Drab graphic design aside, the semiology of the Jazz Is Dead label promises good things. The name itself suggests music that is the opposite of deadsomething vibrant, inventive, of its timewhile the label's co-founders, producers Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge, are active in the struggle for universal social justice. On top of that, Muhammad was a founder member of A Tribe Called Quest, for many people the most incisive rap group of the 1990s, and one with a reputation for choosing great jazz samples.
And then you listen to the albums. At their best, a category which includes Katalyst's upbeat 13, these are well crafted though generally patchy affairs which include moments of substance. Others are slick, inconsequential exercises from artists such as Marcos Valle who have only ever had tenuous connections with jazz.
Even those Jazz Is Dead albums by heavyweights such as Gary Bartz and Brian Jackson are underwhelming. Bartz's had poor sonics, Jackson's noodled aimlessly and, given his centrality in Gil Scott-Heron's career, had embarassingly bland lyrics. Broadly speaking, Jazz Is Dead albums seem to be aimed at the descendants of the demographic who in the 1980s thought George Benson, Tom Browne and Grover Washington's lightweight confections were as good as jazz got.
Jazz Is Dead's publicity seeks to position Los Angeles' Katalyst, who backed up Bartz and Roy Ayers on their Jazz Is Dead albums and who sound like a fun live band (check the YouTube below), as inheritors of the spiritual jazz of Lonnie Liston Smith and Norman Connors. The comparison comes with a downside. While Smith and Connors came of age in Pharoah Sanders' boundary-stretching bands of the early 1970s, both left to pursue more saleable variations, the jazz equivalent of contemporaneous Southern Californian yacht rock. To be fair, 13 gets deeper as it progresses, and "Summer Solstice," "Juneteenth" and "Dogon Cypher" are solid. There is no risk taking to speak of, and (it sounds like) more overdubbing than you could shake a stick at, but there is energy and a good vibe. Like the fabled curate's egg, the album is excellent in parts.
Trainspotting note: Keyboard player Brian Hargrove is the late Roy Hargrove's brother.
The Avenues; Daybreak; Corridors; Summer Solstice; Juneteenth; Dogon Cypher; Reflections.
David Otis: saxophone;
Corbin James: saxophone;
Emile Martinez: trumpet;
Jonah Levine: trombone;
Brandon Cordoba: keyboards;
Brian Hargrove: keyboards;
Marlon Spears: bass;
Greg Paul: drums;
Ahmad Dubose: percussion.
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Chris May is a senior editor of All About Jazz. He was previously the editor of the pioneering magazine Black Music & Jazz Review, and more recently editor of the style / culture / history magazine Jocks & Nerds.