Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Dorothy Ashby - Afro-Harping

This is one of my favorite jazz albums of all time. It's pretty amazing that it was possible to hear music like this in 1968 - in many ways its aesthetics anticipate hip hop. Listen to the opening track "Soul Vibrations" with its deep funk bass line, psychedelic theremin melodies, and Isaac Hayes style string arrangements (earlier than Hayes wrote his) and tell me it isn't perfect material for a Dilla-style chopped up arrangement. This remarkable album features the near-peerless jazz harp master Dorothy Ashby (1932-86) with an anonymous band including flute, strings, vibes, organ and many other instruments, playing a set of jazz standards in a Latin/Pan-African style. Pretty much no other jazz group I know of sounded like this in the late '60s (this is nothing like Miles Davis' fusion work at the time), though by the '70s many bands were working in a similar style featuring laid back grooviness, catchy, soulful hooks, and rhythms borrowing equally from African music and funk. There isn't a walking bass line to be found, only pure earthy grooves in short repetitive figures.

Dorothy Ashby wasn't the first jazz harpist, but she was one of only a few that achieved fame, and she was undoubtedly the most innovative. Albums like In a Minor Groove (1958) demonstrate her prowess in bebop, sounding as deft and nimble on her enormous harp as a jazz guitarist, but producing a fuller and more magical sound. Then there's The Rubaiyat Of Dorothy Ashby (1970), which is to Dorothy Ashby's discography what Ys is to today's star harpist Joanna Newsom's - it's an incredibly ambitious, sprawling masterpiece, unprecedented upon its release, with lush arrangements, multiple genres (jazz, funk, East Asian, Indian, and African traditional) crammed into one, and even singing and spoken word from Dorothy.

Afro-Harping isn't nearly so grandiose as that, but in my opinion it is her best album. Her improvisations throughout the album are very lyrical and memorable, taking a purposeful, less-is-more approach to soloing not unlike the playing of Grant Green, but more chordal and less linear. Not a single moment falls flat. The whole band gels beautifully throughout, and the percussion will have you tapping your lap. Their hybridization of funk, soul, bebop, and modal and Latin jazz makes perfect sense and still sounds fresh today, and the album at a scant 35 minutes seems to have infinite replayability. This comes with just about my highest possible recommendation; music that just makes you feel good.


Monday, March 8, 2010

MC NoCanDo - Jimmy the Lock

Winner of Scribble Jam '07, dynamic host of the world-famous Low End Theory club in LA, and slaughterer of hundreds of would-be battlers, NoCanDo is going places. Scratch that actually, because his debut Jimmy the Lock on Alpha Pup proves that he's arrived. It's easy to see why a record like this is a formula for success: it combines equal parts unpretentious, fun party themes (this is a sex, drugs and rock 'n roll record, says NoCanDo), high-brow social commentary executed with undeniable poetic skill, and cutting-edge future production and scratches from an LA all-star roster including Nosaj Thing, DJ Nobody, Thavius Beck, Daedelus, Free The Robots, Maestroe, the Gaslamp Killer and D-Styles.

This is the first release I've heard out of the cerebral LA underground hip hop scene that I think has real potential to break through to a wider audience, especially thanks to great singles like the club-shaker "Hurry Up And Wait". With sparse, ultra-bassy production from DJ Nobody and all too many killer lines ("Man, I'm as cold as they come / If I was holdin' a gun, I'd shoot a hole in the sun"; "If I keep rushin' man I could be called a Communist / I break speed limits and laws and all my promises"), there's no reason this song can't be 2010's "A Millie". At the end of the track, NoCanDo suddenly breaks into double-time, and closes the incendiary stanza with the non-rhetorical question "When did all the passion leave?!" This is mainstream-sensible rap with real passion.

Another highlight comes toward the end of the album with "Skankophelia", a hilarious and clever twist on the obligatory girl-tribute track with sparkling clean Daedelus production (sampling Curtis Mayfield's "Makings of You" - classic!). NoCanDo's flow on this track is refreshing in how it features some nice sized rests and changes of scansion rather than the more typical approach of a constant stream of syllables. "Lady, gimme a update for fuck's sake / You're so precious; it's no fetish / Your whole essence is pro- / -fessional whore; I'm head over heels, no question / I suffer from a bad case of skankophelia." Though this track displays it best, NoCanDo's flow is anything but monotonous throughout the album.

Other tracks expose the less glamorous sides of Los Angeles, revealing, critiquing, and at times reveling in its grimy and morally questionable underbelly, full of "Blue collars / Bright lights / Brown skies / And bullshit" (hook to the burner "Exploits and Glitches"). Tackling issues like drunk driving, promiscuity and unprotected sex, race, sexuality and California's passing of Prop. 8, drug abuse, and street violence, Jimmy the Lock has a lot of legitimate and intelligent content without ever sacrificing fun, character and attitude. Also, there isn't one skit on the entire album.

Likely to be one of the most talked about underground rap releases of the year, NoCanDo's major studio debut has, pound for pound, more brains, swagger, and neck breaking beats than just about anyone can shake a mic at.

[Link removed]

Post script: many thanks to Alpha Pup Records for reporting this review on Twitter!