The routines overflow with humor, pathos, and moral messages, but Power never descends into sermonizing or doctrinaire politics.
JazzTimes magazine received some angry mail last year after a cover feature on Q-Tip, formerly of the rap group A Tribe Called Quest. One respondent referred to the hip-hop icon as “some damn rapper.” It’s funny how some parade their ignorance, quick to condemn artists they’ve hardly even heard of. How sad, in this case, that the letter-writer missed out on some of the most creative, vibrant music of the 1990s. Now Q-Tip turns up as the co-producer of Kurt Rosenwinkel’s new Verve release, Heartcore. The music world is getting more interdependent and intermingled, and some folks just can’t stand it. Jazz fans who regard hip-hop as nihilistic noise without a trace of musicality need to look beyond what Kelefa Sanneh recently dubbed “corporate rap.” The New York Theater Workshop’s Hip-Hop Theater Festival would be a good place for the naysayers to start. This year’s centerpiece was a one-man show titled “Flow,” starring Will Power and directed by Danny Hoch (an incredible performer in his own right). Power has deep connections to the jazz world. It’s him you hear rapping on several of pianist Omar Sosa’s releases. And it’s his group Midnight Voices that released its Howling at the Moon on Liberty Ellman’s Red Giant label. (Ellman used to tour with the band himself.) This is not to say that Will Power (or anyone else) needs jazz credentials in order to be taken seriously as an artist. Everything about “Flow” — the set, the sound, the music, the acting, the narrative — indicated professionalism of the highest order. Portraying himself at first, Power winds up in the company of six neighborhood storytellers from widely varying walks of life. One by one, he acts out each character, sometimes layering stories within stories, all in impeccable hip-hop verse accompanied by the airtight, real-time mixes of DJ Reborn, live and in person in the booth. Throughout the show, Power affects an enigmatic staccato shout, “zhoo,” to separate phrases and ideas. He also uses the onomatopoetic sound “bee-dee-KAT, bee-dee-KAT-KAT” to represent everything from rain to drums to gunfire. An exceedingly skilled and charismatic actor, Power in turn portrays a teenage girl, a Latino tour guide, a scheming but endearing panhandler, a juice vendor and lay preacher, a street-smart female schoolteacher, and more. The routines overflow with humor, pathos, and moral messages, but Power never descends into sermonizing or doctrinaire politics. (In one typically surprising and effective scene, he takes litterers to task.) Add up all the characters and their stories and we get Power’s singular yet invariably complex take on life in the ’hood and beyond. As he intones repeatedly near the finale, “Use the stories that you know and just flow.” Which brings us, in a way, back to jazz.