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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.”

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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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(Above: Mouth gets “Gnarly” at the Jackpot Saloon.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

Fans wanting to pigeonhole Mouth’s music, do so at their own risk.

The three-piece Kansas City band combines elements of funk, jazz, pop, hip hop, electronica and progressive rock in their unique, dance-friendly instrumental songs.

“People have tried to make us either a jam band or a jazz/fusion band,” drummer Stephen “Gunar” Gunn says as guitarist Jeremy Anderson finishes the sentence. “Whatever genre people pigeonhole us as, they always complain.”

Talking with the band, which also includes bass player Zach Rizer, is like trying to catch a ping pong ball in a shower stall. The three are just as in synch in conversation as they are when playing. Words zip around as the three finish each other’s sentences and try to complete their own thoughts.

“I used to be afraid of being pigeonholed by the jam-band crowd,” Anderson says. “Honestly, they’re a lot more open-minded than anybody.”

They also provide a nice business model. Mouth tape all of their shows and try to saturate the market with recordings in hopes that the music will find its way out ahead of the band.

“These shows in Topeka and Wichita are the first time we’ve done two shows out of town in a row,” Gunn says of a recently completed road trip. “Right now we’re just trying to figure out how to play and get out on the road where we’ll at least earn near our gas money.”

Mouth – the name is a play on the fact that there’s no vocalist – perform in Springfield, Mo. on Saturday and will celebrate their first birthday on Jan. 29 at the Jazzhaus in Lawerence, Kan. One year ago the trio was playing a First Friday art exhibit and dipping their toe into the scene at the Jackpot Saloon.

Download the Mouth album "Escape from the North Pole" for free at http://www.abandcalledmouth.com/music/.

“I don’t know if I’ll be able to get a cake in, but I want to make party favors, maybe put songs on a CD and give them out,” Anderson said. Several friends of the band, including guitarist Matt DeViney, who co-founded Gunn’s previous band Groovelight, and local MCs Reach and Phantom will also help celebrate with the band.

Although hip hop is now a staple of the band’s catalog and all three members were longtime fans, embracing the genre was purely a business decision.  After six months of drawing meager crowds, Rizer looked at what was getting covered in the music press and where people were going and decided hip hop was the way to go. As soon as they made the switch, they attracted some attention in The Pitch. They also started growing unexpectedly as musicians.

“When you take anything from samples, you not only have to learn the parts, but you have to learn how to put them together,” Rizer says. “There are a lot of subtle things at work, like tambour and tone. The funny thing about hip hop is that DJs will play samples against each other you wouldn’t think to combine.”

For Anderson it was a chance to add his favorite elements of progressive rock – long, intricate parts – and incorporate them in a hip hop setting.

“Our songs are structured like progressive rock, but feel like hip hop,” he says. “We’re not playing prog hop, though. We’re playing hip hop.”

The members of Mouth grew up in musical families. Anderson’s little brother got a guitar, but never played it, so the 10-year-old started noodling on Steely Dan and King Crimson licks. Gunn grew up immersed in music. His dad was a drummer in the band Heat Index and moved out to California in his ‘20s to pursue a career in music. The white bass drum in Gunn’s kit was originally part of his dad’s rig.

“When I was 13, my dad didn’t want me to play because he thought it was bad for my ears,” Gunn says. “He put the kit away in the attic, but I kept getting it out and playing.”

Rizer’s father was also a musician. His dad and grandpa, both named David Rizer, were jazz musicians. Grandpa Rizer played guitar with Oscar Peterson and Charlie Parker. David Jr. plays trumpet, bass and sings and plays regularly with Everette DeVan at the Blue Room.

“My dad never pushed, but I was always surrounded by music,” says Rizer, who counts Bootsy Collins, Jaco Pastorius and Motown bassman James Jamerson among his influences. “I didn’t listen to anything rock-ish until I was older.”

At Shawnee Mission Northwest High School, Anderson introduced Rizer to rock and roll, while Rizer shared his love of funk, soul and jazz. Gunn, meanwhile, forged his own path, eventually performing at Wakarusa Music Festival with Groovelight in 2005.

“That show was kind of a turning point for me,” Gunn says. “At the time, I was into the whole progressive side, with odd time signatures. I was into Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever. At Wakarusa I realized people want to dance, not just listen. I used to play for the one guy who would appreciate us and tell us about that one measure 13/8. Now it’s come full circle to just wanting people to dance.”

One number the trio play is “Bad Wolf,” a new song that takes its name from Doctor Who. Anderson is seated, bent over his guitar, his nimble fingers dancing across the frets. When told his playing is reminiscent of Adrian Belew, he humbly replies “It should. I have his guitar and amp.” As Rizer’s groove takes over the melody, Gunn applies a hip hop/reggae rhythm on the drums. There’s very little eye contact; each musician lost in his own world.

“When we’re onstage, we definitely look at each other more,” Anderson said. “We’re constantly trying to push the boundaries of the song and include different elements.”

After a year together, Mouth has no future goals beyond continuing to push each other and trying to find a balance between the written and improvised.

“I’m looking forward to seeing where the music goes,” Gunn said. “We just pour ourselves into different scenes and see what happens.”

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