IsWhat?!: Not to be Defined...

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Improvisation is so much a part of what we do. To mix it up with the scratch artists and the DJs is as complex a form of improvisation as is playing with other instruments.
Hyena Records, the newest baby of producer extraordinaire Joel Dorn, is quite obviously one of the most eclectic labels in music. Reissues of Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Thelonious Monk catalog grab your attention at first, but any label that features records by both Bobby Darin and James "Blood Ulmer in the same catalogue is clearly open to a variety of possibilities. This same kind of free-range eclecticism within the label carries over to the eclecticism inherent to one of its latest signings, IsWhat?!

IsWhat?!—no, we're not asking a question, and it's not an Abbott and Costello routine either. IsWhat?! is rather—a mantra that speaks to the group's refusal to be pinned down to any particular genre or style, and to create music that is for "the people but which does not simply pander to what people are comfortable in hearing. IsWhat?! in fact, is an amalgamation of influences and music-making techniques that reflects the different cultural and musical backgrounds its three members bring to the fore. Consistent with the whole ethos, the first record for the label is called You Figure it Out.

Now while there are some clear foundations in both jazz and hip-hop, and while "jazz hip-hop is clearly the tag some will attempt to apply, this is by no means "jazz hip-hop e.g. Russell Gunn or Roy Hargrove. When your bassist comes from a punk background and your emcee is a free jazz nut who is as likely to check out an Ayler record as a Sugar Hill Gang side, it stands to reason this wouldn't be a predictable sort of "fusion. And irrespective of trying to define its sound, the band itself is a unique confluence of "sounds , featuring saxophonist/flutist Jack Walker, bassist Matt Anderson, and the wild card that throws off any possibility of this being just like your grandfather's jazz- emcee and human drum machine Napoleon Maddox.

While they have been busy touring in support of their debut record on Hyena, I was recently able to catch the members of IsWhat?! on a break in between tours. I had the opportunity therefore to sit down and get some perspective from the horse's mouth in my own efforts to try and "figure it out.

All About Jazz: So how did IsWhat?! come into being in the first place?

Jack Walker: Well, we had played in one group or another together, and we found over time we had a lot of the same interests in music... we were pretty much "out there by ourselves in fact.

Matt Anderson: It started in a group called Healing System, which was based on a lot of Anthony Braxton ideas and that type of free playing. Of course Jack had already been playing this music (free music) here in Cincinnati in the 70s. Another thing though was that me, coming from punk- I had begun to present some free/avant-garde bands like that Jack was involved with at the different punk clubs around town. The punk audience was actually very receptive to this music because of the energy of it and kind of a similar hardcore-type aesthetic. As far as how Napoleon came in, I started to hear Napoleon a lot at some of the regional black music festivals. He also had a band called the Social Committee and Watussi which I would check out. At this time we were all involved with some of the same social and political causes and groups as well. We were all associated with left-wing activism down here. That has always been an important part of our music too, something which has always informed what we do and why we do it.

Napoleon Maddox: The whole evolution of it would take place though as we'd sit in together more and more. There was a cat here in Cincinnati- Chester T, who was a catalyst for a lot of what was going on at that time... but we would develop some real connections on the bandstand. All of this led to the point that Matt and I had some conversations in which we decided basically to try and develop things past just the format of "the jam.

MA: As much as we were aware of all the different influences that we were bringing to the table though, we didn't consciously set out to become a certain kind of band. For us, it wasn't an abstraction.

NM: Yeah, we didn't base getting together around conversations of a "what if? nature in terms of combining the different backgrounds and influences that were coming into play. It was always about building off the connections that we had already established.

AAJ: So IsWhat?!, though it can well be perceived as a fusion of music forms, was never a hypothetical "project ?

MA: Definitely not. The thing is too, we were going to be kept honest because the people we were working with weren't source by-products. They were "the source.

AAJ: For as much as I dig the new record, whenever I've had the chance to catch you guys live I've found myself thinking "this is the way to properly experience IsWhat?!." So, any plans for a live record?

NM: That's not something that we have immediately on the table, but it is something we've talked about doing. A number of other people at our shows have expressed the same point of view, and we definitely understand where they're coming from. Right now though we're just trying to finish work on the new record and get that out there.

AAJ: So what about the new record? What can we look for that is different from your first record on Hyena?

MA: I think this record is more focused than the first one. While I like the first record in how free-flowing and loose it is, at this point we know a lot different ways to approach any given material and so now we are trying to streamline some concepts.

AAJ: And how is being on the Hyena label working for you?

NM: Well, it's a new experience for us in that we're now selling records in places we've never been. That is still kind of strange to us having spent so much time touring. So being on a label like Hyena definitely helps at distribution. We also though are honored at the association of being on the same label with this great Thelonious Monk and Rahsaan Roland Kirk catalog they have and the other living artists on the label. For us, it's also a good thing the label is as diverse as it is. We don't want to be typecast or put in a box and the label promotes everyone pursuing their own directions.

AAJ: You guys have been an opener for a lot of big-name hip-hop acts (The Roots, KRS-ONE, Big Daddy Kane, and more). It's fair to say you're a little different for both jazz fans AND hip-hop fans: so how do you feel that hip-hop audiences have received you on the whole?

MA: It's been really fun to get in front of a hardcore hip-hop audience...I'm talking about a real hip-hop audience with the hardcore heads, breakdancing- everything. We've opened for somebody like Big Daddy Kane, whose fans really have no idea what to expect from us, but we've always been able to get a connection established and then take the crowd somewhere where they can really feel what we're doing. It's a really satisfying thing, and I can say that if we were only coming from hip-hop, that would be fine with me.

NM: The question really is, what kind of hip-hop are we bringing to them? It's hardcore. And the jazz we play is hardcore. We only want to play music that really hits you hard, so this is why they could appreciate it.

AAJ: What do you guys make of the comment Rahzel (of The Roots) had made that you are part of "the next movement ?

NM: Well the context for that statement as I remember, is that we were opening up for them and I think in what he heard us doing he could hear where we are trying to take elements from the past and make connections to the present. The Roots, and there are a few other groups I would associate with them, have always been creating music that didn't fit squarely into categories, so they respect that in us.

MA: I also feel that we're a lot more than just an emcee with a band. I'm trying to play in the way that I can really respond to what Napoleon and Jack are doing and not just "back them up. I also think about the way DJs connected sampled music to hip-hop in this. In a similar way, we're constantly trying to reorganize our music in the live music format.

AAJ: Knowing that there is larger trend, or—at least, a "trend for the media to report called "jazz hip-hop , have you had a chance to check out any of the music being referred to as falling under this label?

MA: If you're going to combine the two, those are two big words, and so what elements are you bringing to the table? It seems like a lot of the musicians I hear trying to do it are going for more of a "contemporary audience. It has that kind of vibe.

NM: Well I'm not all that familiar with different artists and records, but it seems like with a lot of this music, the hip-hop elements that they use, or the jazz elements that they use, aren't really hardcore. They lean more towards having a radio-friendly sound.

AAJ: So it's kind of "inoffensive music?

NM: Yeah, pretty much from what I have heard.

MA: It seems like with a lot of the jazz musicians too, that they will only use a "hip-hop beat. They are not even addressing turntables, which is like the entire backbone of hip-hop, or they'll have turntables but in more of a background sense, not really integrated into the music.

AAJ: This interview as noted, is going to be published on a jazz website. For all of the jazz fans out there who are reading this then, what do you think they would find in your music that would be appealing or of interest, and also of direct relevance to jazz?

NM: Well first of all I would say they are certainly not obligated to be (interested in our music) just because we have some jazz elements. But, the thing is, our music has feeling that is consistent not only with jazz but other music forms that have the same kind of depth as jazz does, and I think the main reason that people appreciate jazz is because of the depth of feeling that is involved.

MA: Improvisation is so much a part of what we do too. To mix it up with the scratch artists and the DJs is as complex a form of improvisation as is playing with other instruments.

JW: I know that a lot of the jazz people who get to hear us, they'll come up after the show and try to designate something, like "Oh, that sounded like something Mingus would have played or "That reminded me of David Murray , so they're hearing things in our backgrounds come out that are jazz-related.

MA: The thing is too, we're legitimately bringing all of these different influences to the table. I am in my own way trying to incorporate my background playing jazz. I'm still trying to write things that have changes (chord changes) for example. But you know too, jazz has always been able to incorporate different elements from different music forms itself. I always go back to what Oscar Treadwell (fabled Cincinnati jazz impresario immortalized in Monk's "Oska T ) said about jazz too: "this is American Creative Music.

AAJ: Napoleon, I have to ask you- it's clear that your beatboxing at times is very informed by jazz drumming, and that you know and appreciate the jazz idiom from a rhythmic point-of- view. What homework if any, did you do to learn how to approximate the sound of a jazz drummer?

NM: Well as far as jazz drumming the cats I have paid the most studied attention to have been Art Blakey—with specific focus on the album, Anthenagin, Elvin Jones, Hamid Drake, Guillermo Brown and Max Roach...pretty much in that order chronologically...

AAJ: Sounds like you did do some homework. Now where can readers do a little more homework on IsWhat?!

NM: Well, they can check the IsWhat?! and Hyena Records websites for all of the info on what's going on with IsWhat?! and with the Hyena label in general..

AAJ: Well then, thanks for laying down your perspective on everything guys. It's been a pleasure.

NM: Hey, the pleasure is ours.


Summer tour dates for IsWhat?!

June 30 NYC @ MAKOR
July 1 - Philadelphia @ Tritone
July 2 - Pittsburgh @ Shadow Lounge
July 3 - Cincinnati @ Northside Tavern
July 4 - Lexington, KY @ Phoenix Park (outdoor free fest)
July 5 - Louisville @ Jazz Factory
July 6 - Richmond, KY
July 7 - Spartanburg, SC @ Ground Zero
July 9 - Atlanta
July 11 - DC @ Velvet Lounge
July 12 - NYC @ Knitting Factory - (with JC Hopkins Big Band featuring Queen Esther)
July 13 - Sweet Rhythm in NYC (with Claire Daly)
July 14 - Providence, RI @ Tazza Cafe
July 21 - Cincinnati @ Cooper's

Napoleon Maddox Solo Dates

June 11 - Napoleon with Transmitting @ Piano's, NY
June 14 - Napoleon with JC Hopkins Biggish Band @ Knitting Factory, NY
June 16 - Napoleon & Mocean Worker (with the Bad Plus) @ Knitting Factory, NY
June 18 - Napoleon & Mocean Worker featured @ Wakarusa Festival, Kansas
June 20 - Napoleon & Mocean Worker in San Fransisco@ Cafe Du Nord
June 22 - Napoleon & Mocean Worker in Seattle @ Chop Suey
June 23 - Napoleon & Mocean Worker in Portland @ Lolas


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