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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:

KC’s MCs throw down this weekend

Jazz, hip hop collide to celebrate landmark album

Open wide for Mouth

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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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By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

We at The Daily Record try to play clean in our tiny corner of the interweb. Once a year, on “music’s biggest night” the gloves come off and the snark comes out. This year, we present a live diary of the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards. We’ll be doing this live throughout the telecast, so keep checking back.

7:01 – Lady Gaga opens the show in a dress she bought at Bjork’s garage sale.

7:02 – She forgot to buy the pants, though.

7:04 – At last, Elton John has found someone with more flamboyant taste in eye wear. Wonder how that feels.

7:11 – Stephen Colbert may have already delivered the line of the night. Re: Susan Boyle selling the most records of ’09 and saving the bottom line –  “You may think you’re the coolest people in the world, but just remember that your industry was saved by a Scottish woman in sensible shoes.”

7:13 – Beyonce wins “Song of the Year” but can’t make it onstage to accept the award. Why not have it received by the Chippettes, stars of the year’s best film “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel”? Now that’s synergy!

7:15 – Who the hell thought it was a good idea to turn “American Idiot” into a musical? I can hear this one flopping faster than Twyla Tharpe’s tribute to Bob Dylan. Forget “Movin’ Out,” how about moving on?

7:16 – Nothing screams “punk rock” louder than a Broadway chorus. Even the Clash buried their choral version of “Career Opportunities” on the last side of “Sandinista.”

7:24 – I can’t figure out which interests me less Kirsten Bell’s insipid new movie “When In Rome” or what song Bon Jovi will play tonight. Let me guess: a really lame one from the ’80s.

7:26 – Does Taylor Swift have a clause in her contract that she must win every award for which she is nominated? Has she ever lost?

7:27 – I’m a little disappointed Kayne West didn’t jump onstage and start talking about how great Keith Urban is.

7:28 – Hey, Beyonce brought the S1W’s with her. Nice to see her kicking it old school.

7:29 – (The S1Ws were the black panther dancers who guard the stage during Public Enemy performances.)

7:32 – Nothing screams 2010 like Alanis Morrissette songs. On to the next one.

7:37 – Questlove just tweeted “must admit that watching twitter tweets are better than watching the actual event.”

7:41 – Pink is wearing the sexiest berka of all time.

7:44 – Nothing screams “class” like a chick in a g-string spraying water everywhere. Pink is so talented!

7:45 – Between Pink and GaGa that’s four butt-cheeks bared tonight. Just wait until Howard Stern and Prince come out.

7:47 – I’m not sure who the Zac Brown are, but respect the fact that they didn’t get all gussied up for the show.

7:48 – I’m also glad none of them were wearing a g-string.

7:55 – Will.I.Am looks like Mr. Roboto from that Styx album.

7:56 – Fergie looks like someone from either Buck Rogers or the original Battlestar Galatca. Does anyone else remember when Channel 62 used to show all those back-to-back on Saturday afternoons?

7:58 – I gotta admit that watching the Peas do “I Got A Feeling” in concert would probably be a lot of fun. That song got a lot more infectious energy than it deserved.

8:00 – OK, so we’re an hour into this thing and a couple ground rules have already been established. No. 1, no one can perform a song all the way through. Medleys only, please. No. 2, all performance must somehow make their way from the main stage to the satellite stage, and back.

8:01 – They keep advertising the 3-D Michael Jackson tribute with Celine Dion. That woman’s so skinny, I bet even in 3D she’s only 2D.

8:06 – Who the heck are Lady Antebellum?

8:07 – I knew it would happen. People are starting to compose songs for those episode-capping montages. This Lady Antebellum song would be perfect over the poignant closing moments of “Grey’s Anatomy.”

8:09 – The presenter just said there was a Grammy category for artists who don’t have musical talent. Wait, there’s a Grammy for people with musical talent? When are they going to give that one out. Oh yeah, it was done earlier in the day in the parking lot behind the Ross downtown.

8:11 – I bet Stephen Colbert’s daughter thinks her dad is cool now that he’s one a Grammy.

8:12 – Oh, just as I blogged the above Colbert asked his daughter if she thought he was cool now. I am so freaking prescient!! (She said yes, by the way.)

8:13 – The Target ad just showed a white dog with a red spot of his eye. Spuds McKenzie lives!

8:14 – OK, that’s three exclamation points in the past two entries. I’m calming down now.

8:18 – Wow, Taylor Swift was up for “Song of the Year” and she didn’t win. I bet she gets at least half an album’s worth of songs of out how she’s feeling right now.

8:20 – They just introduced Robert Downey, Jr. as the most “self-important” actor of his day. How out of control is your ego when you’re crowned most “self-important” in Hollywood?

8:21 – That operatic introduction to “Blame It” was brilliant. Every time I hear this song I remember that Stevie Wonder stopped his show at Starlight last summer to play it over the PA.

8:23 – If they hadn’t just shown George Clinton in the audience, I would have sworn he was the white-haired conductor onstage.

8:24 – I think “Blame It” is starting to suffer from auto-tune overload. It sounds like Kraftwerk.

8:25 – Now Slash is onstage playing the guitar solo from “November Rain.” He probably just heard someone talking about alcohol and bum rushed.

8:27 – Joe Posnanski just tweeted: “They really had people VOTE to determine what Jon Bon Jovi sings at the Grammys? Was there a ‘What’s the difference’ option?”

8:33 – Hey, Green Day won “Best Rock Album” for their follow-up to “American Idiot.” Can’t wait until that gets turned into a Broadway musical.

8:34 – Chris O’Donnell looks like McSteamy on “Grey’s Anatomy.” I hate myself for knowing this.

8:36 – Wow, a “country” band singing a patriotic song. Way to think outside the box, guys.

8:37 – Answer: Leon Russell with the Zac Brown Band. Question: Who will be headlining Knucklehead’s Labor Day celebration in 2012?

8:38 – Are the red-staters happy that the Zac Brown Band is celebrating America by playing a patriotic number, or upset with them for supporting Obama? This is so confusing. I thought we established that one couldn’t love their country without blindly supporting its president.

8:46 – Has anyone noticed how Taylor Swift strums from her elbow and not her wrist? It’s like she just picked up a guitar for the first time.

8:47 – I hope the tattooed guy on banjo is getting paid well for this gig.

8:49 – Good Lord, Taylor, stay in key! She has pitch like Mariah Carey at a baseball game in Japan.

8:53 – Dang, I forgot to get my 3D glasses. Fortunately, I still have 7 minutes to make it to Target.

8:54 – All you chumps who forgot your 3D glasses will now be given a migraine.

8:56 – I think Smokey could have handled the whole MJ tribute on his own. I would have loved to hear him cover a less-maudlin ballad on his own. I’d even settle for “Ben.”

8:57 – I love how Beyonce is wearing her 3D specs while Jay-Z is sans glasses. Hey B, you’re at the event. It’s already in 3D.

9:01 – I bet MJ’s kids feel really out of place when they hang out at their Uncle Tito’s place. Those are some pale-faced children.

9:03 – Wow, they were just paying tribute to MJ on the Grammys and now there’s a a commercial for “This Is It” on DVD. What a weird coincidence. It’s almost like it was planned.

9:08 – All you have to do to win an icon award is write “Sweet Talkin’ Guy”? Seems to be setting the bar a bit low.

9:09 – So what you were really voting for was which part of a Bon Jovi song they’ll perform.

9:10 – I hope Roger McGuinn is getting a cut of “We Weren’t Born to Follow.” Methinks Bon Jovi should have paid more attention to the Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born to Follow” when they were ripping it off.

9:11 – Someone needs to say it: Bon Jove are looking old. How many chins does Sambora have, anyway? I count three.

9:12 – I’ll tell you who says you can’t go home: Thomas Wolfe. And if home sounds like this, I’ll be out with Dean Moriarty on the road.

9:14 – Jon Bon Jovi should be forced to sing “Living on a Prayer” over the PA at a Home Depot.

9:16 – What the? How did Mos Def get onstage? “True Magic” had more artistry than the entire careers of everyone else onstage tonight – combined (except for Smokey Robinson and Leon Russell).

9:18 – Next year at this time, I hope Mos Def and Talib Kweli are being presented with the Best Rap Song award for “History.” Black Star rules.

9:19 – So Kanye actually wins an award and he doesn’t show up to collect it? How classic would it have been for Taylor to crash his speech? Probably why he didn’t show up.

9:21 – Seriously, though, best of luck to you and whatever you’re going through, Kanye. Your albums are genius. I hope you get your magic back and exorcise those demons.

9:26 – So it’s OK to sing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to show support for the Haitians even though the song was banned by Clear Channel in the wake of 9/11?

9:28 – I just want to get this off my chest: Mary J. Blige, magnificent voice, but she oversings and all her songs are vamps and choruses. She doesn’t know what to do with a verse. And the a-hole who thought it would be a good idea to run that voice through auto-tune for MJB’s latest single should be shot. That’s like tying Fred Astaire’s ankles together.

9:30 – Do Mary J and Andrea Bocelli know they’re both singing the same song? Their “duet” was like an otolaryngological cock fight.

9:37 – Who’d have thought the Latin Grammys would have lasted a decade?

9:38 – How come there isn’t a Jazz Grammys or Klezmer Grammys?

9:42 – How many support musicians does the Dave Matthews Band need for this song? Maybe the USC Marching Trojans will show up again.

9:44 – Dave Matthews dances worse than Elaine Benes from “Sienfeld.”

9:46 – Now Ricky Martin has stolen Chris O’Donnel’s close-cropped look. He should just be glad he’s not forced to pay is way in with the general public.

9:48 – I think Beyonce’s dress is made of all of Jay-Z’s discarded bling.

9:55 – When I saw Maxwell last fall at the Saavis/Keil/Whatever it’s now called Center in St. Louis I imagined the experience was similar to seeing Marvin Gaye back in the day. Maxwell is the real deal and he’s killing it right now. Best performance of the night so far.

9:58 – Maxwell + Roberta Flack. At last, a duet with two people who actually know how to sing with a partner.

10:00 – As the show rounds the three hour mark, just think: the whole night could have been as good as what we just heard.

10:05 – I wonder if this is the combo Jeff Beck will be bringing to Starlight in April.

10:06 – So what’s the thinking here, now that all the kiddies have gone to bed we can shelve the pop tarts and have some real music?

10:07 – Does Quentin Tarantino know that pretending to act like such a badass is making him look like a huge douchebag?

10:14 – Is there a song underneath all these edits? Why not change the lyrics for television? I wonder if the producers have a lyric sheet up in the booth so they know when to drop out. That would be classic to see.

10:17 – Jamie Foxx is singing along with every lyric, but I have to say I think Drake is horribly overrated.

10:18 – Drake’s blend of preppie (black leather jacket, black shirt) with ghetto (torn, sagging jeans) is cracking me up. He’s clearly trying to have it both ways.

10:26 – Taylor Swift wins Album of the Year. Yawn.

10:29 – That’s it for the night. Thanks for reading and for hanging out.

Keep reading:

2010 Grammys: A Running Diary

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(Above: Kanye West and Peter, Bjorn and John marry indie rock to hip hop in  “Young Folks.”)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

The distance between whistling and beat-boxing shrank considerably once Kanye West got involved.

When West sampled Peter, Bjorn and John’s whistle-based sensation “Young Folks” for his mixtape, he not only united the worlds of indie rock and hip-hop, he also awakened Peter, Bjorn and John’s burgeoning love of urban music.

“When I first heard his version I thought it was a joke,” drummer John Eriksson said. “I didn’t think it’s strange, though, because a lot of hip-hop artists are trying to get more rock with a lot of electric guitars and the rest.”

West proved his indie rock cred when he asked the Swedish trio to perform the mashup during his set at the 2007 Way Out West festival. The collaboration helped open the band’s ears to new ways of presenting its music. The commercial follow-up to “Young Folks” was this year’s “Living Thing,” which disposed of guitars and traditional drumming and embraced icy synthesizers, spare arrangements and altered percussion.

“Many people think the drums on ‘Living Thing’ are programmed, but it’s not,” said Eriksson, whose band performs Friday night at the Granada in Lawrence. “Eighty percent of the sounds are acoustic but turned to make it sound like a drum machine or given a spaced-out, futuristic sound.”

Hip-hop wasn’t much of an influence when the band formed in 1999, but at the end of the “Living Thing” sessions, singer Peter Moren tried what would have been unthinkable 10 years ago and rapped an entire song.

“I didn’t think it was good enough (to make the album), so we tried to get someone else to do the vocals,” Eriksson said. “That’s how we met Mick Boogie, who helped us come up with the idea of having other people rap over all of our songs.”

The resulting remix album was dubbed “Re-Living Thing” and features original rhymes by GZA, Talib Kweli, Three 6 Mafia, Bun B and Rhymefest, with production from Jazzy Jeff, 6th Sense and Apple Juice Kid.

“I’ve only heard three versions so far. Jazzy Jeff did a fantastic job on his track, and I can’t wait to hear the others,” Eriksson said. “Knowing GZA from Wu Tang is on there makes me want to cry, almost. It seems surreal he’s doing something with one of our songs. I don’t know how Mick convinced him to take part. Maybe they played chess and Mick won.”

After the band released an online- and vinyl-only instrumental album last year and commissioned friends to make different arrangements of past singles for vinyl release, Eriksson feels like Peter, Bjorn and John fans should be up for anything.

“I think our fans are used to us doing weird, surprising stuff. A couple tracks on last year’s instrumental album have a Swedish narrative in the old dialect,” Eriksson said. “After five albums, by now people should be open to who we are. Maybe our next album will be trash-metal mixed with Stockhausen.”

Hesitant or curious fans won’t have to part with much to hear the results. “Re-Living Thing” will be released online today for free.

“That’s just how it works these days. Music is free,” Eriksson said. “When you make music, you don’t think about how to make money. Usually other people do that.”

Eriksson said most of the band’s money comes from licensing songs like “Young Folks” to TV shows and commercials. The corporate funds pay for the band’s creative ventures, like jazz and hip-hop remixes.

“When people ask us if they can use songs in commercials, we think about what the commercial is for. We won’t say yes to banks, McDonald’s and things we don’t agree with,” Eriksson said. “When it’s something we like — like TV shows, beer, maybe ice cream, stuff people need — we have no problem. It’s the only way we can make money. I wish we could sell albums, but most of our money is from that.”

Friday
Peter, Bjorn and John perform Friday night at the Granada, 1020 Massachusetts in Lawrence. Cowboy Indian Bear opens at 9 p.m. Tickets to the all-ages show are $15. Visit www.thegranada.com.

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(Above: “Back Again” from the forthcoming Talib Kweli/Hi-Tek album.)

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Ten years ago, rapper Talib Kweli and DJ Hi-Tek united to produce two of the genre’s landmark albums. Teaming with Mos Def they created “Black Star;” on their own they released “Train of Thought.”  The duo celebrated their past and future before a nearly full Granada Theater in Lawrence, Kan. on Sunday night.

The set started with a new song which showcased Kweli’s dense delivery and more-words-per-breath approach. From there the evening got more familiar with “Move Something” and “Eternalists,” two of several cuts to come off “Train of Thought.”

With barely a breather in between, the songs came in rapid-fire succession: “Too Late,” “Definition,” “Africa Dreams,” “Love Language,” “Down for the Count,” “Respiration,” “Memories Live.” Each number brought a big response -– a sea of hands and chorus of vocals.

Early in the set the pair switched spots, with Kweli on the turntables and Hi-Tek prowling the front of the stage in rhyme. The performances were passable, but neither as in his element. Kweli later ceded the mic again to DJ a 10-minute medley of songs Hi-Tek has produced for others. Most of the cuts were drawn from his trilogy of “Hi-Teknology” albums.

Hi-Tek was just as accommodating as DJ, working in ample Kweli hits produced by others like will.i.am’s “Hot Thing,” Just Blaze’s “Hostile Gospel,” Madlib’s “Over the Counter.” The room broke into pandemonium when Hi-Tek dropped into a loop of Kanye West’s “Get ‘Em High.” Instead of reprising the verse he cut for West’s album, though, Kweli freestyled, dropping references to the University of Kansas. It may have been pandering, but it was very effective.

For past tours, Kweli has brought backing vocalists and other onstage help. None of that was necessary this night. With Hi-Tek behind the turntables and on a riser, the MC had all the support and camaraderie he needed.

Live hip-hop is a deservedly suspicious beast. Many an MC has been cut to size by a performance that fails to replicate the studio magic and a DJ who cannot conjure the vibe. Hi-Tek’s varied samples, encompassing African rhythms, quiet storm, reggaeton and more, kept the music sonically interesting, while Kweli continually proved his microphone prowess.

The main set ended with two of the evening’s strongest songs. “Back Again” was another new song. Laced with African drums and R&B vocals it sounded like a “Train of Thought” outtake. The crowd wasn’t familiar enough to be singing along yet, but before Kweli’s next swing through town they will be. The audience had no problem, though, chiming in for “Get By,” Kweli’s biggest number and set closer.

After 70 minutes the concert morphed into an after-party. Audience members were invited onstage while Kweli and Hi-Tek played past and current hip-hop favorites. After a couple numbers, the stage was so crowded the headlining duo were barely visible.

Once the after-party started, the crowd split two ways: half took to the stage and the rest of us, faced with a drive back to Kansas City in a hard rainstorm, headed for the door.

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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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Mavis We’ll Never Turn Back

 

Mavis Staples – We’ll Never Turn Back
Radiohead
– In Rainbows
Talib Kweli – Ear Drum
PJ Harvey
– White Chalk
Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
Bettye LaVette – The Scene of the Crime
Thurston Moore – The Trees Outside the Academy
Wilco – Sky Blue Sky
Kanye West – Graduation
Levon Helm – Dirt Farmer

 

 

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