January/February 2009

Revive Da Live: Put Your Horns Up

Last November at (Le) Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village, bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding could be heard freestyling with an unlikely collaborator: Jeru the Damaja, one of the best underground rappers of the ’90s. The occasion? A late-night event produced by Revive Da Live, which promotes cross-genre encounters in order to spur creativity and get top musicians in front of different, hopefully larger audiences. Since launching in 2006, Revive has presented over 20 shows along these lines, facilitating the birth of a kind of roving artist collective. Pianist Robert Glasper and drummer Chris Dave, no mere dabblers in hip-hop, are among those intimately involved.

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Terrance Jennings

Esperanza Spalding

Meghan Stabile, 26, a singer, guitarist and Berklee alum, founded Revive after immersing herself in the youthful Boston jazz scene, mainly at Wally’s Jazz Café. “I didn’t grow up listening to jazz,” Stabile recalls. “One night [trumpeter] Igmar Thomas played with his band, and I was just completely floored by this music. I thought, ‘Why is this not out there more? Why am I just finding this now?’ What also got me was the fact that jazz musicians create the most beautiful, complex form of music, and they’re so underappreciated and underpaid. I wanted to do something about it.”

Stabile also wanted to show that “hip-hop is not just two guys rapping on the mic about money, girls and cars. There’s more to it, a live aspect, an authenticity that isn’t portrayed enough commercially.” Moreover, young jazz musicians are in many ways the backbone of modern hip-hop, but “it’s not known,” Stabile adds. “Nobody says, ‘OK, this is Common’s bass player, Derrick Hodge, one of the craziest bassists you’ll ever hear.’ No one focuses on that.”

Revive’s goal is to take something that already exists—the jazz/hip-hop symbiosis—and give it new institutional momentum. Precedents include King Britt’s weekly Back 2 Basics party at Silk City in Philadelphia, or the influential nightlife series Giant Step. But according to Stabile, “Giant Step was a little different. They used musicians with DJs, but not necessarily whole bands with prestigious names. The way we put these musicians together creatively, it’s just not being done.” Early efforts involved pairing Roy Hargrove with rap pioneer Guru, or Glasper and Dave with Bilal, Mos Def and others. Revive hopes eventually to branch into other genres, as well as undertake recording, management and other business initiatives.

The show at (Le) Poisson Rouge, scheduled for 11:30 p.m.-4 a.m. on Nov. 6, involved last-minute personnel shifts, but this only heightened the spontaneity of the music. More than 200 people attended. Large Professor, an important producer and DJ, opened the night spinning jazzy sides, accompanied half the time by drummer Daru Jones of Slum Village. Then came what Peter Rosenberg of HOT 97 FM rightly called “an ill band”: Spalding on bass, Thomas on trumpet, altoist Jaleel Shaw, tenorist Marcus Strickland, trombonist Corey King, keyboardist Raymond Angry and turntablist DJ Stimulus, with Jones subbing for Chris Dave on drums.

As children of the hip-hop generation, these players were fish in water, creating a balance between open vamps and arranged passages. The horns played eccentric block-type harmonies over loping beats as Stimulus dropped in scratch timbres and Angry put down a bed of dissonant, searching chords. Electric and acoustic elements mingled freely as the horn soloists, one by one, stepped into the breach. Having been wound up by Large Professor, the crowd now listened intently and applauded. The dance club had become a jazz club.

Coming onboard to play “Nemesis,” a downtempo original from his Blue Note debut Invisible Cinema, special guest Aaron Parks struggled with poor piano sound but managed to build a sense of musical drama. Spalding and Thomas, too, showed off their original music, sounding very much at home in a hip nightclub context. Indeed, the jazz these artists make is a hybrid from the very start. All Revive Da Live needs to do is put them onstage.

When Jeru the Damaja appeared, he had to work the crowd back up to hip-hop levels: “Make some noise!” “Hands in the mothafuckin’ sky!” Now the dance club edged out the jazz club. Yet after a few showcase numbers, Jeru took a keen interest in the musicians backing him up. Over a looped “Stakes Is High” groove, he adlibbed a rhyme intro for each soloist, shouting “Oh, my God!” at the more athletic horn displays. It was Spalding’s bass solo, however, that really got him. “Hold on, I feel like bustin’ a rhyme,” he declared, as he wove phrases in and around Spalding’s prodigious beat. Sexist banter aside, this was a stirring musical moment, genuine and un-rehearsed.

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