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Mary Lou Williams
Listen: Close Out Jazz Appreciation Month 2021 With GRAMMY.com's Playlist - 40 Tunes For The Rest Of The Year
Jazz Appreciation Month may be wrapping up, but listeners can bring that energy into the rest of the year—one where the music needs our support more than ever
It's International Jazz Day, but many of its greatest musicians haven't worked in more than a year. Jazz Instagram is a cornucopia of hawked Zoom masterclasses. Many of the most beloved, irreplaceable physical spaces are gone—possibly forever.
What's the answer to getting more listeners on board? Maybe it's to make it less of a history lesson—and communicate that you can turn up Charlie Parker next to your favorite rock, rap or R&B song. You don't need accreditation. You don't need a college degree. You don't need to read a manual. It just sounds good.
GRAMMY.com is closing out Jazz Appreciation Month with a playlist of 40 tunes to bring into the rest of 2021. It's not meant to be remotely comprehensive; how could a playlist without Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong or the Art Ensemble of Chicago possibly be? Ignoring time and space in favor of (hopefully) uninterrupted enjoyment, it's simply the product of one unbroken train of thought.
Check out the annotations below, and you might get a sense of how one track connects to the next—whether by the musicians involved, the historical context or simply the vibe. But that's it. If you want to dig deeper, there are countless books, websites and documentaries on offer. But maybe simply enjoying the music is the first step.
GRAMMY.com's Jazz Appreciation Month 2021 playlist is available here via Spotify, Amazon Music and Apple Music. If you like any of the tunes below, click the album title to buy the record and support them or their estate directly.
Without further ado, let's enjoy the music.
- Charlie Parker, "Just Friends" (Charlie Parker With Strings, 1950)
In some ways, this is the only place to start. The greatest saxophonist of all time plays an improvised solo of jaw-dropping elegance, intelligence and integrity. "It's absolutely perfect on both an artistic and technical level," alto saxophonist Jim Snidero told Discogs in 2020.
- Lou Donaldson, "Blues Walk" (Blues Walk, 1958)
The alto saxophonist got friction early on for sounding too much like Parker, but more than carved out his own sound with masterpieces like "Blues Walk." At 94, Sweet Poppa Lou is still kicking—and totally cops to the associations. "I'm a copy of Charlie Parker," he said in the same article.
- Champian Fulton, "My Old Flame" (Birdsong, 2020)
Who played the most beautiful version of "My Old Flame" the world ever heard? That's right, Bird's your man—and the exquisite jazz singer Champian Fulton knows it. She's a fan of both Donaldson and Parker; her recent album Birdsong is a luminous tribute to the latter.
- Jim Snidero, "Autumn Leaves" (Live at the Deer Head Inn, 2021)
After months of no gigs during the COVID-19 pandemic, Snidero and his quartet played safely and socially distanced at a jazz hotspot in the Delaware Water Gap. Despite the low-key setting and setlist of standards, he showed that chestnuts like "My Old Flame" "Autumn Leaves" still have new dimensions to explore.
- Helen Sung, "Crazy, He Calls Me" ((re)Conception, 2011)
Pianist Helen Sung is connected to Snidero by at least two degrees: she and bassist Peter Washington have both played with him. Her entire body of work is worth spending time with; 2018's Sung With Words is an exceptionally well-done merging of jazz and poetry.''
Make no mistake: alto man Cannonball's only Blue Note album is a drop-dead must-have album. "Is that what you wanted, Alfred?" his sideman, Miles Davis, growls at producer Alfred Lion at the end of "One For Daddy-O." (Certainly, it was.)
- Miles Davis, "Freddie Freeloader" (Kind of Blue, 1959)
Er, you want this album too. Trust us.
Jimmy Cobb, who sadly left us in 2020, was the drummer on Kind of Blue, and you could set an atomic clock to his ride-cymbal hand. Cobb also plays on this Wes Montgomery masterpiece. Even though Montgomery couldn't read music and strummed exclusively with his thumb, he arguably remains the king of jazz guitarists.
Well, actually, it's either him or Jim Hall. (The ever-ethereal melodist Evans is also in the running for Kind of Blue MVP.)
Lage not only played with Jim Hall; the jazz world widely regards him as the Jim Hall of our generation. Not bad for a 33-year-old.
The guitar genius arguably made even better records than Bright Size Life, but as an entryway to his approach and thinking, nothing beats his ECM Records debut. (On bass: Jaco Pastorius!)
- Grant Green, "Idle Moments" (Idle Moments, 1964)
Another guitar god, playing his pianist Duke Pearson's slow-crawling masterpiece. The musicians were unclear as to whether each chorus should be 16 or 32 bars, thereby beautifully blurring the composition. The results are a must-play for your next long drive and long think.
- Miguel Zenón & Luis Perdomo, "Cómo Fue" (El Arte del Bolero, 2021)
Or, "The art of the bolero," or, "Two guys soothing themselves during lockdown with traditional songs they've known all their lives." Despite its low-key presentation—it was a Jazz Gallery livestream the altoist and pianist decided to record—this was one of the most captivating duo records in recent memory.
- Avishai Cohen & Yonathan Avishai, "Crescent" (Playing the Room, 2019)
ECM comes up for a reason; if you're not familiar with the ultra-prolific label, go to their website, find something with a blanket of snow or raindrops on windows as the cover, and chances are it's drop-dead gorgeous. And speaking of stellar duet albums, here's another, between the Tel Aviv-born trumpeter and the Israeli-French pianist.
- Craig Taborn, "Abandoned Reminder" (Daylight Ghosts, 2017)
Deeper we tread into the realm of ECM: Everything this brilliant pianist has made is worth hearing at least once. (Especially his Junk Magic project's latest album, Compass Confusion, which is not ECM and not jazz but is terrifying.)
The Harvard professor and pianist surveys the volatile landscape of 2021 with the radiant rhythm section of bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. (GRAMMY.com cited both Oh and Sorey as artists pushing jazz into the future.)
- Linda May Han Oh, "Speech Impediment" (Walk Against Wind, 2017)
One of the most prodigious modern bassists and composers, Oh made GRAMMY.com's list of five jazz artists pushing the form into the future. That's her on the Iyer tune, too, along with the drummer and composer Tyshawn Sorey.
Everybody should know this brilliant pianist and composer; Iyer is possibly the most prominent figure promoting her work these days. (He recently wrote an academic paper about Allen; "Drummer's Song" from Uneasy is hers.)
In a just world, we'd regularly breathe Mary Lou Williams' name along with Ellington's and Armstrong's and her multidimensional masterpiece Black Christ of the Andes would be taught in schools.
- Alice Coltrane, "Turiya and Ramakrishna" (Ptah, the El Daoud, 1970)
In recent years, Coltrane has received wildly overdue reappraisal as her husband John's artistic equal. Still, only one album has seemingly been allowed into the canon: Journey in Satchidananda. But as more than a dozen musicians attested to GRAMMY.com in 2020, Ptah deserves a seat at the table, too.
- Lakecia Benjamin, "Syeeda's Song Flute" (Pursuance: The Coltranes, 2020)
Understanding that fundamental truth about the Coltranes, alto saxophonist Benjamin made the communal and devotional Pursuance: The Coltranes, which pays homage to both artists equally. (This is a John tune, but she found Alice before him.)
- Keyon Harrold, "Bubba Rides Again" (The Mugician, 2017)
The celebrated trumpeter Harrold shows up to jam on Benjamin's album, and his album The Mugician is a terrific gateway into the crossover world where jazz, rap and R&B blur.
- Kassa Overall, "Please Don't Kill Me" (I Think I'm Good, 2020)
Speaking of crossover: Kassa Overall is one of that sphere's very best. Understanding that jazz and rap are more similar than dissimilar, he opts not to blur them but crash them like cars, knowing the wreckage will look the same.
- Joel Ross, "More?" (Who Are You?, 2020)
This sublime vibraphonist (who appears on the previous Overall tune) is right on the front lines of the scene in 2021. Don't sleep on him or his elegant last album, Who Are You?.
- Jackie McLean, "'Das Dat" (It's Time!, 1964)
But if you really want to get into the heritage of jazz vibraphone, Bobby Hutcherson is the first man to know. Check out his performance on alto sax heavyweight J-Mac's It's Time!, which got an excellent pressing last year via Blue Note's Tone Poet Series.
Here he is again, performing Herbie Hancock's intoxicating tune with Hancock himself. (For Hancock's part, he's one of the most inventive harmonic thinkers of the 20th and 21st centuries.)
The astonishing young pianist Joey Alexander met Hancock at the GRAMMYs when he was only eight. "He didn't say too much," he recalled to GRAMMY.com in 2021. "He thought I could play and he said, 'Keep doing it' and 'Don't stop.'"
- Jaleel Shaw, "The Flipside" (Optimism, 2008)
A.n excellent alto saxophonist, Shaw appears on Alexander's previous single, "SALT." "I was glad that Jaleel and [guitarist] Gilad [Hekselman] played in unison and sounded so strong," Alexander marveled in the same interview. "When I heard it back, I was like 'Wow.'"
- Rudresh Mahanthappa, "I Can't Get Started" (Hero Trio, 2020)
On an alto-saxophone kick? Mahanthappa has one of the boldest, brashest and most vibrant sounds on the instrument in 2021.
- Matthew Shipp, "Swing Note from Deep Space" (The Piano Equation, 2020)
Now, we shift gears to the solo piano; Shipp is one of the most prodigious modern improvisers in that realm. (The label that released The Piano Equation, TAO Forms, is one of GRAMMY.com's labels to watch in 2021.)
- Thelonious Monk, "Don't Blame Me" (Palo Alto, 2020)
More than a half-century ago, Monk played at a high school and a janitor recorded it. Nobody heard the slamming results until Impulse! released them in 2020.
These days, the "bebop" pioneer Diz might be more revered and analyzed than listened to. But he was a tremendous trumpeter throughout all seasons of his life—as attested to by this duo album with piano giant Oscar Peterson.
Need further proof? Check out the ultra-prolific Douglas' loving tribute to the clown prince of jazz.
- Jakob Bro Trio, "Copenhagen" (Bay of Rainbows, 2018)
The connection to the Douglas album is the ultra-perceptive drummer Joey Baron. Danish guitarist Bro's sets at Jazz Standard (before they shuttered their physical location thanks to COVID) were transformative experiences, as captured on this ECM recording from the New York venue.
Honestly, it just felt right to blow up the program in a volley of toms.
- Sonny Rollins, "Tune Up" (Rollins in Holland, 2020)
We're at the final stretch. Newk killing on a Netherlands tour.
- John Coltrane, "Mr. P.C." (Giant Steps, 1960)
"P.C." is bassist Paul Chambers, who left us too young. That's all the backstory you need. Turn this up like a Led Zeppelin song.
- Ralph Peterson, "Freight Train" (The Art of War, 2001)
Rest in power to Peterson, a ferocious drummer and sweetheart of a man who left us in 2021. Last year, he summed up his mentor, Art Blakey: "He's in the blue part of the flame," Peterson told GRAMMY.com. "The thing is: if you know anything about fire, the blue part of the flame might be the lowest part of the flame, but it's also the hottest part of the flame."
Now, we turn down the burner. "I'm going to play it until there's no need anymore," Frisell said in a statement about this civil-rights anthem.
- Oded Tzur, "Can't Help Falling in Love" (Here Be Dragons, 2020)
Photo: John Rogers
10 Albums That Showcase The Deep Connection Between Jazz And Electronic Music: Herbie Hancock, Flying Lotus, Caroline Davis & More
Jazz has long stretched the parameters of harmony, melody and rhythm — and when electronic music flows into it, the possibilities are even more limitless.
A year and change before his 2022 death, the eminent saxophonist Pharoah Sanders released one final dispatch. That album was Promises, a meditative, collaborative album with British electronic musician Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra.
Promises swung open the gates for jazz and electronic music's convergence.. Not only was it an out-of-nowhere critical smash, earning "universal acclaim" as per Metacritic; it acted as an accessible entrypoint for the hipster set and beyond.
As Pitchfork put it, "One of the year's most memorable melodies consists of a seven-note refrain repeated, with slight variation, for more than three quarters of an hour." (They declared Promises the fourth best album of the year; its neighbors included Turnstile; Tyler, the Creator; and Jazmine Sullivan.)
Since then, jazz and electronic music have continued their developments, with or without each other. But Promises struck a resonant chord, especially during the pandemic years; and when Sanders left us at 81, the music felt like his essence lingering in our midst.
Whether you're aware of that crossover favorite or simply curious about this realm, know that the rapprochement between jazz and electronic idioms goes back decades and decades.
Read on for 10 albums that exemplify this genre blend — including two released this very year.
Miles Davis - Live-Evil (1971)
As the 1960s gave away to the '70s, Miles Davis stood at his most extreme pivot point — between post-bop and modal classics and undulating, electric exploits. Straddling the studio and the stage, Live-Evil is a monument to this period of thunderous transformation.
At 100 minutes, the album's a heaving, heady listen — its dense electronic textures courtesy of revered keyboardists Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Joe Zawinul, as well as the combustible electric guitarist John McLaughlin. The swirling, beatless "Nem Un Talvez" is arguably Live-Evil's most demonstrative example of jazz meets electronic.
For the uninitiated as per Davis' heavier, headier work, Live-Evil is something of a Rosetta stone. From here, head backward in the eight-time GRAMMY winner and 32-time nominee's catalog — to In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew or Jack Johnson.
Or, move forward to On the Corner, Get Up With It or Aura. Wherever you move in his later discography, plenty of jazz fans wish they could hear this game-changing music for the first time.
Herbie Hancock - Future Shock (1983)
In the early 1970s, Herbie Hancock delivered a one-two punch of fusion classics — 1973's Head Hunters and 1974's Thrust — to much applause. The ensuing years told a different story.
While the 14-time GRAMMY winner and 34-time nominee's ensuing live albums tended to be well-regarded, his studio work only fitfully caught a break from the critics.
However, in 1983, Hancock struck gold in that regard: the inspired Future Shock wittily and inventively drew from electro-funk and instrumental hip-hop. Especially its single, "Rockit" — shot through with a melodic earworm, imbued with infectious DJ scratches.
Sure, it's of its time — very conspicuously so. But with hip-hop's 50th anniversary right in our rearview, "Rockit" sounds right on time.
Tim Hagans - Animation • Imagination (1999)
If electric Miles is your Miles, spring for trumpeter Tim Hagans' Animation • Imagination for an outside spin on that aesthetic.
The late, great saxophonist Bob Belden plays co-pilot here; he wrote four of its nine originals and produced the album. Guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, synthesist Scott Kinsen, bassist David Dyson, and drummer Billy Kilson also underpin these kinetic, exploratory tunes.
The engine of Animation • Imagination is its supple and infectious sense of groove, whether in breakbeat ("Animation/Imagination"), boom bap ("Slo Mo") or any other form.
This makes the drumless moments, like "Love's Lullaby," have an indelible impact; when the drums drop out, inertia propels you forward. And on the electronics-swaddled "Snakes Kin," the delayed-out percussion less drives the music than rattles it like an angry hive.
Kurt Rosenwinkel - Heartcore (2003)
From his language to his phrasing to his liquid sound, Rosenwinkel's impact on the contemporary jazz guitar scene cannot be overstated: on any given evening in the West Village, you can probably find a New Schooler laboriously attempting to channel him.
Rosenwinkel's appeared on more than 150 albums, so where to begin with such a prodigious artist? One gateway is Heartcore, his first immersion into electronic soundscapes as a bandleader.
Throughout, the laser-focused tenor saxophonist Mark Turner is like another half of his sound. On "Our Secret World," his earthiness counter-weighs Rosenwinkel's iridescent textures; on "Blue Line," the pair blend into and timbrally imitate each other.
Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest co-produced Heartcore; it's as unclassifiable as the MC's most intrepid, fusionary works. "This record — it's jazz," Rosenwinkel has said. "And it's much more."
Graham Haynes - Full Circle (2007)
Cornetist, flugelhornist and trumpeter Graham Haynes may be the son of Roy Haynes, who played drums with Bird and Monk and remains one of the final living godfathers of bebop. But if he's ever faced pressure to box himself into his father's aesthetic, he's studiously disregarded it.
Along with saxophone great Steve Coleman, he was instrumental in the M-Base collective, which heralded new modes of creative expression in jazz — a genre tag it tended to reject altogether.
For Haynes, this liberatory spirit led to inspired works like Full Circle. It shows how he moved between electronic and hip-hop spheres with masterly ease, while being beholden to neither. Featuring saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, bassist Shahzad Ismaily, drummer Marcus Gilmore, and other top-flight accompanists, Full Circle is wormholes within wormholes.
Therein, short-circuiting wonders like "1st Quadrant" rub against "Quartet Circle" and "In the Cage of Grouis Bank," which slouch toward ambient, foreboding kosmische.
Craig Taborn - Junk Magic (2004)
Steeped in brutal metal as much as the AACM, the elusive, resplendent pianist Craig Taborn is one of the most cutting-edge practitioners of "creative music." Some of his work resembles jazz, some is uncategorizably far afield.
Strains of electronic music run through Taborn's entire catalog. And his Junk Magic project, which began with his 2004 album of the same name, is a terrific gateway drug to this component of his artistry.
Junk Magic has a haunted toyshop quality; tracks like "Prismatica," "Bodies at Rest and in Motion" and "The Golden Age" thrum with shadowy, esoteric energy.
If these strange sounds resonate with you, 2020's sinewy Compass Confusion — released under the Junk Magic alias — is a logical next step. So is 2019's Golden Valley is Now, an electronics-inflected work of head-spinning propulsion and kineticism.
Flying Lotus - You're Dead! (2014)
Spanning spiritual jazz, devotional music, the avant-garde, and so much more, Alice Coltrane has belatedly gotten her flowers as a musical heavyweight; she and her sainted husband were equal and parallel forces.
Coltrane's grandnephew, Steven Bingley-Ellison — better known as Flying Lotus — inherited her multidimensional purview.
In the late 2000s, the GRAMMY-winning DJ, rapper and producer made waves with envelope-pushing works like Los Angeles; regarding his synthesis of jazz, electronic and hip-hop, 2014's You're Dead marks something of a culmination.
Flying Lotus was in stellar company on You're Dead!, from Kendrick Lamar to Snoop Dogg to Herbie Hancock and beyond; tracks like "Tesla," "Never Catch Me" and "Moment of Hesitation" show that these forms aren't mutually exclusive, but branches of the same tree.
Brad Mehldau - Finding Gabriel (2019)
As per the Big Questions, pianist Brad Mehldau is much like many of us: "I believe in God, but do not identify with any of the monotheistic religions specifically." But this hasn't diluted his searching nature: far from it.
In fact, spirituality has played a primary role in the GRAMMY winner and 13-time nominee's recent work. His 2022 album Jacob's Ladder dealt heavily in Biblical concepts — hence the title — and shot them through with the prog-rock ethos of Yes, Rush and Gentle Giant.
Where Jacob's Ladder is appealingly nerdy and top-heavy, its spiritual successor, 2019's Finding Gabriel, feels rawer and more eye-level, its jagged edges more exposed; Mehldau himself played a dizzying array of instruments, including drums and various synths.
The archetypal imagery is foreboding, as on "The Garden"; the Trump-era commentary is forthright, as on "The Prophet is a Fool." And its sense of harried tension is gorgeously released on the title track.
All this searching and striving required music without guardrails — a marriage of jazz and electronic music, in both styles' boundless reach.
Caroline Davis' Alula - Captivity (2023)
Caroline Davis isn't just an force on the New York scene; she's a consummate conceptualist.
The saxophonist and composer's work spans genres and even media; any given presentation might involve evocative dance, expansive set design, incisive poetry, or flourishing strings. She's spoken of writing music based on tactility and texture, with innovative forms of extended technique.
This perspicuous view has led to a political forthrightness: her Alula project's new album, Captivity, faces down the horrific realities of incarceration and a broken criminal justice system.
Despite the thematic weight, this work of advocacy is never preachy or stilted: it feels teeming and alive. This is a testament not only to jazz's adaptability to strange, squelching electronics, but its matrix of decades-old connections to social justice.
Within these oblong shapes and textures, Davis has a story to tell — one that's life or death.
Jason Moran/BlankFor.ms/Marcus Gilmore - Refract (2023)
At this point, it's self-evident how well these two genres mesh. And pianist Jason Moran and drummer Marcus Gilmore offer another fascinating twist: tape loops.
For a new album, Refract, the pair — who have one GRAMMY and three nominations between them — partnered with the tape loop visionary Tyler Gilmore, a.k.a. BlankFor.ms.
The seed of the project was with BlankFor.ms; producer Sun Chung had broached the idea that he work with leading improvisational minds. In the studio, BlankFor.ms acted on a refractory basis, his loops commenting on, shaping and warping Moran and Gilmore's playing.
As Moran poetically put it in a statement, "I have always longed for an outside force to manipulate my piano song and drag the sound into a cistern filled with soft clay."
The line on jazz is that it's an expression of freedom. But when it comes to chips and filters and oscillators, it can always be a little more unbound.
Photos: Miikka Skaffari/WireImage; Marcus Ingram/Getty Images; Gary Miller/Getty Images; Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images; Patrick O'Brien Smith; Courtesy of the artist
6 Artists Expanding The Boundaries Of Hip-Hop In 2023: Lil Yachty, McKinley Dixon, Princess Nokia & More
Jazz, psychedelic rock, ambient and more permeate the work of artists such as Kassa Overall and Decuma. As hip-hop turns 50, meet the artists who are continuing to push the genre's multifarious sounds.
DJ Kool Herc was messing with soul vocals and drum breaks when he invented what’s now known as the break beat — the very element that gave birth to the genre on Aug. 11, 1973.
Hip-hop was literally built off a sample. And in the decades since, the genre has thrived off those same omnivorous instincts, oftentimes to where even the terms "rap" and "hip-hop" don’t feel precise enough to describe the genre’s innovation and sheer diversity. (Five years before Kanye West declared rap the new rock ‘n’ roll to describe its popularity, Los Angeles rapper Open Mike Eagle wasn’t even satisfied with the word "indie" being tacked on to his brand of hip-hop: "That's too blanket of a term I think to really apply to what I attempt to do.")
As hip-hop turns 50, the artists behind some of its most exciting releases show that more than ever, the genre’s boundaries are porous — and that pushing boundaries remains in its DNA.
"I can’t claim to be super methodical with my genre blending. … My emotions just well up in me and spill out in whatever form my brain decides," Decuma once said. The rapper and producer was being modest.
2023’s let's play pretend offers the best possible explanation for his blend of hip-hop, ambient, and experimental genres, as if inspired by Xiu Xiu’s white-knuckle intensity: "I write ambient music because life feels like one long, dissonant drone," he raps in fourth track "basketball."
This genre-blending is how Decuma expresses, with admirable precision, the trauma that stems from physical, sexual and racial violence. It also underscores lyrics like, "I'm so alone with my secrets, and so I shared them with this f— stuffed tiger just so something can hear it." How it felt to be robbed of his innocence could not be made more explicit.
In September, Decuma will release a new album, titled feeding the world serpent.
On her 2023 album art school dropout, Jamee Cornelia created a relatable, modern-day soundtrack to the gig economy lifestyle. On "Campus Radio," Cornelia briefly pretends that she is a college radio disc jockey. Using her best late-night FM voice, she teases an interview with her school’s most promising musician, on "what it’s like to be a full-time student, a minimum wage cashier, and a touring musician."
Instead of just using her words, though, Cornelia uses her diverse artistic background — like when she was a videographer for her skate team, until "Odd Future happened and all my friends became rappers" — to depict what juggling those multiple hustles feels like. Sometimes, working the gig economy can feel like "Routine," where writing to-do lists for the week and month comes together as easily as her flow fits in the pocket. Other times, it's as grueling and cathartic as "Rock!," where crunchy hard rock guitars meet Three 6 Mafia-style club chants.
In sound and substance, Cornelia deftly creates a world where any small job (or genre, really) feels necessary to take on.
This GRAMMY-nominated bandleader, drummer, producer and rapper has already talked about how jazz and rap offer a more complete history of Black music in America than they do separately. He’s also explained why introducing rap sensibilities to jazz music makes sense in this modern age.
"Somebody like Louis Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie — a third of them was Lil B and Danny Brown energy." That’s why it was fire," he told GRAMMY.com in May. But his latest, Animals, also shows how the relationship between jazz and rap can be mutually beneficial.
On "Ready to Ball," Kassa’s wry musings about the music industry ("I need a contract with a couple zips and a full fifth / just to tell the truth at the pulpit / that this is all just bulls—") is a grounding force, amid a searching piano and skipping percussion. Those few seconds feel instructive, showing how rap doesn’t always need to make tidy loops out of jazz’s improvisational nature, in order to thrive.
Prior to Let’s Start Here., two-time GRAMMY nominee Lil Yachty was already pushing hip-hop’s boundaries. While declaring himself the "King of Teens," the actual teen’s take on rap was initially irreverent, helping make the SoundCloud generation an easy target for classicists. It was only after his 2017 debut album, Teenage Emotions, that Yachty concerned himself with establishing goodwill within the genre — whether by mixtape-length tributes to Midwest hip-hop, or by writing and producing for City Girls, Drake and 21 Savage.
Yet according to Kevin "Coach K" Lee, co-founder of Lil Yachty’s label Quality Control, Let’s Start Here. is the album that Yachty has always wanted to make: A psychedelic rock coming-of-age journey, as inspired by Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and with help from Chairlift, Mac DeMarco, and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, among others. "He had been wanting to make this album from the first day we signed him. But you know — coming as a hip-hop artist, you have to play the game," Coach K told Billboard.
Questlove said that he needed 24 hours to process Yachty's "departure record." But the explanation the Roots bandleader was looking for can be found in "WE SAW THE SUN!"’s outro, where Yachty samples painter Bob Ross. "Just let your imagination run wild," Ross says. "Let your heart be your guide."
In the early 2010s, McKinley Dixon had to perform with a live band in order to get stage time. Otherwise, his sets would get cut short, because music venues figured that "rappers are not seen to be as interesting unless they have a band," Dixon says.
These days, though, incorporating live instrumentation and taking inspiration from other genres is a vital part of McKinley's creative process and how he adds gravitas to his storytelling: "My music is me watching Death Note with Red Hot Chili Peppers playing over it," he told PAPER.
Meanwhile, in "Sun, I Rise," Dixon features a wandering harp ambling over the song’s lush jazz-rap arrangement. "OG slap the back of my head / said ‘Stop f—ing around / You only fall when you think you smarter than those / shooting you down.’" Dixon raps. This underscores the journey ahead in his new album Beloved!, Paradise! Jazz!?, an exploration of how Black boys come of age amid forces that implore them to grow up even faster.
Seven years ago, right as Princess Nokia was establishing herself as a hip-hop artist to watch, she had genre-bending visions for her artistry that even startled The Guardian’s head rock and pop critic Alexis Petridis. "I will happily be GG Allin of the hip-hop world," she said, referencing the biggest degenerate punk music has seen.
The music references in her latest, 2023’s i love you but this is goodbye, aren’t nearly as hell-raising. But, with how the album shifts from pop-punk ("closure") to jungle ("complicated") and cyberpop ("the fool") in its first three tracks alone, expanding hip-hop’s boundaries remains how Princess Nokia celebrates her autonomy. That’s not just as an artist this time, but as a maturing woman learning that a romantic relationship was never meant to complete her. Even ‘90s R&B-rap throwback "happy" gets that point across, with how her hook interpolates "Clint Eastwood" by Gorillaz: "I’m useless, but not for long / the future is coming on."
Photo: Charlie Gross | Illustration: Meshell Ndegeocello and Rebecca Meek
On Her New Album, Meshell Ndegeocello Reminds Us "Every Day Is Another Chance"
"Every morning is a chance to try again, to try to do something different with yourself," Meshell Ndegeocello says. Her clear-eyed new album, 'The Omnichord Real Book,' is charged with a sense of solidarity, groundedness and renewal.
But her music has a beating pop heart — and not just because she's also collaborated with Madonna, Chaka Khan and the Rolling Stones. Accordingly, she's fully aware of pop's inherent power and limitations.
"I love pop music, but I didn't want to entice people with a turn of phrase," the GRAMMY-winning bassist, multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, and composer says of her new album, The Omnichord Real Book. "I wanted them to hear something that is: wake up, return, balance, align."
The Omnichord Real Book is Ndegeocello's first album of original material in nearly a decade and her debut on Blue Note Records. True to her stature in jazz and jazz-adjacent spaces, Ndegeocello is joined by some of their best and brightest: pianist Jason Moran, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, harpist Brandee Younger, and many others appear in its grooves.
But Ndegeocello has evaded categories from the jump, and "jazz" can't box her in. Midway through the interview, she stresses that the high-profile guests weren't "curated" for cred. Ndegeocello even announces that she'd like to collaborate with Taylor Swift.
Like its creator, The Omnichord Real Book is a Pandora's box. The title refers to the electronic instrument, which she took to during lockdown. The African diaspora runs through songs like "Georgia Ave" and "Omnipuss." The passing of both her parents formed the album's wounded center — but also its sense of overcoming, and starting over.
As you listen, read on for an interview with Ndegeocello about the state of her musical thinking, her blossoming capacity for collaboration and why it's important to "cherish your voice — your uniqueness, your touch."
This interview has been edited for clarity.
This is your first collection of original music in some time. Draw a thread for our readers through the past decade of your life and creative output.
To be honest, it was the downtime of the pandemic that allowed me to hear my thoughts again — hear the music in my head.
It was that downtime that also kickstarted my TV and film scoring. So I was spending seven to eight hours on a computer a day. And so at the end of the day, after making dinner for the family, I yearned for music, but I found myself playing with my omnichord — just anything without a screen. My Casio keyboard, or basses and guitars.
I just wanted to escape that looking at music, you know? I'm looking at waves; I'm looking at a screen. And so a lot of the writing just came from that. Being alone, being by myself — having beginner's mind, so to speak.
I've been on computers since I was a child. I wish I didn't have to use one anymore.
Even doing Zoom is hard. I have a landline. I wish we could just call and talk on the phone. But it's not because I'm nostalgic; I want to make that clear. I'm not nostalgic, I'm not pastiche, and I'm not a grumpy old person. I love technology — oh my god.
But just for me at that moment, I wanted to get back to the mysticism of sound. How your ears can be a time machine. When you hear a certain song from your childhood, it transports you.
And I don't think it's because you see the videos, it's because you hear something in it. It touches something in your brain that creates all that chemical reaction that you feel, see and smell where you were at that time. And that's what I'm really into now. I think the sound waves are powerful, and I'm trying to disconnect my visual senses from that experience now.
One of my favorite bits of jazz lore is that Wes Montgomery learned to do what he did by just sitting there with a guitar and Charlie Christian on the turntable. That extends to most of the 20th century. Can you connect that to the mystical, ineffable stuff of music?
Oh, exactly. Ineffable. I mean, I too sat with the Prince records and just learned them — and the Parliament-Funkadelic records, and the Sting records, and the Howard Jones records, and the Thomas Dolby records, who was sort of the first beta tech person to me in music. Scritti Politti and Thomas Dolby.
What I mean by the mysticism is: I found myself listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan a lot during the pandemic. I found myself listening to George Russell during the pandemic. Stanley Turrentine, these sorts of analog gems.
Wayne Shorter and Steve Coleman showed me that there's something mystical in the rhythms and the harmonies that they can create that are beyond comprehension, that have no technology involved. It's just in their writing and composition.
That's what I mean: where you could hear something and it just blows your mind. How did they get there melodically? How did they get there rhythmically? And I just long for that now.
It's really about the person — what you do with it. And so lately with Logic, speaking of that, I keep my screen black and white. And when I find myself on playbacks, I turn it off or walk away. I just try to engage with it differently.
I really enjoy just listening again. Taking a walk and letting my aural senses entice me instead of constantly having my eyes determine what I feel or what I see. And maybe that edit's not right. Is the bass flamming? I don't know if it feels good, I leave it. Just sort of letting go of the visual aspect of production.
With that established, where did the Omnichord Real Book songs come from? What did you want them to spiritually transmit?
I must admit I'm a little nervous about talking about my faith and spirituality. I guess during COVID there was a lot of death, and just a lot of emptiness, and an inability to engage sorrow. And so I think in this record you hear that a little bit.
After all the songs were written, it was super important to me for us all to be in the studio together. And that's what I wanted to come across. I am the songwriter, I do come up with the ideas, but it's the people that give it life, and give it limbs, and different hues, and just different ways of self-expression.
I paid for this record myself. I made it and then let Blue Note hear it. So it's pretty much all of what I wanted to have come to fruition. And so it's just all about playing together. It's about singing in a group.
If you notice, there's a lot of group vocals. I think there's a reason we have choirs or the reason people gravitate to spaces that have a lot of people who are collectively trying to be at peace. And so I hope that comes through there.
The songs are simple — just little poetry elements. I love pop music, but I didn't want to entice people with a turn of phrase. I wanted them to hear something that is: wake up, return, balance, align.
Every morning is a chance to try again, to try to do something different with yourself, to try to feel different, to try to engage your partner and wife different. Every day is another chance. And I think that's what I'm trying to show in the album.
Can you talk about your version of Samora Pinderhughes' "Gatsby"? That seems to be a lynchpin to the album.
When my father passed, my mother passed, I had to clean out their house. I found my old Real Book that my father gave me just so I could get through the gigs with him. He had lost a bass player. That book allows five or more people to get together and concentrate on one song and play together if they don't know each other, and it's got to be a quick sort of gel.
[With] Samora's song — or "Hole in the Bucket," written by Justin Hicks — I want to aid in the new standards, the new songs that maybe we'll look back on. I think Samora's lyric is brilliant in Gatsby. It's a time, it's an old story that's been here. What does it gain you to have the whole world and lose your soul? So yeah, I think that's going through there.
I'm at an age now where it's important to be upfront. It's not so important to be the main voice. And I want to show that as we pass through time, the gift you can give is just to big up other people, bring them along to help put them in the position so that they can play more.
Like Joshua Johnson, and Hannah Benn, who I think is a genius — I want everyone to know her. The HawtPlates. It's like, I just want to take this opportunity to put music in the world that feels good, brings about new energy, and showcases new talent.
There are so many titanic musicians in the scene to choose from. How did you curate who'd appear on The Omnichord Real Book?
My social skills were lacking during my early 20s. And on top of that, I had a record deal and I was traveling, so my sense of self was a little off. But I'm happy I went through that. And I was raised by musicians who were competitive — sort of real jazz, that jazz mentality of like, I'm going to tear you down to build you up.
But as I aged, and as a woman, I realized that energy just wasn't really the energy I wanted to have. So when you speak of the guests, it's just I think a testament to my growth as a human being and that I'm not as shy and insecure. And I really, if I meet someone and I love their playing, I'm asking them for their number, I'm going to text them, I'm going to ask them about their life and try to create some sort of rapport with them. So, these are just people I've been blessed to meet.
If anything, I'm not curating. That word hurts me. I'm in the sense, I want to be, kind of create collectives, like Don Cherry or something. I'm trying to just get everyone involved because that's the beauty of music and probably why I didn't become a painter.
Painting and visual arts is lonely. It's a lonely thing. But once I learned that, wow, we're all together in this music thing, it definitely inspired me to want to be more about the music. It's like that's the best part to me, that we all can get together and interact.
Can you talk about the role of the vocalist Thandiswa Mazwai on The Omnichord Real Book?
She was on one of my previous records, [2007's] The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams. South African singer. Miriam Makeba anointed her. I just find her melodic and rhythmic sense amazing.
I am African American. I am not African. And to quote my brother [trumpeter] Nicholas Payton, I play Black American music. So, I think the participation was, again, just friendship and camaraderie.
But the song ["Vuma"]— what she's talking about is vuma; is that vuma is the voice. And not only the voice of projection, and singing, or speaking, but the tone you have as a writer, as a musician, as a bassist.
We talk about the touch, the tone, the vuma. That's what we're trying to convey in that song. Not about perfection, or pitch. It's the way that you carry yourself and protect that voice, so that individuality, it's you — that you have a self.
I feel so many people want to sound, or feel, or experience like another. I think Thandiswa and I are just trying to remind you to cherish your voice — your uniqueness, your touch, your harmonic sense; your melodic, carefree ideas.
Don't try to pigeonhole yourself in order to be successful. Just say it a little bit for yourself when you can. I think that's what we're trying to say.
What's the state of your bass thinking — in conjunction with your compositional thinking, or instrumental thinking? Which point in your evolution are you in?
In terms of bass playing, I don't play the same; I don't hear the same. So, it's my love instrument. It is like my appendage, so I don't allow other people to question it. So I feel really secure in my bass playing, and with myself as a bassist.
As a songwriter, I'm just still hoping to grow. I want to create some more complex music, more complex instrumental music. And I'm blessed to say I'm getting asked to work with artists that I really admire.
I'm about to work with [saxophonist] Immanuel Wilkins in the so-called producer chair. But yeah, I want to work on arrangements and use the other parts of my brain. And find other artists that want to work with me as well.
So, that's where I am now. I'm here to serve. How can I be of service as a human, as a parent, as a friend, as a musician?
Photo: Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
10 Albums That Showcase The Deep Connection Between Hip-Hop And Jazz: De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Kendrick Lamar & More
Hip-hop and jazz are two branches of Black American music; their essences have always swirled together. Here are 10 albums that prove this.
Kassa Overall is tired of talking about the connections between jazz and rap. He had to do it when he released his last two albums, and he has to do it again regarding his latest one.
"They go together naturally," he once said. "They're from the same tree as far as where they come from, which is Black music in America. You don't have to over-mix them. It goes together already."
Expand this outward, and it applies to all Black American musics; it's not a stretch to connect gospel and blues, nor soul and R&B. Accordingly, jazz and rap contain much of the same DNA — from their rhythmic complexity to its improvisational component to its emphasis on the performer's personality.
Whether in sampling, the rhythmic backbone, or any number of other facets, jazz and rap have always been simpatico; just watch this video of the ‘40s and ‘50s vocal group the Jubilaries, which is billed as the “first rap song” and is currently circling TikTok. And as Overall points out to GRAMMY.com, even jazz greats like Louis Armstrong or Dizzy Gillespie had “Lil B and Danny Brown energy.”
De La Soul — 3 Feet High and Rising (1989)
Featuring samples by everyone from Johnny Cash to Hall and Oates to the Turtles, their playful, iridescent, psychedelic 1989 debut, 3 Feet High and Rising, is the perfect portal to who Robert Christgau called "radically unlike any rap you or anybody else has ever heard,"
3 Feet High and Rising consistently ranks on lists of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time. In 2010, the Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry.
A Tribe Called Quest — The Low End Theory (1991)
If one were to itemize the most prodigious jazz-rap acts, four-time GRAMMY nominees A Tribe Called Quest belong near the top of the list. Their unforgettable tunes; intricate, genre-blending approach; and Afrocentric POV, put them at the forefront of jazz-rap.
There are several worthy gateways to the legendary discography of Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White,, like 1993's Midnight Marauders and 1996's Beats, Rhymes and Life.
But their 1991 album The Low End Theory, was a consolidation and a watershed. From "Buggin' Out" to "Check the "Rhime" to "Scenario" — featuring Busta Rhymes, Charlie Brown and Dinco D — The Low End Theory contains the essence of Tribe’s vibrant, inventive personality.
Dream Warriors — And Now the Legacy Begins (1991)
Representing Canada are Dream Warriors, whose And Now the Legacy Begins was a landmark for alternative hip-hop.
King Lou and Capital Q's 1991 debut eschewed tough-guy posturing in favor of potent imagination and playful wit. Christgau nailed it once again with his characterization: "West Indian daisy age from boogie-down Toronto."
Its single "My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style" samples "Soul Bossa Nova" by 28-time GRAMMY winner Quincy Jones — who, among all the other components of his legacy, is one of jazz's finest arrangers. The tune would go on to become the Austin Powers theme song; in that regard, too, Dream Warriors were ahead of their time.
The Pharcyde — Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde (1992)
All of Black American music was fair game to producer J-Swift; on the Pharcyde's classic debut Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, he sampled jazzers like Donald Byrd and Roy Ayers alongside Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, and more. Over these beds of music, Fatlip, SlimKid 3, Imani, and Bootie Brown spit comedic bars with blue humor aplenty.
"I'm so slick that they need to call me, "Grease"/ 'Cause I slips and I slides When I rides on the beast" Imani raps in "Oh S—," in a representative moment. "Imani and your mom, sittin' in a tree/ K-I-S-S (I-N-G)."
All in all, the madcap, infectious Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde is a pivotal entry in the jazz-rap pantheon. One reviewer put it best: "[It] reaffirms every positive stereotype you've ever heard about hip-hop while simultaneously exploding every negative myth."
Digable Planets — Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space) (1993)
Digable Planets' Ishmael Butler once chalked up the prevalent jazz samples on their debut as such: "I just went and got the records that I had around me," he said. "And a lot of those were my dad's s—. which was lots of jazz." It fits Digable Planets like a glove.
"Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" contains multiple elements of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers' "Stretching"; "Escapism (Gettin' Free" incorporates the hook from Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man"; and "It's Good to Be Here" samples Grant Green's "Samba de Orpheus. Throughout Reachin', Butler, Craig Irving and Mary Ann Viera proselytize Black liberation in a multiplicity of forms.
Pitchfork nailed it when it declared, "Reachin' is an album about freedom — from convention, from oppression, from the limits imposed by the space-time continuum."
Gang Starr — Daily Operation (1992)
In the realm of Gang Starr, spiritual consciousness and street poetry coalesce. Given that jazz trucks in both concepts, it's a natural ingredient for DJ Premier and Guru's finest work.
One of their first masterpieces, Daily Operation, contains some of jazz's greatest minds within its grooves. "The Place Where We Dwell" samples the Cannonball Adderley Quintet's "Fun"; Charles Mingus' "II B.S" is on "I'm the Man"; the late piano magician Ahmad Jamal's "Ghetto Child" pops up on "The Illest Brother."
Throughout their career, DJ Premier and Guru only honed their relaxed chemistry; jazz elements help give their music a natural swing and sway. (Their musical partnership continues to this day; Gang Starr is releasing music this very week.)
The Roots — Things Fall Apart (1999)
Three-time GRAMMY winners The Roots' genius blend of live instrumentation and conscious bars launched them far past any "jazz-rap" conversation and into mainstream culture, via their role as the house band on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon."
Elements of limbic, angular jazz can be found throughout their discography, but their major label debut Do You Want More?!!!??! might be the most effective entryway into their blend of jazz and rap. ("Silent Treatment" features a bona fide jazz singer as a guest, Cassandra Wilson.)
Whether it’s the burbling "Distortion to Static," or the jazz-fusion-y "I Remain Calm," or the knockabout "Essaywhuman?!!!??!", venture forth into the Roots' discography; they're a hub of so many spokes of Black American music.
Madlib — Shades of Blue (2003)
As jazz-rap connections go, Madlib's Shades of Blue is one of the most pointed and direct.
Therein, he raids the Blue Note Records vault and remixes luminaries from Wayne Shorter ("Footprints") to Bobby Hutcherson ("Montara") to Ronnie Foster ("Mystic Brew," flipped into "Mystic Bounce"). In the medley "Peace/Dolphin Dance," Horace Silver and Herbie Hencock's titular works meet in the ether.
Elsewhere, Shades of Blue offers new interpretations of Blue Note classics by Madlib's fictional ensembles Yesterday's New Quintet, Morgan Adams Quartet Plus Two, Sound Direction, and the Joe McDuphrey Experience — all of whom are just Madlib playing every instrument.
In recent years, Blue Note has been hurtling forward with a slew of inspired new signings — some veterans, some newcomers. Through that lens, Shades of Blue provides a kaleidoscopic view of the storied jazz repository's past while paving the way for its future.
Kendrick Lamar — To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
While hip-hop has had a direct line to jazz for decades — as evidenced by previous entries on this list — Lamar solidified and codified it for the 21st century in this sequence of teeming, ambitious songs about Black culture, mental health and institutional racism.
"Kendrick reached a certain level with his rap that allowed him to move like a horn player," Overall told Tidal in 2020. And regarding Lamar’s present and future jazz-rap comminglings, Overall adds, "He opened up the floodgates of creative possibilities."
Kassa Overall — Animals (2023)
The pieces of Overall's brilliance have been there from the beginning, but never had he combined them to more thrilling effect than on Animals — where jazz musicians like pianists Kris Davis and Vijay Iyer commingle with rappers like Danny Brown and Lil B.
"I would rather people hear my music and not think it's a jazz-rap collage," Overall once told GRAMMY.com. "What if you don't relate it to anything else? What does it sound like to you?"
When it comes to the gonzo Danny Brown and Wiki collaboration "Clock Ticking," the Theo Croker-assisted "The Lava is Calm," and the inspired meltdown of "Going Up," featuring Lil B, Shabazz Palaces and Francis & the Lights — this music sounds like nothing else.
Over the decades, Black American musicians have swirled together jazz and rap into a cyclone of innovation, heart and brilliance — and there’s seemingly no limit to the iterations it can take on.