WHAT IS JAZZ? - AN EVENING OF ANSWERS

Words and Images by Jake Krolick

What Is Jazz? :: 09.21.05 :: World Cafe Live :: Philadelphia, PA


DJ Logic :: 09.21.05 :: World Cafe Live
What is Jazz? How do you answer that question? It sits there with so many correct possibilities that it numbs the mind. Jazz has a soul that thrives where the night begins. It is a language with its own words, an art with its own mediums. If jazz was born on "The Street," as in 52nd Street in New York City, then it grew up in New Orleans. You could easily reverse that, but each area teems with rich history. Over the months leading up to this performance, that question sloshed around my brain.

The "What is Jazz?" series is the brainchild of ropeadope and Blue Note Records. Andy Hurwitz (President of ropeadope) and I had a quick back-and-forth about the series before the opening night. Here is Andy on how the project began, "We've been collaborating a lot with Blue Note; we do their clothing and we just really enjoy working with them. We were looking for an excuse to throw some parties together, and I came up with this concept - throwing a bunch of jazz-influenced folks together in the name of jazz."

We descended the stairs into the cavernous World Cafe Live to join a packed room of students, jazz lovers, and musical explorers. Jneiro Jarel cranked the RPM on his turntable as he wound together the evening's sets. He sent us out into a world filled with Blue Note's vast array of performers. This journey was the warm-up for our brain and ears. Jazz can be a tough beast. It can allow your mind wander to unexplored realms of which you were not aware, or it can send your ears into shock so that they tingle with joy. Much of the house was there to see the two jazz piano heavyweights - Jason Moran and Uri Caine. It was wise to place the two on stage early in the evening. It let a gorgeous transitional flow of jazz float the evening along.

Uri Caine and Jason Moran - A Piano Duel/Dualism

Andy on the color(s) and shapes he visualizes when listening to jazz:
"...I tend to picture hues of purple, actually purple circles."


Moran & Caine :: 09.21.05 :: World Cafe Live
This was where our jazz trip began. We flipped the history book open at some past day in jazz history, yet instead of a smoky basement, packed and hot, we were in a state-of-the-art music facility. Jason Moran is a leading pianist in modern jazz. He emerged onto the music scene in the late '90s with his outfit, The Bandwagon. He pushed boundaries with technical experimentation yet held roots in traditionalist jazz theory. While Jason played you could hear years of experiences both physical and cultural merging in his sound. Jason sent his delicate fingers out over the ivory keys in fluid, methodical movements. Each key strike was a precise hit, sending sound directly to its target. His captivating tone brought a sort of clarity to the evening. Across from him sat Uri Caine, the yang to Jason's ying. Uri is a Philadelphia native who has combined sounds of classical pianists with avant-garde jazz. He has played with everyone from Bill Frisell to The Pennsylvania Ballet.

Uri's curly hair and wild style beautifully balanced the smooth cool movements of Jason. The two played in a call-and-response, improvisational style with no holds barred. Uri played sporadic, emotional, and wild. Jason played with soft fingers, driving the music with a grace that one might call feminine. Uri used a deliberate force and aggression that kept his whole body in motion. Fingers, palms, and forearms smashed at the keys. Uri fascinated us as he teased classical works in pounding emotional tirades. Jason sampled and looped notes for minutes on end, creating percussive rhythm, only to let it fade away into deep low tones. Some exchanges were lightning fast while others were so soft no one dared to stir a drink. The jazz piano that flowed from these two held a precise emotional realism within its notes. We applauded the musicians as they addressed the crowd. The two embraced warmly as Uri exclaimed, "Yes we are lovers. We are lovers of the same craft."


Alan Hampton :: 09.21.05 :: World Cafe Live

John Ellis Quartet: Instruments As An Extension Of One's Mind

Andy Hurwitz on newest/youngest influential jazz musicians:
"Robert Glasper, Adam Dorn, Marco Benevento, Grimace Federation, and John Ellis."


Ellis & Hampton :: 09.21.05
John Ellis stood front-and-center, wearing a sport coat over a RENew Orleans tee. His heart and sound ooze New Orleans, but John has played all over the world. John was born in North Carolina and has played with the likes of Charlie Hunter, Jason Marsalis, Walter Payton, and Roland Guerin. He and his quartet didn't just dip their feet in the wash; they dove head-first into "Happy," the first of three songs off of the 2005 release One Foot in the Swamp. John started on a worn tenor sax creating music with a be-bop style reminiscent of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. The music offered exchanges that shot out as a musical conversation.

Aaron Goldberg joined on piano in the exchange. He was spirited, and his playing brought danceability as the crowd started to shuffle and move. John frequently ducked back out of the spotlight to let Aaron and his bass player Alan Hampton shine. Alan plucked the strings of his stand-up bass with an experimental rhythm similar to Charlie Mingus. The two bounced sound around the room in a jazzy stew. Before "Bonus Round," John told us that the song was for all of us who have played far too many video games. His quartet leapt into a spacey, tenor sax-driven sonic jam creating feelings of euphoria. John switched from the opening tenor reflection to a soprano sax for the end of "Country Girls." All the instruments have purpose for him as if each instrument was an extension of his hand, voice, and mind. He told us that "Country Girls" was for the ladies in North Carolina with the Jell-O salad. Where it was demanding on some listeners to pick apart Jason Moran and Uri Caine's melody and rhythm, the quintet brought ease. They finished with a nod to jazz's history. Sounds of a funeral march from moss-covered cemeteries echoed from John's sax - a sort of "Saints Go Marching" meets John Coltrane kind of groove. The jam grew, pulling in snippets of Thelonious Monk's "Round about Midnight." The performance fused the set together, and we were left with soaring impressions of John Ellis's selfless grace.


Jamaaladeen Tacuma :: 09.21.05 :: World Cafe Live

Jamaaladeen Tacuma with Calvin Weston and DJ Logic – Free Funk For All

Andy Hurwitz on what jazz means to him:
"It's improvisation, true artistic integrity, and more than anything ART, art that transcends music."


Tacuma & Logic :: 09.21.05 :: World Cafe Live
Jamaaladeen Tacuma is an Earth-shaking, mind blowing, free funk bassist. "The Boss of the Electric Bass" is one incredibly soulful musical spiritualist. He emerged out of Philadelphia and onto the world scene in the mid-'70s with Ornette Coleman's Prime Time. Wednesday, he joined Calvin Weston and DJ Logic to combine funky rhythms with free jazz to blow the minds of our thinning numbers. Jamaaladeen wore bright red sneakers and a "funk this" tee. His gray hair had no effect on his jumping around. His energy was contagious as we all pushed toward the stage. The set's emphasis was clearly on Tacuma's heavy bass lines. He slapped the bass laying down the bottom groove that had more then a few in an uncontrollable head bob and shake. It's no wonder why groups like The Roots and tonight's DJ's Logic and Jneiro Jarel want to work with him. He is one of the funkiest deep pocket-holding players around.


Jneiro Jarel :: 09.21.05 :: World Cafe Live
Their set touched upon the work Jamaaladeen played on the classic record with James Blood Ulmer - Tales of Captain Black and his Adventures in Black Rock. He recently explored this with Calvin Weston, which would explain the evening's line-up. Jamaaladeen and crew laid it down for almost an hour, enjoying the interplay as they went. Over the bass you would catch the cries and screams of Weston as he smashed the kit. Calvin had flavors of Art Blakey mixed with blues singer Odetta as his barked-out shouts added a wild spice to the evening. His toned-down kit allowed the bass to really take charge, freeing Jamaaladeen to soar grandly into the high register and to carry melodies with his bass as well as shaking the monstrous bottom. DJ Logic scratched and sampled over the continuous groove. His back-seat precision was the adhesive holding the bass and drum together. More then once Jamaaladeen made his way over to Logic and smiled wide as he danced to the spinning grooves. The crowd collectively smiled and danced back as the funky sound refused to let up. Andy Hurwitz remarked, "How can these three not be a band already?" That sentiment was heavy in the air as more than one person inquired about when they play again. Over the last few years, Jamaaladeen's following has been primarily overseas. It was a real treat to witness the trio and to see a bassist who could really knock out the groove and carry the thunder.

The Balkan Beat Box (BBB) - Hoodwinked With Music

Andy on traditional jazz:
"I think traditional jazz is heading towards the musical old-aged home, right next to classical music. However, its spirit, influences, and teachings have led into every style/trend we have now - from jambands to dance music."


Balkan Beat Box :: 09.21.05
The BBB's debut self-titled album hit stores a day earlier, so Wednesday was a pseudo album release party. BBB mixed their music with hip-hop, electronica, folk, and a serious gangsta-lean towards the flavors of the Middle East. It would appear that their label Jdub sits well with the world music powers. It was getting late, and we were ready for the last act when Tamir Muskat, one of the founding members of the Balkan Beat Box, announced that his band would be delayed. They just had to sort out some technical issues. BBB slipped off the side stage and proceeded to sneak out the back door around to the lobby. There, they donned pig masks a la Les Claypool. With a heave they jacked open the front bar doors and sent out a few blasts from the trombone. We had no idea what had hit us; it appeared as though we were experiencing some sort of musical raid. There were no technical difficulties this evening. The Balkan Beat Box (BBB) had just hoodwinked us. After a quick horn-led march through the center of the floor, the BBB let their eclectic gypsy folk jazz swirl around us. They went directly into songs off their new self-titled album, a sort of broken down "Cha-Cha" into "Bulgarian Chicks." Their sound incorporated sax and trombone-driven songs that were anchored with a rough snare drum and a mix of electronic samples and turntables. In between it all, a screaming guitar and bass fought for a voice. The BBB came ready to perform more than just music. They brought a spirit and an energy that couldn't be contained. Ori Kaplan, the other founding member of BBB, said that their goal was to make each show highly danceable "semi-circuses." The more they danced on stage, the more the spirit of the Israeli/Middle Eastern fusion burned up the dance floor, laying waste to our legs. The musicians were even able to summon nods to Charlie Parker although they fall pretty far outside the jazz lines.


Balkan Beat Box :: 09.21.05 :: World Cafe Live
Their name - Balkan Beat Box - was fitting since they scurried around the edges of Eastern European sounds similar to Gogol Bordello's gypsy punk. It's not surprising that the leader, Ori Kaplan, is an ex-Gogol Bordello member. The band included a worldly mix of New Yorkers, Israelis, Africans, and Bulgarians. The Balkan Beat Box may possibly be more accepted as full-out party music without seeming foreign on any continent.

Jazz is a living testament to the creative power in people. The evening was a great look at jazz in many different forms. It was truly a passage from the complex styles of Jason Moran and Uri Caine to the hard-driving bass of Jamaaladeen Tacoma. Jazz covers a huge spectrum. The evening's performances offered a perfect arching narrative, a curve of jazz's history and future. The longer we followed that curve, the more we experienced jazz's tremendous reach. How does jazz fit in your life? What is jazz to you? What is jazz?

JamBase | Philadelphia
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[Published on: 10/4/05]

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