Words by: Alex Borsody | Images by: Robert Chapman
The Roots :: 07.08.09 :: Highline Ballroom :: New York, NY
The line stretched down the block, people of all ages waiting to enter NYC's Highline Ballroom for "The Roots Present the Jam Produced by Jill Newman Productions." Even though it was a Wednesday night, this and every other Jam was sold out. The floral smell inside gave new meaning to the phrase "high art," and there was nothing but positive vibrations throughout the night. The Roots' emcee Black Thought referred to this weekly event as the "the 10 dolla bill show." This recession special, combined with the high level of quality control that everyone involved brought made for a really interesting and fun time. The night was a session musician/producer convention, a who's who of the jazz and funk world as well as an anti-pop consortium; a chance to see the musicians behind some of your favorite songs, names you can find in the fine print liner notes of many different albums.
|Black Thought :: 07.08|
The horn section included contemporary jazz greats such as Teodross Avery (sax), Maurice Brown (trumpet), Ingmar Thomas (sax) and Corey King (trombone), who are some of the most respected brass players in music right now. The night was a veritable education in the contemporary NYC experimental jazz and hip-hop scene, including cellist Dana Leong, which overlaps at times with the music of true artists such as Marley Marl, Common and, of course, The Roots. Previous guests include members of the hip-hop collective The Soulquarians, Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Q-Tip. The Soulquarians also include The Roots drummer ?uestlove and are responsible for taking hip-hop music off the beaten path into funkier, so called "conscious" territory. Others to drop in have included Vernon Reid, festival regulars Antibalas, MOP, Estelle and Grand Puba. From a different side of music past guests like Dee Dee Bridgewater, Andy Bey, David Murray, Craig Harris and Patmore Lewis have appeared.
The show started out simply, with a slow jam on a couple of chords. I thought to myself, "I guess this must be why they call it the jam." My fatalistic side was quickly shattered as the night progressed with a seemingly never-ending cast of characters and musical surprises. At one point on the stage were Roots members Black Thought on the mic, ?uestlove on drums, Cap'n Kirk on guitar, Owen Biddle on bass and James Poyser on keys. Biddle began playing what sounded like the bass line to Mobb Deep's "Quiet Storm," evoking the synergy between hip-hop and jazz, which The Roots pioneered. The bass notes seem so simple, but mimicking the tone and rhythm of a hip-hop beat machine on live instruments is difficult. After jamming for a bit, things began to take off as Reverend Vince Anderson took the lead on keys and vocals. The Reverend plays every Monday at Union Pool, serving as a shining light in the darkness that is Williamsburg. Anderson has a soulful, Southern, dirty gospel style that really drew an interesting contrast to the jazz and hip-hop that dominated the night. The horn section kicked in and things were on for the rest of the evening. Mazz Swift got on the stage throwing in some variety on violin, and Philadelphia rapper Truck North, who appeared on The Roots album Rising Down, collaborated with Black Thought on vocals. Later on Craig G also took up the mic, rapping on subjects more varied than what is on the radio, not limiting himself to violence, cars and clothes. Craig G has worked with one of the funkiest and most unique producers in hip-hop, DJ Marley Marl. I remember growing up in the mid '90s when Marley Marl made beats that sounded like no other, every single one a funky jewel, and they were unique to everything else at the time.
|Cap'n Kirk & ?uestlove :: 07.08|
This was all great music, but the real fun started when an original and even strange group came on stage calling themselves The Brown Girls Burlesque. This group identified themselves as cabaret, specifically representing women of color. They got almost naked and sang some good songs. The group exuded a confidence that overshadowed the fact that they did not live up to current body image ideals. This off-beat performance definitely sent waves of humor, shock and fun through the crowd and lightened things up.
|The Brown Girls Burlesque :: 07.08|
As the funky circus kept going strong, Tiombe Lockhart took to the stage. Lockhart is a beautiful, charismatic woman who knows how to move and captivate the audience. Her voice was good, but I could not help but sense that there was a strong desire to emulate Santigold. Lockhart turned to ?uestlove and asked for "four to the floor" (beats used in disco and electro). Clearly she wanted that electronic "cool" sound, which many jazz drummers just don't mess around with. After trying to steer the band in an electro direction to no avail, you could tell she was a little frustrated. Regardless, she rolled with the music well enough, adding powerful, confident vocals. I would love to see her do her thing with her own band backing her. A female guitarist Jane Getter joined the crew for this jam and played some solid rhythm and interesting solos.
I lost track of the keyboardists, as there were four of them constantly changing it up. In addition to Anderson and Poyser, there was
Robert Glasper of Blue Note Records and Adam Holzman of
Miles Davis fame. These keyboardists are respected studio musicians and songwriters who are behind many well known songs, instrumentals and hooks.
|The Roots Present the Jam :: 07.08|
As the night turned into day, things were mixed up further with a massive drum collaboration led by ?uestlove including Dana Hawkins and Chris Daddy Dave. Hawkins is a young, energetic musician who together with Daddy Dave reached virtuoso levels on the kit. Other artists that dropped in this night were guitarists Mark Whitfield and Binky Griptite of Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings.
The evening closed out in grand style with two Jackson 5 covers, "I Want You Back" and "I'll Be There." It was a suitable pick for these serious musicians to dig back to Michael's Motown roots, where bass players like James Jamerson broke conventions exploring different rhythmic styles which paved the way for funk and hip-hop. These were some of the best times in music and despite what happened to Michael later in life, he was there when it all started. "I Want You Back" has one of the most unique and memorable bass lines in music and was held down by Louis Cato (Eric Krasno and Chapter 2). These two songs were a perfect way to close a night that celebrated soulful, unique, forward-thinking musical virtuosity.
For more on The Roots check our recent feature/interview here. Roots tour dates available here.
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