Brave Beats for Turbulent Times
BUT FIRST.This is an article about acid jazz, but it's not about a person or place. In fact, it's barely about a thing because when you get down to it, there's nothing there. Acid jazz is the perfect music for the turn of the century because it's so thoroughly postmodern it's an expression that resists narrative encapsulation.Conversations that led up to this piece often trailed off into an ether of unknowing and that's an uncomfortable place for human beings. As a species we assign meaning and value to everything. We become cartographers of our we assign meaning and value to everything. We become cartographers of our existence as we map every experience onto some other experience and our past becomes the signpost for our future. Acid jazz has a paradoxical relationship with this innate way of being. Superficially, it is familiar and easily referential. Taken a cut deeper, acid jazz is like the story of four-blind men-and-an-elephant: Often, touching a part of it leaves one with the impression that they've had the total experience. Sometimes that leaves an explorer delighted and eagerly groping for more. Other times, one gets a handful of knobby knee when the long, hemp-like tail would've fit the bill.What's really being said here? Simply, acid jazz is a beast. It's big, multi-faceted and you can't get a feel for the head of it by standing on the ground and looking up. Getting to know the wide world of funky, jazzy beats is a lot like taking an elephant ride: it goes at its own pace, you can't steer very well but it sure is powerful and there's nothing else like it anywhere.AS I WAS SAYING.This is an article about acid jazz, so it would be a good thing if something about the history and nature of the music were revealed before we go much further. The popular history of acid jazz exists well as folklore. One of the most common tellings has an English DJ, Gilles Peterson, jokingly giving the young Brit organ player James Taylor a cassette of Funk Inc. and Charlie Earland labeled simply "Acid Jazz," in order to inspire him.Peterson claimed on radio to have coined the phrase acid jazz when he was asked to DJ after an acid house DJ. To his credit, Peterson did go on to found the labels, Acid Jazz and Talking Loud, and release some seminal music. But is it "true" that Peterson started the acid jazz movement? Almost certainly not, but the concept works like all good myths in that it speaks to a larger reality. Acid jazz has developed and grown as a genre that has no epochal origin and is, instead, a gradual merging of everything we now have.Acid jazz really has nothing to do with Acid (house) music. The underground dance club scene in the U.K. in the late 1980's was a hive of creativity. "Massives" of DJ's and musicians worked and jammed together. Hybridization and experimentation were common and the participants drew a great deal of inspiration from the original reggae sound systems of the '70s and other forms of, primarily, black music.The organ player James Taylor has described England as being trapped in a "perpetual 1960's revival of one sort or another" and one of the big revivals of the late 1980's was '70s American funk. Of course, '70s American funk wouldn't have happened without two essential jazz movements of the 1960's: soul-jazz and fusion.It's at this juncture that the real story behind the music begins to emerge as the deeper roots are exposed. In the 1960's, the funkified jazz of Donald Byrd, Grant Green, and John Patton kept jazz expanding into new audiences, while Miles Davis' Files de Kilimanjaro, In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew pushed the music in completely uncharted artistic territory. All three of these records by Miles Davis merged progressive rock sensibilities and burning jazz improvisations. Members of Miles' band at the time, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, and John McLaughlin, all went on to further develop the fusion that dominated the 1970's and set the stage for the experimental jazz of the 1980's and 1990's.Perhaps the most important thing to do next is come clean and say that acid jazz is about jazz living as an organic music. Tumbling through its life, jazz has always picked up the twigs, pebbles and discarded feathers of the music it rubbed up against. While there is no question that acid jazz's roots are evident in traditional jazz, the music is about the seamless merging of DJ's, live musicians and today's technology.There are four basic streams of music generally bundled together under the label "acid jazz." All of them are funky and incorporate elements of jazz, '70s funk, hip-hop and soul, as well as other things. The music can be all live, sampled, or a mixture of both.The differences between the styles emerge in the proportions of each element. Interestingly, almost every act or artist that finds itself inside the acid jazz label declares that they are, instead, "none of the above." What's in a name when you have the groove to guide you?THE NEW SOULSoul never died. It has always lived somewhere. Today some of its most vibrant expressions can be found in bands like the Brand New Heavies, Incognito and Outside. Fat and funky, bands that bring on The New Soul are usually a small, stable core of musicians utilizing a shifting line-up of supporting players. The arrangements are tight like the snare drums that nail the counterpoint underbelly of the tune. When these bands play you can look anyone right in the eye and say "Oooh baby, that makes me hot" and not get slapped with a sexual harassment suit. Everyone gets where this stuff comes from.THE ACID JAZZ "BAND"The descendents of Miles's agit-funk. The Groove Collective, the Brooklyn Funk Essentials, and the Broun Fellinis lay down syncopated soundscapes that leave lots of room for blowing. On the straighter edge, The Charlie Hunter Trio (now Quartet) and The Jazz Warriors work the space closer to mainstream jazz while Ronny Jordan, Count Basic and Vibraphonic are the smoother groovers.MAN MEETS TECHNOLOGYHere's where the "jazz fans" really start to go south. Sampling, the technology that allows musicians to digitally capture and manipulate any sound, is the backbone of this style. Acid jazz is a genre that would not have come into existence without club DJ's and this particular style shows that bit of history most clearly. The samples work like the breakbeat beds that would spin on one table while the live musicians work off the base. The type of music that Greyboy, Better Daze and Marden Hill produce is deceptively complicated and sublime. Rhythm tracks containing covert references to anything and everything support melodies that can drift or drive. Greyboy explained that "the rhythm section is sampled and then the horns, various percussion or guitar is live. It changes from song to song but I usually use never more than two live instruments with sample grooves."The way I work out melodies is I'll have the guy take a whole track and just solo over the entire track and then I'll pick a melody out of the solo. Almost like I would do sampling, where I find a horn solo on a record that's by itself and then sample pieces of it to build a melody out of it."This style also points to the early contribution of rap to the acid jazz scene. The arrival of rap tracks like Gangstarr's "Jazz Thing," and releases from Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest (which featured Branford Marsalis and Ron Carter, respectively) tipped the hand years ago to the fact that some thing was definitely UP with jazz finding a new audience that heard the music in a completely different way.STUDIO CONFECTIONSAcid jazz, jazzy house, future soul, trip-hop, downtempo funk, ethno-techno (the names get much sillier from here on out) all populate the netherworld that exists on massive hard drives in small, independent studios. Kruder and Dorfmeister, United Future Organization and the Ninja Tune posse (particularly DJ Food, Funki Porcini and Up, Bustle and Out) weave elaborate tapestries of found sound and electronic music. The studio is the main instrument for these artists and the vibe ranges from UFO's Nipponese bossa blowouts to the sex-saturated, junglisms of Funki Porcini. This music demonstrates just how thoroughly the future is now.In the fall of 1995, WYEP debuted an acid jazz-based Sunday show called "In The Groove." After several years of experimentation with the music, the appearance of the show on WYEP was the first significant, mainstream concentration of acid jazz in Pittsburgh. DJ's had been spinning funky beats in clubs and some record retailers were stocking selected titles, but it was "In The Groove" that gave everyone a chance to really get the groove. The program is hosted by Mark Leonard, the drummer for House of Soul. Leonard is a seasoned jazz drummer and one of the growing number of individuals who are speeding the arrival of the music to Pittsburgh's consciousness.WJJJ, the smooth jazz station, has had success with tracks by Ronny Jordan, Count Basic and the Exodus Quartet. According to Carl Anderson, WJJJ's Program Director, "In one way it's something that adds a little flavor, but in another way some of those songs are at the top of the playlist. The genre is not background, it's very active." Successful smooth jazz stations in other cities have either started a specialty show dedicated to acid jazz (Austin) or have made it a significant part of their sound (Orlando), so it will bear watching whether WJJJ steps up its exposure.While the development of an educated, active audience for acid jazz in Pittsburgh is being moved forward by radio, pockets of activity have recently started to appear at the instigation of a few extremely dedicated clubs and their DJ's. Pluto's In The Strip flirted with an acid jazz night when the club was still a fledgling. While the night did not last long, Andy Figallo of Pluto's thinks its possible that they may give it another shot. Until that date, Pluto's is, according to Figallo, focusing on live jazz bands. "We're presenting the young, upstart jazz bands in town like The Jazz Vultures," he said. Nearby, Rosebud recently dedicated Wednesday nights to funky jazz by bringing in DJ Kevin Graham. After several years playing at raves and possessing skills that were sharpened during much hip-hop spinning, Graham's dense, uptempo mix is a sharp departure from the usual club fare.In Shadyside, Vic Money is also holding court on Wednesday nights at Buffalo Blues. A New York native, his mix is a three-way split between house, acid jazz, and hip-hop. Money describes the current state of Pittsburgh's progressive dance scene as still "very underground" and wants to use the Wednesday slot to grow other nights that will be solely dedicated to a particular style."People, especially in a smaller town like Pittsburgh, don't get exposed to a lot of music. What I do is mix it all in together and give people a chance to hear some new stuff, like acid jazz, with some more popular hip-hop and house."Finding the music in Pittsburgh is still a challenge for DJ's because most retailers don't carry much acid jazz on vinyl, but Money notes: "I am finding more good pieces at the private DJ pools. They're starting to bring it in as more DJ's test the water with this stuff."Traditional record retailers in Pittsburgh are moving cautiously about carrying more than a cursory selection. The broad range of styles represented under the acid jazz banner contribute to the ambiguity surrounding acid jazz at retail. "It seems like what the independent labels call acid jazz and what people call acid jazz are two different things," according to Paul Olsewski, owner of Paul's CDs. The loyal cadre who scour the bins and place special orders for specific titles are not enough to encourage retailers to move beyond their current commitment to the music.All the retailers interviewed for this story saw a moderate amount of curiosity from the general public, but none of the retailers themselves have developed a strong personal interest in the music. The result is a thin selection across town that, to the credit of buyers at the stores, is generally quality material. Ron Yoder of Shadyside's Record Village has seen "steady growth to the point that it's at now. The last year it's escalated in popularity," he said."We see most of our sales from about a dozen different titles," Yoder continued, "and those are mostly compilations. Instinct seems to be the biggest (label) of the group, but the Roots of Acid Jazz series on Verve, which is classic stuff from Jimmy Smith and others, is popular as well."Instinct Records is a New York independent label that has staked the clearest position in the acid jazz marketplace with its This is Acid Jazz series of compilations. It's the largest acid jazz label in the U.S., selling about 30,000 copies of its most successful titles. Sales in that range are better than most straight ahead jazz titles, but still very small in the overall picture. Instinct is not resting, however, and the label has made significant inroads toward broadening the acid jazz fan base in the U.S. Count Basic, an Austrian guitarist who has received substantial airplay on WJJJ, has cracked the smooth jazz radio market nationally and has had tremendous success.Patrick Carmosino, who works in retail and radio promotion for Instinct, quite understandably views Count Basic as a bright light for the company. "Even though (Count Basic) is some of the smoother stuff, we still see it as cutting edge. It's for the folks that are into soul and jazz and are still looking for something new."Instinct sees acid jazz' audience expanding as widely disparate groups each catch on to a particular aspect of the music's appeal. "We see everyone from club kids to people who have a taste for good classic soul picking up on this music. The next step is blending in and being accepted in the jazz and soul scenes. One of our main goals is to have this music seen as a legitimate stream of modern jazz, albeit a fusion or popular style," Carmosino said.The soft retail situation in Pittsburgh for acid jazz is something Carmosino thinks will soon shift, if the national profile for acid jazz growth is any indicator. "We're seeing retailers start to really sit up and pay more attention. They feel it's a genre that is growing and they're looking for ways to give it more space and more support," he said.The force driving this growth is an inquisitive fan base willing to go out and pursue the music. In every city that's had an acid jazz community sprout from the clubs, parties and record stores, the movement has been spurred by a fan base that didn't wait for outside validation of their interests. The next step for Pittsburgh will be the development of this loyal, visible audience that breaks from routine and creates events and a climate that will welcome the music.There are no accidents in the universe and so it is no surprise that acid jazz, in all its disparate forms, is here at the turn of the millennium. The 21st Century calls us to look forward with anticipation and excitement, but the tug of our accomplishments and the safety of what we know from this century compete for our attention. Acid jazz runs the knife's edge of society's paradox perfectly and it has a groove you can use.An electronic magazine, Oz-Groove, separates the acid from the jazz for the more discerning web-surfing jazz cat. Go to (http://light.iinet.net.au/~carlosco/acidjazz/).You can e-mail Instinct Records at (firstname.lastname@example.org) or read a list of their titles at (http://umflinx3.umfacad.maine.edu/student/dkapusta/instinct.html).While there is no question that acid jazz's roots are evident in traditional jazz, the music is about the seamless merging of DJ's, live musicians and today's technology.