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(Above: Jazz pianist Mark Lowrey teamed up with local musicians for the second installment of the Mark Lowrey vs. Hip Hop series.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Mark Lowrey sits behind a grand piano, contemplating using a Thelonious Monk number as an introduction to the rapper Common’s song “Thelonious.” As his fingers coax a signature Monk melody from the keys, bass player Dominique Sanders and drummer Ryan Lee nod in approval.

“I thought it was really obvious at first,” Lowrey admits. “But sometimes obvious is good.”

Two days before Thanksgiving, Lowrey and his rhythm section are sorting through ideas, sketching a musical landscape. They are joined by singer Schelli Tolliver and MCs Les Izmore and Reach. The final vision – a bridging of jazz and hip hop, structured and improvised – will be displayed tonight at Crosstown Station. The Black Friday ensemble takes the stage at 10 p.m. Cover is $10.

“We’ll be doing a mix of originals and covers,” says trumpet player Hermon Mehari, who will also be participating. “We’re playing tribute to some of the great hip hop artists of our time like Talib Kweli, A Tribe Called Quest, J Dilla. Additionally, Reach and Les will both do some originals.”

After a few trials, the Monk number “I Mean You” has been successfully married to “Thelonious.” On “The Light,” another Common song, the band suddenly drops into Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” right after the lyric “It’s kinda fresh you listen to more than hip hop.”

KC MCs Les Izmore (left) and Reach salute Charlie Parker inside the Mutual Musicians Foundation.

“When Les and Diverse played this (‘The Light’) earlier this year they did ‘Unforgettable’ in that spot,” Lowrey says. “Everybody liked that, but we didn’t want to use the same thing. We were tossing out ideas, and someone suggested Michael Jackson.”

That same process informed the playlist. Everyone presented the songs they wanted to do, and the set was culled from what worked and how the band’s reactions. When Reach takes the mic for Notorious B.I.G.’s “Big Poppa” he intersperses short bursts of freestyle around the original lyrics. A later run through of Jay-Z’s “Show Me What You Got” reveals an energy only hinted at on the Top 10 single. As Reach commands the imaginary crowd to wave their arms, Lee goes berserk on his drum kit.

“These shows have a different energy than Hearts of Darkness,” Izmore says of the local Afrobeat group he fronts. “With those shows you’re always trying to keep people dancing and keep the energy high. Here you can chill out and listen.”

Rehearsals will soon move to Crosstown Station, but for tonight the Mutual Musicians Foundation is home. The hallowed hall on Highland, home to Hootie and Bird, Count Basie and Big Joe Turner. The spirit of innovation those musicians introduced to the world via Kansas City is very much on display in the current sextet. Some may scoff that jazz and hip hop may seem to exist on disparate planets, but their orbits collide surprisingly often.

“I grew up on jazz, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, Ella Fitzgerald,” Reach says. “She (Ella) very much influenced my delivery and the way I play with cadences.”

Lowrey first toyed with combining rap and hip hop when he invited local MC Kartoon to sit in with his group a couple years ago. Both artists enjoyed the experience and Kartoon put Lowrey in touch with other vocalists in the KC hip hop scene.

“Hip hop has always been influenced by jazz,” Reach says. “Now, because the younger jazz musicians have grown up with hip hop, we are seeing it influence jazz. It’s kind of come full circle.”

In the past year, Lowrey has hosted several Mark Lowrey vs. Hip Hop concerts. The shows are basic, but explosive. Lowrey and drummer Brandon Draper create free jazz textures, as MCs and musicians alike improvise over the ever-changing structure.

“Our arrangements for this show are based in the tradition of jazz where you play the melody, then improvise over the chords before coming back to the head (melody),” Lowrey says. “The only difference is that we’re adding MCs in the mix with the horns.”

At another jazz/hip hop mash-up last February, Izmore and Diverse, a local jazz quartet that includes Mehari and Lee, celebrated the 10th anniversary of Common’s album “Like Water For Chocolate” by rearranging and performing the record in its entirety. The night ended with an encore of the Charlie Parker song “Diverse.”

“I’ve never seen a crowd of non-jazz fans so into the music,” Mehari says. “It’s the perfect example of what we want to do. Bring people in with hip hop and music they want to hear, then take them on a journey to new sounds. Once we’ve earned their trust, they’ll follow us anywhere.”

Keep reading:

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Jazz, hip hop collide to celebrate landmark album

Open wide for Mouth

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(Above: If you want to hang with Mos Def, Eminem and Black Thought, you’d be advised to do your homework first.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Two of the most common criticism of hip hop are, one, it’s not music and, two, anyone can do it. While the first complaint is purely subjective, it would be difficult to think anyone could agree with the second conclusion after reading “How To Rap.”

Drawing on interviews with more than 100 MCs, Paul Edwards has assembled a comprehensive primer for aspiring microphone magicians. Incredibly concise, Edwards and his subjects cover nearly every conceivable topic, including rhyme schemes, recording and performing, in 340 pages.

A diverse palette of interviewees matches the range of topics. Edwards culls insight from conscious rappers like Gift of Gab, underground MCs such as Aesop Rock and Mr. Lif and gangsta rappers like the Clipse. Legends Phife Dawg and Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest, Chuck D, Big Daddy Kane and Kool Moe Dee (who also provides the introduction), also lend insight. Local music fans will be delighted to read TechN9ne’s contributions.

At first glance, the text seems obvious. Much of the first section on content and styles should already be familiar to anyone with an interest deep enough in hip hop to pick up this book. Once the overview is out of the way, however, the book offers fascinating insight.

The flow diagram demonstrates how MCs line up their lyrics against the beats. The product is surprisingly similar to traditional notation and demonstrates how much forethought is put into delivery. This complexity is reinforced in the chapter explaining different styles of rhyming, rhyme schemes and placement. The pattern diagram ties these concepts together, allowing lyricists to illustrate how the syllables fall in their lyrics, pointing out repetitive patterns or other accidental traps.

Edwards stays out of the way, letting the artists break down each step in their own way. Not only does the reader learn this information firsthand, but receives several different perspectives on the process. Most of the time this format serves well, but sometimes Edwards’ narrative is repetitive. He frequently sets up a topic, only to have the first quote echo that statement. Edwards does a good job of editing the quotes, pruning the “you know what I mean” while maintaining each performer’s voice.

While a lot of the biggest names dropped frequently dropped among the pages – particularly Eminem and Dr. Dre – are absent, several of their collaborators, such as Lady of Rage, Devin the Dude and Royce da 5’9”, are able to provide insight in the missing legends’ creative process.

“How To Rap” lives up to its title, providing a meaty background on all facets of the vocal side of hip hop, while being slim enough to be stuck in a back pocket or jacket as the MC embarks upon the journey. Call hip hop what you like, but there’s no doubt it takes a talented person to do it well. Edwards’ book should arm the aspiring with the necessary tools for the scene.

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Jazz, hip hop collide to celebrate landmark album

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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.”

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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 song from Naomi Shelton’s debut album.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

The first month of 2010 is almost in the history books. Fortunately, there’s still time to take one last look at some overlooked releases from the final quarter of 2009.

The Dodos – “Time to Die”

The Dodos third album isn’t a major departure from 2007’s “Visiter.” Several subtle elements, however, make “Time to Die” an improvement. First off, the San Francisco-based indie duo has added vibraphonist Keaton Snyder to their ranks. His playing adds new textures and new rhythms to the songs. Like Vampire Weekend, the Dodos add elements of African music to their arrangements. Unlike Vampire Weekend, though, the Dodos don’t use world music as a template. They incorporate its ingredient into already solid songs. At times the album recalls a more sophisticated Shins. “Time To Die” is filled with a high sense of melody and smart indie rock songwriting bolstered by intricate arrangements that serve the song.

Blakroc – “Blakroc”

Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney have been making great garage blues albums for nearly a decade as the Black Keys. After about five albums, however, some staleness started to creep into the formula. After recruiting Danger Mouse to produce their 2008 release, and Auerbach’s early ’09 solo album, the pair dropped their biggest transformation. “Blakroc” pairs the Keys with former Roc-a-fella co-owner Damon Dash and a host of MCs, including Mos Def, Ludacris, Q-Tip, Pharoahe Monch and members of the Wu Tang Clan. The result is the expected mash-up of rap vocals and raw gutbucket rock that exceeds expectations. Auerbach’s dirty, fuzzy guitars and Carney’s drums add an urgency often lacking in the urban world of sampling. In turn, the MCs feed off the vibe, responding with more bounce and personality in their delivery. More, please.

Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens – “What Have You Done, My Brother?”

Naomi Shelton’s back story should sound familiar to fans of Bettye LaVette. Shelton palled around with pre-fame Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding and Lou Rawls. Despite their encouragement, success eluded Shelton, who played regular gigs around New York City. Thirty years later, Shelton became part of the “Daptone Super-Soul Revue,” but it took another decade for her debut album to emerge. “What Have You Done, My Brother?” is a classic gospel album that sounds like it could have been cut 50 years ago. Despite its traditional arrangements, the album finds contemporary resonance in the title song, which questions the war in Iraq. Shelton’s cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is especially poignant. A survivor of the civil rights movement, Shelton combines the longing of Cooke’s vision with the optimism of the Obama-era.

Various Artists – “Daptone Gold”

Daptone Records found fame with the diminutive dynamite Sharon Jones, but the entire stable should appeal to Jones’ fans. “Daptone Gold” is a 22-track sampler of the Daptone roster. While Jones is appropriately represented (sometimes through non-album tracks), there are no bum cuts. The old school gospel of Naomi Shelton sets nicely next to Antibalas’ political Afrobeat and the instrumental soul of the Budos Band. Other artists include Stax throwbacks Lee Fields and Charles Bradley. Hip hop fans will recognize “Make the Road By Walking,” the Menahan Street Band track Jay-Z smartly sampled for his own “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is).” At 78 minutes, this generous sampler will certainly send newcomers diving into the back catalog for more.

Rakim – “The Seventh Seal”

Rakim made his name as one of rap’s premier MCs with his groundbreaking albums with Eric B in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. It’s been 10 years since the world has heard anything from Rakim. During that decade he toured sporadically and signed with Dr. Dre’s Aftermath label. The prospect of Dre making beats for Rakim made fans salivate, but unfortunately “The Seventh Seal” is not that long-awaited album. It’s difficult to forget about that hypothetical masterpiece with all the b-list production that plagues “The Seventh Seal.” Rakim sports enough killer flow to justify his reputation, but tracks like “Won’t Be Long” and album opener “How To Emcee” are more stilted and dated than anything on “Paid in Full” or “Follow the Leader.” While there are enough moments on “The Seventh Seal” to make it a must-have for old school fans, casual listeners should probably just ask the devoted to cull a few cuts from this for a killer Rakim mixtape.

(Below: “Holy Are You,” one of the better cuts off Rakim’s “The Seventh Seal.”)

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More album reviews from The Daily Record.

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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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Above: Norah Jones strolls through Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.” at the 2008 Bridge School Benefit concert.

By Joel Francis

When Beyonce sang “a diva is a female version of a hustler” she probably wasn’t thinking of Norah Jones.

Jones has made her name with impeccable background music that is tasteful to a fault and straddles the line between folk and jazz. It appears she saves the more interesting facets of her personality for her side projects with the Little Willies, El Madmo, a punk one-off, and her burgeoning side career as hip hop chanteuse. Jones’ appearances with Talib Kweli, Andre 3000, Wyclef Jean and Q-Tip prove there may be more than a little hustler in her after all.

“Take Off Your Cool” with Andre 3000 of Outkast, from “Speakerboxxx/The Love Below”

Jones was a little more than a year removed from the massive success “Come Away With Me” when this number appeared. Both camps took shots from a surprised public. Andre 3000 was blasted for pandering by working with the reigning adult contemporary queen and Jones was flamed for lowering herself to the low level of hip hop. Of course, the final result proved all naysayers wrong.

Anchored by a finger-picked acoustic guitar, the gentle production wouldn’t out of place on Jones’ own album – that is if Jones’ stuffy supporters could get past Andre 3000’s greasy come-ons.

“Any Other Day” with Wyclef Jean, from “The Carnival Vol. II: Memoirs of an Immigrant”

This song, which first appeared on the Hurricane Katrina relief charity album “Come Together Now,” has more in common with the Dave Matthews Band than the Fugees. Wyclef Jean’s acoustic guitar leads the way, but it is essentially Jones’ showcase. She affectingly croons the story of someone trapped by a storm, while Jean drops in a faux-Bob Marley patois.

A quick glance and the writing credit explains Jones’ prominence. The song is a true collaboration, with Jones and her then-boyfriend Lee Alexander sharing authorship with Jean and his producer Jerry “Wonder” Duplessis.

“Soon the New Day” with Talib Kweli, from “Ear Drum”

Even so-called “conscious rappers” aren’t above desires of the flesh. This celebration of one-night stands is draped across producer Madlib’s backdrop of smooth ’70s soul. As Talib Kweli boasts about his conquest, Jones’ voice surfaces like the first rays of dawn gently forcing their way into the bedroom through the closed shade.

Although Jones is essentially limited to one line, she makes the most of it, adding heart and emotion to Kweli’s calculated braggadocio. But don’t mistake Jones as the conscience of the story – there is no remorse from either party. She clearly enjoyed it just as much as he did, just in a different way. Despite their disparate deliveries, the two voices work naturally together – neither performer sounds of his (or her) element.

“Soon the New Day” is a stand-out tune on a great album that should have been a single.

“Life Is Better” with Q-Tip, from “The Renaissance”

This cut is essentially a jam, with Q-Tip and Jones giving props to hip hop pioneers like the Cold Crush Brothers, the Leaders of the New School and, of course, Tip’s close friend J. Dilla. Jones gets the song to herself for the first two minutes and she makes the most of it. It’s fun to hear her away from her natural reference points singing of hip hop songs “banging for you” against a thumping bass line and jazzy sample. Tip’s verse is a roll call of his favorite artists.

Jones’ strong performance in her most urban setting to date makes one wish she’d take similar chances on her own albums. But if she’s not willing to alienate her own audience, it’s nice to see her spreading her wings elsewhere. Don’t be surprised when she shows up on the next Snoop Dogg album.

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raphael_saadiq_-_the_way_i_see_it

By Joel Francis

Raphael Saadiq – The Way I See It
Classic soul throwback.
Avoids tribute clichés by
keeping spirit true.

TV on the Radio – Dear Science
Great band gets better.
Bowie-meets-doo-wop epics.
Tunes for brain and feet.

Wynton Marsalis and Willie Nelson – Two Men with the Blues
Disparate worlds?
Not so fast. Legends say no.
Smiles all around.

David Byrne/Brian Eno – Everything That Happens…
Restless souls rejoin.
Straight-ahead compared to last album
Twenty-three years ago.

Randy Newman – Harps and Angels
Not Pixar film score.
Track 4 tears Dub-ya new one.
Mark Twain of music.

Justin Townes Earle – The Good Life
Old country played right.
More Hank Williams than Junior.
Dad Steve should be proud.

Erykah Badu – New Amerykah, Pt. 1
Esoteric beats
and furious politics
make for dark album.

Portishead – Third
More dark atmospheres,
Dormant band surprises all;
Not trip-hop retread.

She and Him – Vol. 1
Vanity project?
Hell no. Zooey is for real.
M. Ward is great foil.

Q-Tip – The Renaissance
Ten years not Tip’s fault,
stupid labels shelve three tries.
Glad to have you back.

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