On the face of it, The Harlem Experiment sounds like a winner. A multi-generational, multi-cultural cast of A list playersincluding singer Taj Mahal, trumpeter Steven Bernstein, reed player Don Byron, drummer Steve Berrios and bassist Ruben Rodriguezrevisiting a dozen or so soul, funk, Latin, jazz and pop cuts with heavy New York associations, and with the project produced by Aaron Levinson for the hip Ropeadope label. The idea, a good one, was to mix up musicians and genres, in true New York "melting pot" style, and give each of the tracks a new spin while staying in touch with its original spirit.
It reads like cross-pollination heaven. But expectations are not fulfilled. With only a few exceptionsDJ Arkive's sweating updates of two "Planet Rock"-era block party classics, Cameo's "Rigor Mortis" and the Jimmy Castor Bunch's "It's Just Begun," and Don Byron's funky klezmer take on "Bei Mist Bist Du Schoen"the promised fireworks don't happen.
With their vocal parts stripped out, as they mostly are, and all too few adventurous instrumental collisions replacing them, many of the tunes sound like immaculately played backing tracks waiting for the main event, reducing a line-up of innovative players to the status of anonymous session men.
Occasionally, neon-lit opportunities are lost. Taj Mahal's reading of "Reefer Man" sounds tame, even (and this is a capital offense) equivocal, alongside Claude Jones' 1932 version with the Don Redman orchestra. Steven Bernstein fronted three primo reefer madness hommages on saxophonist Max Nagl's Big Four Live (Hat Hut, 2007), but, inexplicably, doesn't get to do so here.
"One For Malcolm," ostensibly a tribute to Malcolm X, is actually pretty offensive. Why choose to represent Malcolm X with excerpts from a speech he made while still in thrall to Elijah Muhammad and ignore the later, more visionary ones he made after he severed links with the man? The historical record is badly skewed. Check the early-1980s Tommy Boy 12-inch "By Any Means Necessary" for the real deal.
That track aside, The Harlem Experiment isn't a disaster, but it is, undeniably, a whole lot less than the sum of its parts.
Intro; One For Jackie; Rigor Mortis; Reefer Man; Harlem River Drive; Bei Mir Bist Do Schon; mumMs' Interlude; It's Just Begun; Mambo A La Savoy; A Rose In Spanish Harlem; One For Malcolm; Lil' Bit; Think; A Rose In Spanish Harlem; Walking Through Harlem.
Various line-ups including: Carlos Alomar: guitars; Ruben Rodriguez: bass; Steve Berrios: drums and percussion; Don Byron: clarinet and tenor saxophone; Steven Bernstein: trumpet; Queen Esther: vocals; Taj Mahal: vocals; James Hunter: vocals and guitar; Olu Dara: guitar and vocals; DK Arkive: cuts and bruises.