Photo: Craig Marsden
(L-R) Tyshawn Sorey, Vijay Iyer, Linda May Han Oh
Vijay Iyer On His New Trio Album 'Uneasy,' American Identity & Teaching Black American Music In The 21st Century
On 'Uneasy,' pianist Vijay Iyer bands together with his creative family—bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey—to envisage a more equitable world
Vijay Iyer may be one of the foremost academics in 21st century music, but he's far more absorbed in the body than the brain. He peppers his language with references to the heart, spine and hips; his paramount rhythmic value is the pulse. And when describing how a terrific rhythm section glues together, he clasps together his index fingers and pulls.
"Let the record show that I'm making a weird hand gesture right now," the GRAMMY-nominated pianist, composer and Harvard Department of Music professor announces with a chuckle over Zoom. "Kind of hooked and pulling apart, but somehow hanging together." Iyer is describing a musical phenomenon called "the hookup," which perfectly describes the concision between him, bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Tyshawn Sorey in his latest trio.
Oh and Sorey aren't mere collaborators or accompanists; they're educators and composers in their own rights. Of Sorey's drumming, Iyer cites a "life-sustaining kind of magic." And of Oh's bass playing, "Her awareness of and relation to pulse, it's like micro-detail," he says. Those qualities and more can be found on Uneasy, the trio's first studio record, which drops April 9 on ECM Records. The album is a mix of topical material "Children of Flint" with Iyer originals ("Combat Breathing") and standards ("Night and Day") from deep in their wheelhouse.
Most importantly, Iyer considers the pair to be his musical family; together, they're his stronghold through a racially and sociopolitically turbulent time. And with the tragic Atlanta spa shootings in the rearview, the cover—where the three musicians' names float around an out-of-focus Statue of Liberty—is a side-eyed glance at what it means to be an American.
GRAMMY.com spoke with Vijay Iyer about the architecture of a trio record and his feelings on American identity in the wake of anti-Asian violence. Plus, just in time for Music In Our Schools Month, he explores how educators can teach Black American music more fairly and accurately in the 21st century.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I love trio albums. To me, Bill Evans' Sunday at the Village Vanguard is the gold standard. Recently, I've connected greatly with Bill Frisell's Valentine. Uneasy is another excellent one. So, what is it about the power of a trio, in your estimation? To me, it has the integrity of a triangle in architecture.
Oh, so many things. There's both the disparateness of it, in the sense that we're each doing pretty seemingly qualitatively different things. Maybe the piano and drums have more in common, let's say, but still, the materials we're working with are so different.
Then, at the same time, everything is done with the hands and the feet, to a certain extent. In particular, that means that there's no literal breath involved in anything you hear. So there's a certain kind of tactile quality because of that. Every sound you hear is the result of a touch of some kind.
And, that any lyricism is sort of an illusion, in the sense that when you hear a melody that connects, you are being invited to imagine a voice that's not there, you know? Imagine a sort of breath that is not directly involved in the sounds you're hearing. So, that has a certain kind of suspended quality because of that. It's both a suspension of disbelief and a handmade universe. That's one detail about it that is intriguing.
The other side of it is, at some level, I don't care what the hands are doing as a listener. I care about something more central. Meaning, what do I connect to when I hear musicians in action? What do I, as a listener, as an observer, find myself relating to sonically? What I find myself relating to sonically is a sense of pulse that comes from the center of the body. From the heart, from the spine, from the torso, from the hips, you know? Not from the hands.
So, that's a funny paradox. Why is the trio the rhythm section? Why is it that somehow, by touching and hitting things, we're expressing something central? How do what the hands do reflect where the heart is, or what the center of the body is doing? How do we conjure these qualities of motion that compel a listener to move, to not use the hands, but move the body?
That feels like a paradox to me—or at least a puzzle, or some kind of challenge. How is it that we, through the actions of our hands, can summon the actions of a body—or a multitude of bodies, even? How do we conjure pulse? What that means is that how we play together is by connecting body-to-body in that way—connecting spine to spine. The hands are just kind of—well, they're extremities. So there's sort of the result of deeper connection. The actions of the hands and their apparent coordination amongst all six is the result of something much deeper. And because of that, they can have, like I said, a disparate quality—almost a seeming disunity—on a certain level and still be connected mysteriously from within.
That allows for a really interesting kind of polyphony—a kind that can have this kind of rough-and-tumble quality. Because it's about things falling. The impulse is previous to it, you know? I guess what I'm saying is that whatever way we're synchronizing internally, sonically, what you hear is merely a reflection of that. The center of the music is somehow not sounded. That's the miraculous, illusory quality of it. I don't if this makes any sense.
Vijay Iyer performing in Berlin in 2016. Photo: Stefan Hoederath/Redferns
It does make sense. Because the way that Bill Evans Trio record fires up—it's a shuffle on the snare here, a piano vamp there, and it's not gelling right off the bat. But then the triangle settles on its base, as it were.
I think my iconic trio music has a different kick to it, maybe. Maybe it has to do with the role of the drummer in particular, as more than an accompanist. I think my iconic trio album is Money Jungle. You know that record?
Duke [Ellington], right?
Yeah. You don't hear them and think, "Wow, these guys have been playing together forever!" or something like that. What you're kind of gripped by is the complex and even contentious relationship among them and how they kind of lurch. The qualities of motion are so intense. There are moments where they're gliding and dancing and there are moments where it feels like combat or something. So, that's one point of reference.
Another point of reference is Ahmad Jamal, Live at the Pershing. Which is so much about groove at play—play in the sense of playing with form and playing with elements. It's not soloistic, for the most part. It's not like, "I'm going to play, then you're going to play. I'm going to comp for you," or something like that. It's actually that they're creating this totality and it keeps breathing and flexing and changing color, changing energy, changing dynamic. So, it's very much a collective enterprise at all times.
Those are two points of reference, but then I also think about rhythm sections, just in general. James Brown's rhythm section, or The Meters. Not piano trio-specific, even. Just how a deep pulse can be expressed in this composite way.
I saw this trio at Jazz Standard back in 2019. It's obvious you, Linda and Tyshawn have wonderful synergy, but I'm curious as to what that synergy is. What do you enjoy about the chemical reaction generated by this specific combination?
I think what anyone wants out of any rhythm section is a certain quality of pulse—a certain sense of drive, what they call "the hookup" between bass and drums, let's say. Often, that has to do with how each one of them relates to the pulse and how maybe that creates a sustained—[clasps index fingers and pulls]. Let the record show that I'm making a weird hand gesture right now—kind of hooked and pulling apart, but somehow hanging together.
So there's something about that balance. It's elusive in the sense that it's not merely like, "Oh, so-and-so plays behind the beat and so-and-so plays on top of the beat." Sometimes it's that, but often, it's a little more nuanced than that.
In any case, there's a real attentiveness to that quality from both of them that I hear in every sound they make together. Like, where are you in relation to time and in relation to pulse, specifically? How are you expressing pulse? How is it being expressed through what you do?
Every sound you make is also rhythm, and every rhythm that you make together sets up a rhythmic relation. So, how is that rhythmic relation being expressed? It pops with that. It has this nice drive and intensity and focus, you know?
The other thing is how they listen, both of them. I've played with Tyshawn for 20 years. He's like family to me. We've had this delightful adventure together for half our lives in all kinds of ways, in all kinds of music-making. Teaching and learning and traveling and eating weird food together and losing our bags. Getting pulled over by security together. All kinds of stuff. There's a deep bond there, and that didn't just come out of nowhere, you know. It didn't just come out because we happened to be in the same place at the same time, or something. It's actually because of how he listens, and how I listen to him listening, and how we relate that way.
It's about his musical memory and how I can attend to that. It's about a certain shared aesthetic, I would say. A certain kind of balance of stillness and wildness. I guess by "wild," I mean a taste for intensity and for even extremes of intensity. Not "wild," per se, because it's not like he does anything that's disordered. Actually, everything he does is generating order. That's one thing I eventually realized in playing with him, is that it's all support. It's all structure, every sound he makes. It's all deeply informed by not just everything that's happening, but by many histories of music-making that he's tapped into.
I've said this elsewhere about him and just about drummers in general. I mean, I've talked a lot about Marcus Gilmore, who I've also worked with for many years. I got to know and work with Ralph Peterson, who I can't believe is gone. I've gotten to know folks like Jeff "Tain" Watts and Jack DeJohnette. And there's Marcus's grandfather, Roy Haynes, who just turned 96!
Getting to know all these incredible drummers—Billy Hart, another—[is a matter of] knowing that they are aware of much more than they're usually given credit for, musically. There's a deep compositional awareness. They're incredible listeners. They hear everything. I'm not exaggerating! Andrew Cyrille, another example. I've had great experiences making music with him.
There's kind of a perspicuous vantage on everything—an awareness of everything. Channeling that, there's a deeply informed and informational way of playing. It's not just playing a groove or playing a pattern. It's actually where you work with sound to complement and lift up what's happening. To conduct the energy of the entire ensemble even while not being given credit for doing so. There's a profundity to the art of drumming that is way beyond the way it's usually characterized, you know? Tyshawn is one of the exemplars of that incredible artistry. That incredible awareness and creative, life-sustaining kind of magic.
Tyshawn Sorey performing in Chicago in 2014. Photo: Raymond Boyd/Getty Images
With Linda, she came to the U.S. in the aughts—sometime in the early 2000s. I remember hearing that she had done a thesis on Dave Holland and did a bunch of transcriptions of him playing with different drummers. I sort of learned more about her; she had really gone in deep on something. I always appreciated that.
I remember talking to Ambrose [Akinmusire] about her because her first album that she released, Entry, was a trio with Ambrose and Obed Calvaire. That was a bold step, first of all, for a bass player to make an album as a leader at that age. She was probably in her early twenties. And to make it an odd format—there aren't that many records that are trumpet, bass and drums. Maybe a Bill Dixon record somewhere? I don't know—not many things.
So, yeah, the transparency of that. I remember Ambrose saying, "Look, she really has that type of ear. She can hear on a really high level." I knew how Ambrose could hear, which is not that different from how Tyshawn hears, in the sense of, again, that deep awareness of everything. When someone plays something, there's no mystery about what it is. There could be a mystery about why it is. [Laughs.]
But her ability to hear on that level, and then her real detail and care with timekeeping and her awareness of and relation to pulse, it's like micro-detail. And then just getting around on the instrument with real ease. I've heard her in all kinds of contexts, you know. She's got a great career as a composer and a bandleader, but I've also heard her play with Kenny Barron, with Pat Metheny, with all kinds of folks. She always keeps things aloft, and I've played with her many times over the years in lots of different ad hoc contexts.
I just found a photo of her and me and Becca Stevens. We did a couple of trio sets, just the three of us. There's a time when she and I and E.J. Strickland played in a quintet with Ravi Coltrane and Dave Douglas. There's an improvised session we did at The Stone with Imani Izuri and DJ Val Jeanty—DJ and Linda and me and this vocalist. And then there's all the stuff we did at Banff together. Somewhere, there's a recording of her and me and Grégoire Maret, the harmonica player. There's all these wild aggregates where she just holds down the center of things with such clarity and ferocity. It was in the course of doing all these ad-hoc, thrown-together things that we realized we already knew how to play together.
I set up a trio set for us at the Standard, probably the first one you came to, in early '19. Then we were at Banff again that summer, August 2019, and it was toward the end of that program that we just wanted to blow off steam. We said, "Hey, let's just play a trio set. It'll just be for the students. It won't be for an audience or anything," just to do it. Just to serve the music and be a community, you know.
It felt so alive. It had this flash of "Yeah, this is a thing." It had its own truth to it. You can't deny it. Right then, I just said, "You guys want to make a record?" and a few months later, we recorded it. I think what that sound is has to do with that excitement. That spark of possibility combined with that level of awareness that the two of them have about all the musical structure and information. And then both of them as composers having a dynamic sense of what can happen.
Linda May Han Oh performing in Monterey, California, in 2017. Photo: Education Images/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
In a recent Zoom panel, you talked about the cover—the Statue of Liberty triangulated by the three musicians' names. Given that the three names recall three different racial descents, they serve as commentary on the nature of American identity. I'm sure the events of this week gave you pause on the otherness that Americans of different colors and backgrounds are feeling.
It isn't just that it happened. It is that, but it's also what that police captian from Cherokee County said, and also the way it was handled by the media. That's when you go, "This is all connected." The idea that some white kid—not kid, a young white man—who's disgruntled about whatever, his own supposed sex addiction, can blame the most vulnerable people and then murder them. And then that can be treated as almost normal. Almost excusable. The discourse around it was "Well, he had a bad day."
And then we keep seeing pictures of him and his name constantly essentially glorifying and humanizing him. "He went to church." That whole pattern of humanizing the white male killer, and meantime, I had dig around to find even a mention of any of the names of the victims.
You described Tyshawn as "family." What role does communing with this chosen family and making music together play in that healing process and finding a future through the wreckage?
It is the sound of a certain kind of communion. That was Don Cherry's phrase: "complete communion," which means not just with one another, but with something larger and deeper than any of us. And it's been so long since we've been able to do that, really, in any kind of regular way.
Being able to put this album now is to say, "We can still do this. We can still be among each other in a caring way, in a way that's about listening and co-construction and facing the world together." That's basically what it means to me.
Because the lead single was "Children of Flint," people might be tempted to think this is all topical material. But from what I understand, some of it is simply material from your wheelhouses. Cole Porter's "Night and Day" comes to mind. What common thread is there between all these tunes, if any?
I wouldn't say it was forced into any kind of common theme. The impulse to make the record was that we felt like as a band. At that level, it's like, "It doesn't matter what we play, actually. Let's just document something so we can remember this sound and share it with people."
That said, then it was a certain kind of curatorial exercise to me to pull together material that I felt like playing with them—that I felt could be given a certain kind of life and context. I wanted to know what it would sound like. I wanted to hear it. I wanted to hear us playing this music, you know? I wanted to hear the two of them take on some of this material.
And then some of it was new. "Children of Flint" was written that fall. "Retrofit" was written that summer. There was another new piece I didn't end up including on the album. "Allomothers," is relatively new, I guess. So, it was about just gathering together a set of stimuli for us, a set of impulses: "Hey, let's work with this. Let's bring this into being."
Some of that involved some studying. Geri Allen's "Drummer's Song" is a piece that you have to study to play. And it wasn't just that it was "Night and Day;" it's that it was Joe Henderson's version of "Night and Day" from Inner Urge. There's something different about that version. [Laughs].
He reharmonizes it in a way that's not exactly Coltrane-esque, but something in that family. [John] Coltrane went through a period in the late '50s where everything had what are called "Giant Steps" changes. "Countdown" is actually his version of Miles Davis' "Tune Up," but with a whole bunch of extra chords stuck in there to make it almost fiendishly hard! What does that elicit from you? There's an etude-like quality in the sense of working through some set of challenges to elicit something new from you. I mean you, the musician. You, the music-maker. You, the improviser.
That's basically what Joe Henderson did with "Night and Day," so it was that. It didn't matter that it was "Night and Day," actually. It mattered that it was that impulse, that transformative gesture that Joe Henderson brought to it. And then it mattered that it was that band playing it. Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, Bob Cranshaw, Joe Henderson. That band just sailing through that really wild arrangement.
Then there was, like, "Let's study that," because we study what other musicians have done. We study it hard. We put in the time. That's what both of them do just as a matter of course. What that means is I can just say, "Hey, let's try this," and within a matter of minutes, Linda has learned it. [Laughs.] Beyond that, it's like I'm learning from her about it.
With my material, it was really curatorial over a span of 20 years' worth of compositions of mine, "Configurations" being the oldest and "Children of Flint" being the newest.
It's not that any particular album is political, but at almost any moment in my musical life, I'm listening to what's happening outside and that is informing what I do, why I do it and with whom I do it. And for whom I do it. The first two pieces on the album are probably the most "political." But it's more like each of them was serving a specific purpose—serving a specific cause. And by serving, I mean literally serving. Trying to support an existing movement on the ground.
March is Music In Our Schools Month, and I wanted to talk about the intersection between jazz—or, Black American music, whatever language you want to use—and academia. You're in academia, Tyshawn's in academia, I don't remember if Linda is…
Yeah, she teaches at Berklee, actually.
There you go. I don't remember when jazz education began in the U.S., but it wasn't around in the '50s or '60s, as far as I know. Musicians were learning from each other—teacher to student and peer to peer. Now, in many ways, this music lives in universities. Can you talk about that connection and how it can be helpful or problematic in some respect?
[Long silence.] Can I? [Laughs.]
I don't know if I can. I think in both Tyshawn's and my case, neither of us pretends to be a jazz anything in academia. We just show up as ourselves—as the artists that we are. He's a composition professor at the University of Pennsylvania. I started a doctoral program at Harvard called Creative Practices and Critical Inquiry.
I never use the word "jazz" in any of my courses. That's not to say we don't study this history, but I also appreciate the history of people rejecting the word "jazz." That's a deep history. That's a 100-year-old history of people pushing back against the confining labeling impulse of the music business, which has historically been a white business—a white male-run business.
So when Black musicians have sought to define their work on their own terms, we have to listen to that history. In the '60s, people started using the phrase "creative music." In the '60s! That's more than half a century ago, right? That label's been around for a long time, alongside and pushing back against the label of jazz.
Also, there's this history of music-makers creating music on their own terms, sometimes in a way that you can't categorize. If you listen to Bud Powell's piece "Glass Enclosure," you can't listen to that and say, "Well, that's a jazz tune," or something like that. You have to crack open all categories to parse it, even—to make sense of it.
Or a moment like "Strange Fruit," Billie Holiday. Very intently exploding the category and defying her own audiences to think about the world outside, you know? And to think about their own relationship to it and their own complicity with it. I would call that something like experimental music, because it's doing something that pushes on every dimension of the category and kind of explodes the frame.
There are all kinds of examples. Afternoon of a Georgia Faun, Marion Brown. Another example. Or Alice Coltrane's recordings. On at least one of her albums, she recorded an entire section of "Rite of Spring." What's that doing on an Alice Coltrane record? What is her relationship to that history? Why is she evoking a Russian composer, a piece from 1913?
I think these categories keep undoing themselves if you really pay attention to what an artist has been doing all this time.
Bird hated the word "jazz." Dizzy hated it. Yusef Lateef hated it. I'm fine with throwing it in the garbage when necessary.
Right. So, how do we teach that? The fraught history of the category, the forces that shaped it and continue to shape it, and the choices artists have made, often in defiance of categorization and larger systems of oppression? It's about looking at books like Amiri Baraka's Blues People, Angela Davis' Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Gerald Horne's Jazz and Justice, Robin Kelley's book on Thelonious Monk, Art Taylor's Notes and Tones and George Lewis' book on the AACM. Understanding how what it really is is a history of social movements, actually.
If you look at the "creative music movement," as Sarita McCoy Gregory called it, what was it that Black musicians were doing in the '60s and '70s, around the time of the Black Power movement? They were self-organizing and making music on their own terms, often starting their own labels, their own venues, their own presenting organizing, their own artist collectives.
If you go to jazz school, like the Manhattan School of Music or something, you don't learn about any of this because it defies the logic of jazz education. Jazz education as we know it today was an entrepreneurial venture by white men in the '60s and '70s.
So when you look at the "Real Book" that was made at that period, that I had in the '80s when I was in high school, what did it have in it? And what didn't it have in it? It didn't have any music by Mary Lou Williams or Nina Simone or Alice Coltrane or Lil Hardin. It didn't have anything you would associate with the avant-garde or the Black Power movement, like Archie Shepp or Albert Ayler. Certainly no Cecil Taylor. Maybe one or two Ornette Coleman tunes from the '50s. So it basically ignored all these pivotal Black women and pivotal Black activists from the '60s.
Instead, all the Black music it contains is from the past. Some Coltrane tunes. Some Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter tunes from the '50s and '60s. A lot of Duke Ellington, Mingus. But then all the "modern music" is by white men. Chick Corea. Gary Burton. Steve Swallow. Dave Holland. Keith Jarrett. They're all in there, right?
Why are they all in the "Real Book" and why aren't any of these other things? It's stuff like that. We have to historicize what we call "jazz education" and understand it to be this weird phenomenon that emerged in a certain moment and then retold the history of the music in a way that erased more than it retained.
I like that a lot. The idea of telling the story again more accurately and inclusively, rather than locking it in an ivory tower or excluding anybody.
Well, really, hearing it from artists. We had Henry Threadgill in our class. [Saxophonist and composer] Yosvany [Terry] and I co-teach a course this term. We bore witness to his whole life of music-making that starts before any of that happened.
We also had Cécile McLorin Salvant there. Hearing them back-to-back was like, "Well, they're dealing with similar constraints, and they both have a quirky, defiant streak, and they're both resisting categorization." They're in very different phases in their lives—they're separated by close to 50 years.
We start to rethink the history from the ground up and try to account for what has been… not forgotten, but sort of left out of the standard narrative. The other side of it is like, "Help people make music together with a detailed understanding of what's happened before and what's possible." But also let people invent, you know? Let people invent together.
I've heard people make some unprecedented stuff, and if you support that process, then you're actually stimulating—or not just stimulating, you're recreating something like what it was like when these artists we know and love came together 50 and 60 and 70 and 80 years ago without the burden of a genre to tell them what to do.
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Photo: L. Cohen/WireImage
10 Record Store Day Releases You Need This Year: Taylor Swift, Nas, Dolly Parton & More
Celebrate Record Store Day this April 22 by stocking up on new, exclusive LPs from Taylor Swift, Björk, The Rolling Stones and more at your local participating record store.
From Post Malone to Peppa Pig vinyls, record stores around the world are stocking up on limited exclusive releases for Record Store Day 2023.
Held annually every April since 2007, the event honors independently owned record stores and the unity of fans and artists. This year, many stores will globally welcome more than 300 limited, exclusive records ranging from rock to jazz to rap on April 22.
With former official ambassadors including Taylor Swift, Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne, Jack White, Chuck D, and St. Vincent, Record Store Day celebrates music of all genres. And that's exactly the case with this year's lineup of special releases, spanning from Miles Davis to Beach House.
In honor of Record Store Day 2023, get excited about these 10 limited, exclusive releases dropping in your local participating store.
The 1975 — I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it: Live With The BBC Philharmonic Orchestra
Serving as the official Record Store Day UK Ambassadors this year, the 1975 take us back to 2016 with their second LP, I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it — this time, along with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. Available for the first time on double clear vinyl, this orchestral version of the British rock band's second studio album also features a version of their breakout hit, "Chocolate."
Miles Davis — TURNAROUND: Unreleased Rare Vinyl from On the Corner
Miles Davis' album On the Corner celebrated its 50th birthday last October, and its innovation takes yet another turn on Record Store Day. Titled Turnaround, this sky-blue vinyl features four cuts from the expanded 2007 album The Complete On The Corner Sessions, also offering appearances from Herbie Hancock, Dave Liebman and Bennie Maupin.
Björk — the fossora remixes
Fill your record collection with some flora and fauna — natural, eccentric scarlet and green patterns adorn each vinyl sleeve of Björk's exclusive the fossora remixes. The release features two dynamic songs: A1 Ovule featuring Shygirl (Sega Bodega remix) and A2 Atopos (sideproject remix).
Beach House — Become
Fourteen months after psychedelic pop duo Beach House unveiled their eighth studio album, Once Twice Melody, they continue the story with a new EP. Titled Become, the five-song project — which is available on crystal-clear vinyl on Record Store Day — features five formerly unreleased songs from their 2022 LP.
Nas — Made You Look: God's Son Live 2002
Just over 20 years ago, Nas gave a spectacular performance at Webster Hall in New York City, further solidifying his status as a legend of East Coast hip-hop. The spirited 20-song concert now appears on vinyl for the first time, with familiar artwork calling back to its original DVD release in 2003.
Dolly Parton — The Monument Singles Collection 1964-1968
More than six decades into her career, Dolly Parton joins the Record Store Day fun with a celebration of her early years. The country legend's remastered singles from the 1960s are hitting record store shelves, and the special first-time collection also features liner notes from two-time GRAMMY nominee Holly George-Warren.
The Rolling Stones — Beggars Banquet
As the Rolling Stones sang of "a swirling mass of grey, blue, black, and white" on "Salt Of The Earth," the rock band's upcoming limited vinyl for Beggars Banquet will be pressed with a swirl pattern of the same four colors in tribute. The group merges classic rock with their blues roots on Beggars Banquet, and the vinyl of their 1968 critically-acclaimed album features the original artwork and window display poster.
Taylor Swift — folklore: the long pond studio sessions
In September 2020, Taylor Swift's GRAMMY-winning album folklore was reimagined at New York's Long Pond Studio with a pair of the singer's closest collaborators, Aaron Dessner (The National) and Jack Antonoff (fun./Bleachers). And in November that year, fans got to witness those sessions in a Disney+ documentary. Now, more than two years later, the serene album's acoustic studio sessions are available on vinyl for the first time, including four sides and bonus track "the lakes."
'Ol Dirty Bastard — Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version
ODB's memory lives on in the vinyl rerelease of his iconic 1995 debut album, Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version. Featuring the 2020 remasters of 15 tracks, this drop is the first posthumous release from ODB since 2011, but not the first time fans have heard his voice since then: SZA's SOS track "Forgiveless" concludes with a previously unreleased verse from the late rapper.
Donna Summer — A Hot Summer Night (40th Anniversary Edition)
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Donna Summer's momentous Hard For The Money Tour. This exclusive vinyl celebrates the Queen of Disco in all her glory, capturing her live concert at Costa Mesa's Pacific Amphitheatre from August 1983. The vinyl offers performances by special guests Musical Youth, her sisters Dara and Mary Ellen, and her eldest daughter Mimi.
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Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer & Shahzad Ismaily On New Album 'Love In Exile,' Improvisation Versus Co-Construction And The Primacy Of The Pulse
When these three came together to make impressionistic, genreless, meditative music, they rose to support and bolster each other — and the result is 'Love in Exile,' a work of quiet integrity that exudes friendship and otherworldly beauty.
When Arooj Aftab, Vijay Iyer and Shahzad Ismaily stepped into a New York City studio to record their first trio album, they did so with nearly nonexistent advance preparation.
Which is borderline axiomatic, as all three musicians hail from improvisatory spaces.
Aftab, a GRAMMY-winning Urdu vocalist, has been clear about improvisation's importance to her work. Genre-spanning pianist and composer Iyer has forged a legacy throughout the creative-music space, including in what we tend to designate as jazz. As for bassist and Moog synthesist Ismaily, his sheer versatility and range in that realm is staggering.
Still, did the music the three made together count as improvisation? Not so fast, says Iyer.
"I don't even think that 'improvisation' is the right word for it, because it's actually just co-composition in real time," the pianist — also a Harvard professor — tells GRAMMY.com. "It's not taking solos or something. It's really like, OK, well, this is what the song is. Whatever's happening now, this is the song. So, what should happen next in the song?
Read More: Meet The First-Time GRAMMY Nominee: Arooj Aftab On Her Latest Album Vulture Prince, The Multiplicity Of Pakistani Musics And Why We Should Listen With Nuance & Care
That sovereignty of the now — and of each other — governs their new album, Love in Exile, the fruitage of this triangulation that arrives on Mar. 24. Together, Aftab, Iyer and Ismaily seem to slow time; the sound of tracks like "To Remain/To Return," "Eyes of the Endless" and "Sharabi" is capacious but never diffuse, abstract but never aimless.
Aftab's frequently described as "ethereal," but that doesn't really do her justice; despite the transportive nature of her natural instrument, she sounds steadfast, planted to the earth. On piano and Rhodes, Iyer adds tremulous textures that never intrude; they always buoy and support. The resounding heartbeat of Ismaily's bass will wham you in the solar plexus.
If any of this sounds a touch self-serious, the music sounds as natural as breath. And in conversation, Aftab, Iyer and Ismaily have an easy rapport and are quick to laughter.
Will they make more albums? Nobody's raring to prognosticate. "I love them," Ismaily says of his accompanists — in this sphere of ambient, drone, experimental, or whatever on earth you call it. "I love spending time with them, and for that reason alone, I hope that there is more time that I share with them.”
With the album release mere hours away and a tour coming up, read on for an in-depth conversation with these leading lights about the making of Love in Exile, the confluence of their experiences and expertises, and why they could make 50 more albums — or zero.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
How did you three creatively triangulate in the first place?
Aftab: I met Vijay at Merkin Hall in New York. I was invited to play a set before his set. He was doing this special collab: that was Thums Up with [Das Racist MC] Himanshu Suri [a.k.a. Heems], [rapper and drummer] Kassa Overall, and <a href="https://www.grammy.com/news/meet-son-lux-composer-trio-behind-everything-everywhere-all-at-once-movie">[Son Lux guitarist] Rafiq [Bhatia] as well.
I knew Vijay and his music from before, and I had always been like, "Wow, this guy, he is amazing." So, meeting him, I was a little, for sure, intimidated. Not intimidated, but definitely like, "Oh s—, it's Vijay."
But we did a little collab that night — just an impromptu, kind of improv thing — and it felt really great. I was so surprised that it was so easy and so beautiful and so musical. You don't expect that just happening, you know? You have to work hard to find that sort of musical collaborator.
And Shahzad: I had been told lots here and there in New York, "Hey, do you know Shahzad?"
Ismaily: [Singer/songwriter, rapper and bassist] Meshell Ndegeocello gave me [your record Bird Under Water] before I met you. She was like, "Hey, I think I'm going to be working with this person." So, she gave me that, and then I was obsessively listening to it for a while.
Aftab: Yeah, she connected us, basically. Meshell was going to produce Vulture Prince, before we even knew what it was — before we knew anything at all. But then she got busy, and then I produced it myself. But one of the things that she did was, like, "Hey, if you want to record in Brooklyn, there's this guy, Shahzad, who has this studio."
And I was like: Shahzad — this guy Shahzad again!
Iyer: I met this being named Shahzad pretty early after he moved to New York through [drummer and composer] Qasim Naqvi, who brought him into a Burnt Sugar situation. So, I was one of the OGs of Burnt Sugar, the band that [late writer, musician and producer] Greg Tate formed.
We would do these kinds of very open, improvised shows, or not even. It would really just be whatever happened, we would make something out of it. And that was where Shahzad started showing up and playing. It always just seemed like I never knew what he was going to play. One day, it might be drums. Another day, it might be acoustic guitar. So, he was this wild card.
And then we didn't really have a lot of chances to do anything together outside of that, until I finally called [Shahzad] and said, "Hey, can you do this thing with me and Arooj at [NYC avant-garde performance space] the Kitchen? That was in June of 2018. But I was certainly aware of Shahzad for eons.
What was the nature of the first music you made together? What mutual artistic groove did you all settle into?
Ismaily: It was truly an immediate, spontaneous listening response to what each of us were giving to each other in that moment.
Whether it was Vijay dropping a chord on the piano, and me putting my ear to the bass and trying to figure out, OK, where is he? Therefore, what will I play right now? Or, I may have started with a pulse on the bass and then Vijay came in, and then Arooj came in when she did. It was really the chemistry of who we were in the moment, and then it stayed there.
Iyer: I think it mattered that it was live.It was actually just like, OK, we've got to commit to this second. There's no do-overs here. This is a show. And I think that put us in the frame of mind of: OK, everything that happens is correct, is right. Everything that happens is meant to happen. So then, we just sort of aided that process, and it came through us.
Once your live dynamic as a trio was established, how did you go on to establish artistic parameters in the studio? How would you describe the ratio of improvisation versus previously written material?
Iyer: I think the method has always been co-construction. And since we committed to that from literally note one, or sound zero, at the first show five years ago, it's never not been that.
Aftab: I think there were definitely some soaring moments that we felt from the previous six gigs that we played before we went into the studio, but we never really wrote anything down or planned a structure. I definitely remember that even the first time we did it, we were dared to do it, really. There was a lot of super-hardcore listening and trust that was happening.
I was trusting where I thought I should come in. You know how you're like, Oh, I don't want to step on this person's toes? If it's not planned, you don't really know what the f— is going to happen. Or, If you're coming in, are you actually interrupting someone's thought? or whatever. But there was so much unspoken trust and communication between the three of us, anyway, and there was just such a great language of listening and playing happening.
Sometimes what happens is that when I start singing, everybody sort of steps back to give me space. And I hate that, because I'm just like: I am going to go with you guys. Don't make a clearing for me. It's boring now, because it's just me here alone. Play with me.
And they never backed away, and it was amazing. They have so much more than I do in terms of experience and wisdom in being musicians, and I think that every entry and exit point is coming from that — that experience that we carry as composers and musicians in our own right.
So, it's not prepared, but it is coming from [that]. It is a learned thing, and it is a skill, definitely, that's being applied there, that is a very difficult one — which is trust, intuition, listening, and basically being creative in that sense.
Ismaily: When we went into a studio after a few performances, I still felt an equal amount of gravity and focus as when we were playing live. So, I didn't have much of a different experience between the two.
Iyer: Yeah, it was basically that we learned from our live experiences how the music should go.
Arooj, I remember reading a quote from you about how you were more focused on the sound of your words than their literal meaning. What was your approach to choosing words in that regard — aurally, or even orally, as per open and resonant syllables?
Aftab: Yes, you're correct. The approach here was definitely to pretend to be an instrument, as well, to whatever extent that is possible as a vocalist.
I feel like there's this kind of idea that sometimes, vocalists are like, Yeah, I want the vocals to be an instrument, but to some degree, that's just not possible because it's not the same. You need vowels and stuff, and you need words to really get things going. Sometimes, the words are the instrument too. They're actually the keys sometimes.
So, I had fragments of poetry. Some of it's from Vulture Prince. Some of it's from Bird Under Water. And then, some of it's completely new stuff that I'd been thinking about. But I chose it based on the mood of where I thought the songs were going musically.
It's not entirely disjointed, but in terms of my intentional approach, it's not meant to be the focus. It's not meant to be the song. It's not meant to tell the story. I think I wanted the three of us to be telling the story — not just me, the singer. So, in that way, my intention was for it to be less intentional of an approach.
But of course, it's subtle. The listener and listen and be like: There's a vocalist, and bass player, and piano player, and it's a song. But, if you see, also, I'm not there 90% of the time. There's long sections where I'm not there.
So, I was interested in f—ing with this thing. The role of the vocalist and the lyrics and the storytelling, and how we can equalize the thing, for real. I'm still really inspired by it and playing with it. As you can see, I'm even messing it up in my own language of how to describe it. But it's fun, and it's great.
But the tone of the music itself: in a lot of the pieces, Vijay would start, and then it would definitely be something that I'd think of how it's making me feel, and go from there. Is it a theme of spring? Is it a theme of longing? Is it a theme of super-absolute despair? Is it feeling like: should I take it to a more hopeful place? That kind of stuff was all going on there.
Vijay, can you describe your pianistic approach to this music, perhaps as opposed to other music you're involved with?
Iyer: You know, what I think I was able to do inside of the music was focus on unity rather than focus on standing out as a pianist. So, really, all the choices are compositional rather than playerly or musicianly. I'm really never trying to grandstand at all, or say, Check this out. It's never that.
It's always more like, How do we hold each other together, and how do we keep it moving, and how do we build it? How do we sculpt the totality of this? So, all the choices I make are about that. It's not about piano stuff or keyboard stuff.
Sometimes, having the piano, the Rhodes, and various electronic things I'm doing gives me an expanded palette — a certain way to think compositionally. Even if it's just setting a certain tempo using the delay pedal on the Rhodes, so that then I can just play one note and I'm still in the song somehow. The pattern is kind of in line with what else is happening with Shahzad or something.
So, [it's] that kind of thing, where it's really constructive decisions about how to strengthen what's already here. How to offer something that others can strengthen. It's that kind of thing.
I just listened to Love in Exile on a terrific sound system, and I felt the pulse of your bass so powerfully in my chest. In my last interview with Vijay, he was talking about the primacy of the pulse, and I imagine you all feel the same way.
Ismaily: So, Vijay and Arooj and I have certainly had a plethora of experiences in music outside of this trio — playing with other people, playing in other contexts. And then many of those things make their mark on us, and then we bring that sense of personage into this trio.
I remember quite early on, when I began to play with [guitarist] Marc Ribot and [drummer] Ches Smith in this trio that we had. Marc would often say, sometimes somewhat aggressively: "Listen: rubato does not mean there's no pulse. If you start to hear me play in a free, nontraditional, non-chord-changes, rhythmic way, it does not mean I'm not feeling a pulse underneath that.
Marc Ribot had a very anti-languid, or lack-of-tension feeling about ambient spaces. He felt like when something ambient is taking place, you still viscerally feel the heartbeat of a pulse within that. Whether or not you indicate it, whether you only play a drone, you still feel a sense of time and connection with a rhythmic undertone.
That's one thing that flows into my positioning in this group. So, as things are taking place and Vijay is making a beautiful landscape and Arooj comes in with a few words, I'm still feeling a pulse, and then I start to play from that — whether I'm indicating it quite strongly and giving some sort of 5/4 doot-do, doot-do, or whether I'm still playing much longer phrases, but feeling an internal pulse within that.
The second thing is that I want to give a little shout-out to Badawi — [multi-instrumentalist and composer] Raz Mesinai, who I played with. He would call me in to play bass with him and suggest that I play in a hypnotic way, so that you just felt like your consciousness was unfolding across the desert — unfolding across a limitless landscape of sand dune after sand dune. Which feels the same, but you still feel movement and the subtlety of change.
These two threads of exterior experiences to this trio make their presence known as I'm sitting and playing with Vijay and Arooj.
Photo: Ebru Yildiz
After these album and touring cycles wind down, are there any concrete plans to make this particular configuration a going concern? And as an addendum to that, what would you like to tell the readers about anything else you're excited to be working on in 2023 and beyond?
Ismaily: It's been interesting to be doing press these last few days, because I often spend time with Arooj and Vijay just performing on stage, and not with a great deal of frequency. Over the last few days, here I am in a room with them, listening to them speak, sharing company with them.
Whatever comes — it may take place, it may not take place. I can get hit by a bus, so who knows? But, internally to myself, I have that feeling. And because I have that feeling, I will probably request to look toward it, at least with my own eyes and my own time and my own voice and my hands.
There's this band, Ida, whose music I was absolutely in love with in the '90s when I was working on becoming and working as a musician. They went on a long hiatus, and it looks very much likely that they're going to make another record, and I will get to produce it or be a significant part of it with them. That's what I'm looking forward to outside of this trio.
Aftab: I'm really excited for the album to come out, and I'm excited to see people's reactions to it. We're going to go on the road a little bit this year, which is going to be great, and that will probably ascertain if we're going to keep doing this. It's really all about how we feel — if we're really into that for this particular project. No advanced decision-making here.
So, yeah, we're probably going to do one [more], or maybe we're never going to do one again. Who the f— knows, right? I love it. I think that's the vibe. There's no business model.
And since we are going to play a lot of these shows without writing down anything, there will be so much new material. So, we may as well put out 50 more albums after this tour.
Iyer: So we could be like the Dead?
Ismaily: Oh, let's get your Grateful Dead space where we just have a huge parking lot of crazy people all the time!
Aftab: And then, yeah, my boring answer that is everyone's answer is: yes, I'm working on a new record. My new album is supposed to come out in 2024. I just produced a short album for Anoushka Shankar, which is going to come out in the fall.
Iyer: I do have a couple of things that may or may not come out this year. We kind of have to figure out what's the best moment for those things to happen. One is a trio album with Tyshawn [Sorey] and Linda [May Han Oh]. I guess you could say the follow-up to Uneasy. It may come out at the end of this year, or beginning of next year sometime.
The other is that there's a recording of three different orchestral works that might come out sometime this summer, by Boston Modern Orchestra Project.
And then I have pieces I'm writing for different ensembles. A classical pianist named Shai Wosner — I'm writing a piece for him and a string orchestra. I'm doing a piece for Sō Percussion, and a piece for this pianist named Vicky Chow. And I wrote a cello concerto that got recorded that may come out sometime as well.
[As per the future of this trio,] I imagine that anytime we are invited somewhere and are able to do it, that we will rise to it. And I imagine that could happen at any point in the rest of our lives. That's the kind of guy I am.
Whether that means there's going to be a bunch more albums or zero more albums almost doesn't matter to me at this point. If there's more music that we cherish that we want to share with the world in that particular way and go through a similar cycle again, then that would make sense. But I think that we'll always have the capacity to come together and create. And so as long as that is nurtured, then I'm content, as far as that goes.
Vijay Iyer On His New Trio Album Uneasy, American Identity & Teaching Black American Music In The 21st Century
Photo: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Remembering Wayne Shorter: 7 Gateway Tracks From The Jazz Titan's 1960s Run
The pioneering composer and tenor and soprano saxophonist passed away on March 2. His influence and legacy spans decades and permutations of jazz, but for the uninitiated, here are seven highlights from his 1960s leader albums.
When the world learned of the pioneering saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter's death on March 2, it did so partly through a quote from the maestro itself: "It's time to go get a new body and come back to continue the mission."
This evocation of reincarnation not only speaks to Shorter's elaborate psychospiritual universe — he followed Nichiren Buddhism for half a century — but his multitudes as an artistic behemoth. In his 89-year life, Shorter irrevocably altered so many sectors of jazz and related forms that he seemed to inhabit many bodies at once.
To trace the 12-time GRAMMY winner's artistic evolution is to tell the story of the music as it evolved and propagated through the latter half of the 20th century. He was a member of two of the most crucial groups in jazz history: the brilliant, hotheaded drummer Art Blakey's unofficial jazz academy the Jazz Messengers and Miles Davis' so-called Second Great Quintet.
But even that's just the tip of the iceberg. After an astonishing run of leader albums on Blue Note — including all-timers like JuJu, Speak No Evil and The All Seeing Eye — Shorter formed Weather Report, a fundamental group in '70s and '80s jazz fusion. Along the way, he also collaborated with AOR legends — Joni Mitchell on a slew of mid-period records, and on the title track to Aja, Steely Dan.
In the 21st century, he continued hurtling forward as a composer, and work only seemed to grow more eclectic and multifarious, arguably culminating with (Iphigenia), an expansive opera co-created with bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding. At the 2023 GRAMMYs, he won Best Improvised Jazz Solo alongside pianist Leo Genovese for "Endangered Species," a cut on Live at the Detroit Jazz Festival, which also features Spalding and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington.
In 2015, the Recording Academy bestowed upon him a Lifetime Achievement Award. "Wayne Shorter's influence on the jazz community has left an indelible mark on the music industry," Harvey Mason jr., CEO of the Recording Academy, said in part. "It's been a privilege to celebrate his contributions to our culture throughout his incredible career."
As bandleader Darcy James Argue put it, "There isn't a jazz composer today who does not owe an absolutely immeasurable debt to Wayne Shorter. Whether you assimilated his harmonic language, or consciously rejected it, or tried to thread a path somewhere in between, his influence is as unavoidable as the elements."
But with this vast cosmology established, how can Shorter neophytes find their own way in? To traverse the universe of the self-dubbed Mr. Weird — from a line about person or thing X being “as weird as Wayne” — one need not enter it at random.
Arguably, the gateway is Shorter's aforementioned '60s run as a leader; from there, one can venture out in a dozen directions and be rewarded with a lifetime of cerebrality and majesty.
So, for those looking for a way in, here are seven essential tracks from that specific period and component of Shorter's culture-quaking legacy.
"Night Dreamer" (Night Dreamer, 1964)
Shorter was terrific as a leader from the jump, but he arguably came into his own with his fourth album under his own name, Night Dreamer. Much of this had to do with paring down his compositions to their haunting essence. "I used to see a lot of chord changes, for instance, but now I can separate the wheat from the chaff," Shorter said at the time.
Immerse yourself into the fittingly crepuscular title track, which Shorter crafted for a nighttime brood. "The minor keys often connotes evening or night to me," he wrote in the liner notes. "Although the beat does float, it also is set in a heavy groove. It's a paradox, in a way — like you'd have in a dream, something that's both light and heavy."
"Juju" (Juju, 1965)
Night Dreamer and Juju feature a rhythm section closely associated with John Coltrane — the classic Olé Coltrane one, composed of pianist McCoy Tyner, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Elvin Jones.
As a tenorist influenced by Coltrane, Shorter invited comparisons to his inspiration. But alongside Trane's accompanists, he had developed his own style — with the raw, unvarnished quality of said legend, but a barer tone and more elliptical sense of articulation. Juxtaposed against his accompanists' dazzling, shattered-glass approach, the side-eyeing Shorter is enchanting.
"House of Jade" (Juju, 1965)
After the rainshower of piano notes that initiates "House of Jade," Shorter demonstrates his inimitable way with a ballad, hung on Jones' weighty swing and sway. As jazz author and columnist Mark Stryker put it in an edifying Twitter thread compiling the best of Shorter at a gentler pace: "The ballads are everything. It's all there, now and forever."
"Indian Song" (Etcetera, rec. 1965 rel. 1980)
Featuring bassist Cecil McBee, drummer Joe Chambers, and harmonic mastermind Herbie Hancock — Shorter's lifelong ride-or-die — on piano, Etcetera was recorded the same year as Juju but remained on the shelf for a decade. Better late than never: it stands tall among Shorter's Blue Notes of its time.
All five tracks are fantastic — four Shorters, one Gil Evans, in "Barracudas (General Assembly)." But regarding its final track, "Indian Song," one reviewer might have hit the nail on the head: "At times the rest of the album seems like a warm-up for that amazing tune."
Across more than 11 minutes, "Indian Song" expands and retracts, inhales and exhales, on a spectral path into the unknown. Want an immediate example of how Shorter and Hancock twinned and intertwined their musical spirits to intoxicating effect? Look no further.
"Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum" (Speak No Evil, 1966)
As per compositional mastery, evocative interplay and plain old vibe, Speak No Evil represents something of an apogee for Shorter — and many in the know regard it as the crown jewel.
The majestic, mid-tempo "Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum" is just one highlight of this quintessential, classic-stuffed Blue Note. Hear how Hancock's elusive harmonic shades and Shorter's simple yet impassioned approach just gel — with support from trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Elvin Jones.
"Wayne isn't playing the changes, but plays around the composition—he's creative within the composition," saxophonist David Sanchez once explicated. "[It's] distinct from a lot of other Blue Note recordings of the period on which, generally speaking, people would improvise on the changes once the head or theme was over."
But you don't need to know what's under the hood to hear how this classic thrillingly pushes and pulls.
"Infant Eyes" (Speak No Evil, 1966)
"Infant Eyes" is a Shorter ballad of almost surreal atmosphere and beauty: on a compositional and emotional level, it's difficult to compare it to much else. It's "doom jazz" decades before that was ever a thing.
Down to Shorter's sheer note choices and the grain of his tone, "Infant Eyes" will make your heart leap into your throat. As per Stryker's Twitter litany of enchanting Shorter ballads, the combination is stiff — but if one is supreme, it's difficult to not pick this one.
"Footprints" (Adam's Apple, 1967)
This loping waltz-not-waltz from 1967's Adam's Apple is one of Shorter's most well-known tunes; even without close analysis of its sneaky rhythms, it's downright irresistible. And talk about gateways: it's a launchpad for any young musician who wants to give his tunes a shot.
"Footprints" continues to be a standard; it titled his biography; the Facebook post announcing Shorter's death bore footprint emojis. Shorter may have transitioned from this body, but his impressions are everywhere — and we'll never see the likes of Mr. Weird again.
No Accreditation? No Problem! 10 Potential Routes To Get Into Jazz As A Beginner
Photo: Rachel Kupfer
A Guide To Modern Funk For The Dance Floor: L'Imperatrice, Shiro Schwarz, Franc Moody, Say She She & Moniquea
James Brown changed the sound of popular music when he found the power of the one and unleashed the funk with "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag." Today, funk lives on in many forms, including these exciting bands from across the world.
It's rare that a genre can be traced back to a single artist or group, but for funk, that was James Brown. The Godfather of Soul coined the phrase and style of playing known as "on the one," where the first downbeat is emphasized, instead of the typical second and fourth beats in pop, soul and other styles. As David Cheal eloquently explains, playing on the one "left space for phrases and riffs, often syncopated around the beat, creating an intricate, interlocking grid which could go on and on." You know a funky bassline when you hear it; its fat chords beg your body to get up and groove.
Brown's 1965 classic, "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," became one of the first funk hits, and has been endlessly sampled and covered over the years, along with his other groovy tracks. Of course, many other funk acts followed in the '60s, and the genre thrived in the '70s and '80s as the disco craze came and went, and the originators of hip-hop and house music created new music from funk and disco's strong, flexible bones built for dancing.
Legendary funk bassist Bootsy Collins learned the power of the one from playing in Brown's band, and brought it to George Clinton, who created P-funk, an expansive, Afrofuturistic, psychedelic exploration of funk with his various bands and projects, including Parliament-Funkadelic. Both Collins and Clinton remain active and funkin', and have offered their timeless grooves to collabs with younger artists, including Kali Uchis, Silk Sonic, and Omar Apollo; and Kendrick Lamar, Flying Lotus, and Thundercat, respectively.
In the 1980s, electro-funk was born when artists like Afrika Bambaataa, Man Parrish, and Egyptian Lover began making futuristic beats with the Roland TR-808 drum machine — often with robotic vocals distorted through a talk box. A key distinguishing factor of electro-funk is a de-emphasis on vocals, with more phrases than choruses and verses. The sound influenced contemporaneous hip-hop, funk and electronica, along with acts around the globe, while current acts like Chromeo, DJ Stingray, and even Egyptian Lover himself keep electro-funk alive and well.
Today, funk lives in many places, with its heavy bass and syncopated grooves finding way into many nooks and crannies of music. There's nu-disco and boogie funk, nodding back to disco bands with soaring vocals and dance floor-designed instrumentation. G-funk continues to influence Los Angeles hip-hop, with innovative artists like Dam-Funk and Channel Tres bringing the funk and G-funk, into electro territory. Funk and disco-centered '70s revival is definitely having a moment, with acts like Ghost Funk Orchestra and Parcels, while its sparkly sprinklings can be heard in pop from Dua Lipa, Doja Cat, and, in full "Soul Train" character, Silk Sonic. There are also acts making dreamy, atmospheric music with a solid dose of funk, such as Khruangbin’s global sonic collage.
There are many bands that play heavily with funk, creating lush grooves designed to get you moving. Read on for a taste of five current modern funk and nu-disco artists making band-led uptempo funk built for the dance floor. Be sure to press play on the Spotify playlist above, and check out GRAMMY.com's playlist on Apple Music, Amazon Music and Pandora.
Say She She
Aptly self-described as "discodelic soul," Brooklyn-based seven-piece Say She She make dreamy, operatic funk, led by singer-songwriters Nya Gazelle Brown, Piya Malik and Sabrina Mileo Cunningham. Their '70s girl group-inspired vocal harmonies echo, sooth and enchant as they cover poignant topics with feminist flair.
While they’ve been active in the New York scene for a few years, they’ve gained wider acclaim for the irresistible music they began releasing this year, including their debut album, Prism. Their 2022 debut single "Forget Me Not" is an ode to ground-breaking New York art collective Guerilla Girls, and "Norma" is their protest anthem in response to the news that Roe vs. Wade could be (and was) overturned. The band name is a nod to funk legend Nile Rodgers, from the "Le freak, c'est chi" exclamation in Chic's legendary tune "Le Freak."
Moniquea's unique voice oozes confidence, yet invites you in to dance with her to the super funky boogie rhythms. The Pasadena, California artist was raised on funk music; her mom was in a cover band that would play classics like Aretha Franklin’s "Get It Right" and Gladys Knight’s "Love Overboard." Moniquea released her first boogie funk track at 20 and, in 2011, met local producer XL Middelton — a bonafide purveyor of funk. She's been a star artist on his MoFunk Records ever since, and they've collabed on countless tracks, channeling West Coast energy with a heavy dose of G-funk, sunny lyrics and upbeat, roller disco-ready rhythms.
Her latest release is an upbeat nod to classic West Coast funk, produced by Middleton, and follows her February 2022 groovy, collab-filled album, On Repeat.
Shiro Schwarz is a Mexico City-based duo, consisting of Pammela Rojas and Rafael Marfil, who helped establish a modern funk scene in the richly creative Mexican metropolis. On "Electrify" — originally released in 2016 on Fat Beats Records and reissued in 2021 by MoFunk — Shiro Schwarz's vocals playfully contrast each other, floating over an insistent, upbeat bassline and an '80s throwback electro-funk rhythm with synth flourishes.
Their music manages to be both nostalgic and futuristic — and impossible to sit still to. 2021 single "Be Kind" is sweet, mellow and groovy, perfect chic lounge funk. Shiro Schwarz’s latest track, the joyfully nostalgic "Hey DJ," is a collab with funkstress Saucy Lady and U-Key.
L'Impératrice (the empress in French) are a six-piece Parisian group serving an infectiously joyful blend of French pop, nu-disco, funk and psychedelia. Flore Benguigui's vocals are light and dreamy, yet commanding of your attention, while lyrics have a feminist touch.
During their energetic live sets, L'Impératrice members Charles de Boisseguin and Hagni Gwon (keys), David Gaugué (bass), Achille Trocellier (guitar), and Tom Daveau (drums) deliver extended instrumental jam sessions to expand and connect their music. Gaugué emphasizes the thick funky bass, and Benguigui jumps around the stage while sounding like an angel. L’Impératrice’s latest album, 2021’s Tako Tsubo, is a sunny, playful French disco journey.
Franc Moody's bio fittingly describes their music as "a soul funk and cosmic disco sound." The London outfit was birthed by friends Ned Franc and Jon Moody in the early 2010s, when they were living together and throwing parties in North London's warehouse scene. In 2017, the group grew to six members, including singer and multi-instrumentalist Amber-Simone.
Their music feels at home with other electro-pop bands like fellow Londoners Jungle and Aussie act Parcels. While much of it is upbeat and euphoric, Franc Moody also dips into the more chilled, dreamy realm, such as the vibey, sultry title track from their recently released Into the Ether.
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