be preserved in amber, but it is too indelible to be erased from American culture.

Although Ratliff’s answers were thoughtful and informative, he failed to pass along one key piece of advice to the Chicken Littles so worried about the future of their art: Pick up a horn and do it yourself.

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feedtheanimals_news
By Joel Francis

Before we bid farewell to 2008, let’s have some more haiku fun and revisit five albums that may not have made The Daily Record’s year-end, best-of list but still merit a listen.

Girl Talk – “Feed The Animals”
Is it art? Question
eclipses legalities.
WTF? Dance! Dance!

The Hold Steady – “Stay Positive”
Great songwriting, strong
performances. Forget Bruce,
Craig Finn holds his own.

Rachel Yamagata – “Elephants…Teeth Sinking into Heart”
Aching ballads and
torrid rockers on two discs.
Schizophrenic’s OK. 

Sigur Ros – “Med Sud I Eyrum Vid Spilum Endalaust”
Don’t speak Icelandic?
Who does? Same great songwriting,
new stripped-down approach.

The Roots – “Rising Down”
For once, band doesn’t
reinvent themselves. Solid,
if similar; guests thrive.

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