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Russell Gunn: Ethnomusicology, Vol. 3

AAJ Staff By

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Russell Gunn has a problem with critics—but only the ones who don't like his music. The third track on this record makes this point more than abundantly clear. And it's pure hypocrisy.

Regardless, I'm afraid I'll have to join this elite group. Gunn's last record (Vol. 2) was a brilliant blending of jazz with hip-hop, funk and other styles. Vol. 3 has crossed the line into pure indulgence and fallen off the edge. A few inspired combinations drown among a heap of tunes ripe with cliche. Suffice to say that the last record is the one to check out. Maybe it's time to quit the series?

Give Gunn credit for holding true to his credo that "labels divide, separate." Indeed, his vision is founded on the idea that jazz as a pure entity is naked. When you put improvisation in the context of hip-hop, funk, rap, Latin, and other multifarious so-called "urban" styles, it develops an empowering energy. The point at which it acquires the greatest vigor is when it is tossed in the blender and scrambled.

That idea works very well when the other items which go into the mix are clever, but it's critically dependent on the ingredients. One thing so-called "popular" culture—celebrated here as a partner to improvisation—has unfortunately absorbed is the nagging influence of mass marketing and homogenization; Vol. 3 displays an unfortunate inability to discriminate product from culture, despite its heated and outspoken rhetoric to the contrary.

"No Separation" (with the central message) builds instrumental improvisation (mostly vibes and trumpet) upon a rhythmic foundation that plods roughly through fuzzy hip-hop grooves. Scratches dot the landscape; there's a real drummer instead of a machine. But ironically the tune betrays its message. It sounds like we've heard it a hundred times before. Likewise with "The Critic's Song," which has an perky groove driven upward by keyboards voiced something like electric guitars. Kids rap brightly on, getting to the point that "real artists don't give a fuck about you"... you directed at unenthusiastic critics—but also anyone, really. (What happens when you really liked the last album but hate the new one? Maybe that opinion doesn't matter if you're an artist. Hmmm.)

Despite earlier errors in judgment, I won't return the favor. It's a good idea, kids and the rap and the groove, but it's just not executed right. The problem lies in the ingredients. They're cliche. At some point you realize that, other than the improvisation, the rest of the music hits you where you've been hit too many times already.

Later points of departure include a slow-jam ballad with more vibes and horns; four-to-the-floor dance beats accompanied by chord changes and a big band orchestration; an interesting ambient drone-like eastern soul tune; and a painfully cheesy and outdated '70s synth ballad, complete with spare drums, bells, and floating keyboard textures.

When Gunn steps to the fore as a player rather than a "composer," he shines. He has a remarkable ability to coax a wide range of emotions from the trumpet, including a spectrum of electronic effects. It's a shame this talent has gone to waste in an environment that suffocates its freshness.


Track Listing: 1. Celebrity Room (Intro) - 0:47 2. No Separation - 4:12 3. The Critic's Song - 2:54 4. Variations (On a Conspiracy Theory) - 6:04 5. East St. Louis - 5:45 6. John Wicks - 7:06 7. Yesterdays - 7:35 8. Strange Fruit - 4:03 9. Stranger Fruit - 7:00

Personnel: Russell Gunn: Trumpet, Flugelhorn, Keyboards, Electric Trumpet. With Oliver Lake, Rocky Bryant, Marc Cary, Vincent Chancey, Gary Noble, Carl Burnett, Stefon Harris, James Hurt, Antoine Drye, Nick Rolfe, Duane Eubanks, Carlos Henderson, Dana Murray, Kahlil Kwame Bell, Kebbi Williams, DJ Neil Armstrong, Todd Britt, Kenny "Blue" Campbell, Montez Coleman.

Title: Ethnomusicology, Vol. 3 | Year Released: 2003 | Record Label: Justin Time Records

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