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Few attempts at a jazz and hip hop union have ever been successful or satisfying. Maybe it's one school's inability to understand the other or the problematic potential of getting two such different audiences in the same room. But, somehow, the maverick 28-year-old trumpeter Russell Gunn has made it work with Ethnomusicology, one of the finest and most original jazz documents to come along in some time. On this, his first Atlantic set, Gunn departs distinctively from his previous Muse and High Note releases, coupling his protean roar with hard-funk rhythms, electric instrumentation and even DJ Apollo's turntables. Most startling of all, though, is how traditional and timeless it all sounds: like jazz modes and bop phrasing filtered through r & b rhythms and hip hop stylization (mercifully not the reverse, which ruins any good attempt). But consider that Gunn's résumé includes contributions to both Wynton Marsalis's opera Blood on The Fields and the funk of brother Branford's diametrically opposed Buckshot LeFonque. And while he's held court (and his own) with legends like James Moody and Jimmy Heath, Gunn grew up idolizing L.L. Cool J and has gone on to record hits with Maxwell and Lou Reed.
So nothing about Ethnomusicology should surprise. Still, it does. It's thoroughly invigorating and inviting. Consistently, throughout, Gunn explores the jazz tradition with insight and reverence and through his masterful delivery comes up with something that has plenty of street credibility too.
Appropriately, Gunn introduces his concept with Joe Zawinul's "74 Miles Away" (originally performed by Cannonball Adderley, who, with Woody Shaw, seems to steer Gunn's jazz approach here). Replete with a P-Funk-style helium sermonette ("all that's required is an open mind and two ears"), "74 Miles Away" is especially notable for a delicious taste of the trumpeter's ever elegant phrasing. It is Gunn's gift for melody which is often most memorable as the beats rescind or disappear altogether, as on the lovely and hit-worthy ballad "Doll," a feature for Gunn's flugelhorn and Special EFX-man Chieli Minucci's guitar.
But it is the muscular rhythms and aggressive funk that most dominate Ethnomusicology. Sample the relentless ostinatos of the modal "Folkz" or the Indian drone of "Shiva," both fine features for the commanding horns of Gregory Tardy, Bruce Williams and Andre Heyward.
Gunn's conceptions reach sonic perfection in no small measure to the awesome powers of his like-minded rhythm section: James Hurt on piano, Rodney Jordan on bass and, most especially, the diversely imaginative drummer Woody Williams. They are especially noteworthy on the disc's best tracks: the razor-sharp Cannonball funk of "Sybil's Blues" (featuring a brief chat on the blues from, of all people, Wynton Marsalis!), the surprisingly straight-forward yet danceable (!) cover of Woody Shaw's "Woody 1: On The New Ark" (from Shaw's neglected 1979 masterwork, Woody III ) and Branford Marsalis's "The Blackwidow Blues," beautiful bop that would make Art Blakey proud (even as it samples Jeru the Damaja's "Da Bichez"!).
Having just noticed all the exclamations used above, it's worth noting that Ethnomusicology is brimming with such arresting punctuation. Gunn may have been intending dancefloor fluff or, more likely, an electric redux on straight-ahead jazz. But he's crafted something more substantial that might actually serve to bridge the gap between the old and the new as we transition into jazz's second century. Ethnomusicology is quite an achievement.
Songs:74 Miles Away - Intro; Shiva; Sybil's Blues; DJ Apollo Interlude; Woody I: On The New Ark; The Blackwidow Blues; Doll; Folkz; Andre Heyward Interlude; Mr. Hurt.
Players:Russell Gunn: trumpet, flugelhorn, organ bass, Vox, Human Beatbox, tambourine; Gregory Tardy: tenor sax, flute, bass clarinet; Bruce Williams: alto sax, e flat clarinet, cowbell; Andre Heyward: trombone; Chieli Minucci: guitar; James Hurt: piano, Fender Rhodes, organ; Rodney Jordan: bass; Woody Williams: drums; Khalil Kwame Bell: percussion; DJ Apollo: turntables.