Merging jazz and hip-hop has generally proved more risk than reward, but IsWhat?! takes a fearless plunge into these troublesome waters.
Matt Anderson (upright and electric bass), Jack Walker (saxophones and flute) and Napoleon Maddox (vocals) make quite a splash with the sound of their debut. Guest drummer Hamid Drake (Don Cherry, Herbie Hancock, David Murray) and DJs/mixmasters John Doe and The Animal Crackers help rock the beats: Imagine the sound of Digable Planets with bassist Charles Mingus and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders sitting in. You can almost hear that sound come alive in "Thump Loop & Scratch," an ambitious interplay between saxophone, bass, and turntables.
The trio creates jazz-hop fusion by retaining disciplines important to each style. Jazz (some jazz, anyway) and hip-hop (for sure) both benefit from thumpin' bass, and young pup Anderson could sure teach some old dawgs how to rock the house on a funky upright. He pounds the bottom out of Mingus' "Fables of Faubus," then reworks Mingus' "Haitian Fight Song" as the introduction to "Trust," which he underpins with his hard-driving walking bass line.
Maddox hits his highspot in "Trust" with the set's best wordplay:
Trust don't work
In a world like this
You've got to watch your back
It's just ridiculous
You can be na've
If you want to
But don't expect everybody
To love you.
He's a genuine rapper, punching out "Cold Hands" old-school hard like LL Cool J, flowing more liquid in "Can't Get In."
"Cold Hands" cooks up another hot jazz-hop patty melt from Anderson's thump, drum loops, John Rusza's cuica and especially Liz Wu's vibraphone improvisation, which runs throughout the entire piece. DJ Spinna's clubby remix of "Cold Hands" is sequenced immediately after the original version, which makes it hard to distinguish between the two.
More promising jazz-hop fusion than most, and it will be intriguing to see where IsWhat?! goes from here. It also brings to mind an old saying that's usually brought up in conversations about racial harmony but also applies to this merging of two musical genres: "Our differences show on the surface, but our sames cut down to the bone."
Personnel: Jack Walker (saxophones, flute, voice), Napoleon Maddox (MC & human beat-box), Matthew Anderson (basses, scat), with Hamid Drake (trap set), DJ Spinna (remix), John Doe - 1200 Hobos (turntables), Animal Crackers (turntables), Michael Barnhart (computer music processing), Liz Wu (vibraphone), John Rusza (cuica)