Dirrty Jazz

“That’s how music should sound,” opines Dizzy Gillespie just 22 seconds into Back to Basics, the new RCA album by Christina Aguilera. It’s a gracious endorsement, except of course for the fact that Dizzy died in 1993, when Christina was all of 12 years old, and he uttered the words with something else in mind. Not that it matters much: There’s no mention of Gillespie in the glossy Back to Basics booklet, nor any acknowledgment that he’s been drafted into pop’s latest campaign to bask in the prestige of jazz’s golden age.

Yet Aguilera wants us to know how sincere she is about honoring people like Diz. “The jazz makers and the groundbreakers, they gave so much of themselves in dedication,” she marvels, alluding to a “higher generation” in a way that doesn’t seem to imply narcotics. On the album’s title track, she promises to “rewind to another time, when the originators, innovators were alive,” and urges, in an unreasonably catchy chorus:

So break out the Marvin Gaye and Etta James

Your Lady Day, and Coltrane

Turn up your 45s, bring back to life

The sound and vibe of yesterday

Open your mind, enjoy the ride,

Get out tonight and grab that Soul Train

Hopefully Aguilera is aware that one of her name-checked originators, Etta James, is very much alive, still raising roofs and pulse rates. (It was with one of Etta’s hits, “A Sunday Kind of Love,” that Christina competed on Star Search in 1990.) The former Mousketeer is no stranger to dressing up for jazz, having appeared on Herbie Hancock’s album Possibilities, and then onstage with the pianist at this year’s Grammy Awards.

But she sounds a lot better when she’s giving shout-outs to jazz legends than when she’s attempting to emulate them. Back to Basics is a double-disc release, and the first one was smartly produced by DJ Premier, a legend of 1990s hip-hop; it’s a tight, terse affair that drives Aguilera to do what she does best, and better than anyone else in her peer group. The second disc features production by Linda Perry, a less glorious ’90s relic who has become an industry powerhouse. You’d be charitable to call it a steaming mess.

“Candyman,” a single from the Perry side, attempts to spike wartime swing with modern innuendo, and ends up with the toxic offspring of the Andrews Sisters and Howard Stern. (“He’s a one-stop shop, makes the panties drop,” Aguilera belted in August on Good Morning, America, clad in a stripper’s version of navy dress.) And the next track on the album, “Nasty Naughty Boy,” is arguably worse. “I’m gonna give you a little taste of the sugar below my waist,” Aguilera purrs, against the blare of plunger-muted horns. She sounds a lot like Jessica Rabbit, which is better than Jessica Simpson, but not by much. Or perhaps she’s impersonating Queen Latifah’s campy, Oscar-nominated performance in Chicago.

The Broadway production of that Kander and Ebb musical recently bade reluctant farewell to Usher, its latest Billy Flynn. The R&B heartthrob, whose given name is Usher Raymond IV, was booked in Chicago for six weeks but extended another two amid phenomenal sales and not-terrible reviews. (The day after his premiere, the show posted $200,000 in ticket revenues, a figure five times higher than usual.) Though not much of an actor, Usher nailed the Bob Fosse choreography, some of which he had learned from his godfather, Ben Vereen. “I was always wanting him to do stage work, from the beginning,” Vereen told the New York Times in an article about Usher’s debut. “You plant the seed, and it does grow, and eventually it calls them home.”

By “them,” Vereen might also have been referring to André Benjamin and Antwan Patton, known respectively as André 3000 and Big Boi, or collectively as OutKast. Vereen coached the Atlanta hip-hop duo on Depression-era entertainment protocol during the making of their movie Idlewild, which is set in a Georgia speakeasy. The film is an odd spectacle of anachro-nostalgia that opens with the image of a wind-up Victrola and a spinning vinyl platter, and then plays fast and free with musical styles. The instrumental score by John Debney features swishing hi-hats and Arturo Sandoval trumpet solos, but the featured songs are pure OutKast, which is to say a sour mash of Southern hip-hop, George Clinton’s funk and Prince’s slinky soul. In the first onscreen musical number, Macy Gray performs in a cleavage-baring red dress while burlesque girls writhe and bottles fly.

The plot, if that’s what you want to call it, involves the redemption of Patton (as Rooster, the speakeasy’s owner and, um, rapper) and the awakening of Benjamin (as Percival, the piano-playing son of a mortician portrayed by Vereen). There’s a passing reference to Jelly Roll Morton, lots of pleats and pinstripes, and some dazzling choreography. But as with Christina’s “For the Boys” moment, the actual contact with jazz is tenuous at best. OutKast’s new album Idlewild, timed to coincide with the film, opens with Cab Calloway’s “Hi-de-ho” tagline, but that’s about as far as it goes.

For most of us, this hoopla delivers roughly the same nutritional value as a can of Pepsi Jazz, the most literal example of jazz and pop commingling in recent months. (How does it taste? Find out for yourself—there are some things even a jazz critic won’t do.) Despite the fizz, it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’ve seen and heard it all before. DJ Premier, as you may recall, worked with Guru on one of his Jazzmatazz albums, at roughly the same time that Robert Altman made Kansas City and US3 had a Top 10 hit with “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia).”

Oh, and that Dizzy quote? In 1995 it appeared on the quip-tastic intro to Quincy Jones’ album Q’s Jook Joint, along with samples of James Moody, Sarah Vaughan and, for good measure, Shaquille O’Neal. One of the other snippets in that collage comes from the saxophonist Lester Young. “I talk nasty, you know,” he says. Christina would be proud.

Originally published in November 2006

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