If any of this material feels like pastiche, it is nevertheless very well done. There is just enough hip-hop to keep things grounded: the breaks at the start of “Freedom” have a pedigree that goes back to Mantronix. The attention to period texture is particularly refreshing, given the tide of neo-jazz schlock that is increasingly upon us: Riaan Volsoo’s bass is recorded with a wonderfully acoustic rattle and throb; Kelsey Jones’s trumpet and Jon Shenoy’s sax have a up-close spittle to match the density of the arrangements. Above all, the tracks themselves have a purpose that is typically missing from the worthiness of hard-bop revivalism or the meandering of jazz-influenced hip-hop. This is a solid meal, even if you can still pick out the ingredients.
The music… lacks the outcroppings to enable—let alone reward—serious listening.
If this is not merely the result of lack of imagination, or the triumph of marketing taste over musical inspiration, it is presumably drawn from the po-faced introspection of cool jazz—of Gerry Mulligan, Art Pepper, Stan Getz and, above all, Chet Baker. The stance that these artists took in the 1950s, apparently shunning overt artistic creation and concentrating on the smallest inflections in the performance of winsome ballads, has dominated much of the popular imagery of jazz ever since.
Unfortunately it suffers badly out of context: in the 1950s, their attitude bespoke a turning away from the materialism and conformity emerging as mainstays of American culture—not to mention a revulsion at mainstream acquiescence in the inequalities of post-war racial and cultural politics. The cool movement’s suave wounded romanticism was deliberately counterfeit; a tool to suggest how deeply felt was their ostracism from mainstream life. It was a cue taken up by the Beat movement, inspiring much of the cultural radicalism of the following decades.
Shorter’s compositions for Davis took the raw ingredients of hard bop and stretched them out, exploring the modal space that Davis had outlined a few years earlier in Kind of Blue. Shorter’s surprising, angular melodies had a singular and unpredictable beauty. Floating above chords arranged into glistening, half-seen shapes, they sketched out logical figures that tailed off into fluid emotional whimsy. At other times they cut deep into the logical bedding of the music, bringing light to unseen corners. Coltrane proceeded via exhaustion and explosion, never letting any musical or emotional wall remain standing; Shorter and Davis preferred the scalpel.
… or, at least, for fans of the piano samples.
Cam’s 1996 Substances opens with a sample from Gang Starr’s “Mass Appeal”, and proceeds through a range of faux-Mid-Eastern stylings, toned-down drum ‘n’ bass moments and Interview With A Vampire excerpts.
But it’s the jazz piano samples that dominate the album.
More specifically, it’s the sound of Herbie Hancock and Mccoy Tyner adapting the idioms of bebop piano to the restless development of Wayne Shorter, Miles Davis and — in the case of Tyner — John Coltrane.
“Friends and Enemies”, the opening track, is built around a wistful McCoy Tyner introduction. A range of samples follow throughout the album, all pervaded by an air of autumnal melancholy. They are often cut across the beat so that the soft drumwork is brought to the front like light rain.
There’s a tendency to underestimate the importance of Hancock and Tyner in Davis’ mid-sixties quintet and Coltrane’s quartet. Certainly the firebrand drummers — Tony Williams and Elvin Jones — have always received a great deal of attention, as has Ron Carter’s amazing prolificacy. Richard Cook and Brian Morton have suggested that, by the mid-sixties, Hancock “may also, as McCoy Tyner was to do at almost exactly the same time, have realized that he was to some extent external to the real drama of this extraordinary music.”
But it’s hard to fault the artistic approaches taken by either pianist. Tyner’s willowy romanticism is the perfect foil to Coltrane’s sometimes impatient — and logically exhaustive — bluster. Hancock’s wide, open voicings create the perfect space for Davis’ quick probings, not to mention Shorter’s angular melodies and feather-light nostalgia. The crispness of Hancock’s timing offsets the tendency of both Shorter and Davis to whimsical meandering, and unerringly finds the kinks in the meter that provide a bridge between Carter and William on the one hand, Davis and Shorter on the other.
What’s more, the feeling that Hancock could be “diffident and detached” (as Cook and Morton put it) is exactly the feeling of disconnect that lends itself to the emotional piquancy of the jazz of this period.
There’s more to it than that, of course. While the compositions became ever more sparse and mercurial, Hancock and Tyner were obliged to provide a harmonic outline, and therefore to remain to some extent within a traditional bebop vocabulary. With the piano recorded in pristine accuracy at the front of the mix, the result is some of the essential restlessness (and glittering isolation) that inhabits this music.
There are countless recordings on which to hear Hancock and Tyner reinventing jazz piano in this period, any of which might have been sampled by Cam to much the same effect. Coltrane’s Crescent (1964) is the obvious choice for Tyner, since “Wise One” is the basis of the track which opens Substances and returns later. Crescent is often seen as a dark sister of A Love Supreme, recorded six months later, though it remains far more accessible to the newcomer. There’s certainly something uncompromising about “Crescent”, a bleakness at the edges. But it is offset by an implicit optimism that emerges from the lonely balladry of “Wise One” and “Lonnie’s Lament”, much of it down to Tyner’s playing. “The Drum Thing”, despite Tyner’s absense and a centreless theme from Coltrane, retains a balmy warmth that buoys Jones’ playing.
Apparently the album was recorded in fraught circumstances, though no one appears to know what they were. Cook and Morton speculate some erratic behaviour on Jones’ part. In any case, a master tape containing longer versions of “Crescent” and “Bessie’s Blues” was at some stage destroyed.
Coltrane’s ferocious restlessness means that the sustained languid melancholy of Crescent is something of a one-off. Yet the serious of albums Coltrane recorded for Impulse in 1962-63, when he was recovering from painful dental problems, have some of the same qualities, in particular Ballads (1962).
Both Hancock and Tyner appeared on the extraordinary run of albums that Wayne Shorter headlined for Blue Note between 1964 and 1967. Of these, Adam’s Apple probably offers the best mix of quality compositions and accessibility. It certainly has its fair share of drifting melancholy — the bleary-eyed cool of “502 Blues (Drinkin’ And Drivin’)”, Shorter’s tone piquant but noncommittal; the gorgeous modal classic “Footprints”. And “Teru”, which is one of Shorter’s perfect ballads, its accents always falling at unexpected moments and seeming heartbreakingly throwaway.
Beyond the swaying lock of “Footprints”, the album also delivers its share of funk. The title track bolsters Shorter’s laid-back sidewinding theme with one of Hancock’s tightly rolling piano riffs. On “El Gaucho”, Joe Chambers’ crisp rim-shots keep balance between the opening phrases and the cooler bridge. Adam’s Apple is probably Shorter’s most well-rounded album of the period, if not (quite) the best.
The core Davis studio albums in this period are E.S.P. (1965), Miles Smiles (1966), Sorcerer and Nefertiti (both 1967). Hancock’s playing on the live album that immediately preceded Shorter’s joining the group (issued in various combinations as My Funny Valentine, Four & More, and The Complete Concert, 1964), and on his own extraordinary Maiden Voyage has the same desolate yet nostalgic qualities.
For more of the same from DJ Cam, check out 1995’s Underground Vibes, issued as part of the Mad Blunted Jazz double-CD set. This year’s Liquid Hip-Hop is said to be a return to the same territory. He is apparently at work Substances Two.
DJ Cam, Substances
(Inflammable Records, 1996)
John Coltrane, Crescent
Wayne Shorter, Adam’s Apple
(Blue Note, 1966)