The Genres: Tony Green on Grooves

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Jamaaladeen Tacuma
By Phoebe Ferguson

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In the ongoing music dialogue, the history of funk-jazz or groove music or dance-jazz—whatever—has generally turned out to be a series of open-ended questions like: What is it, really? Is it hard bop at its rootsiest? Or is it its more R&B-oriented offshoots? Is it electrified, post-JB/Sly/Hendrix groove? Is it the Brit-fueled revisionism of the widely unmourned acid-jazz fad? Or is it the heady undertakings of artists like Prime Time, M-Base, Defunkt, Medeski, Martin & Wood, et al.?

Funk-jazz is just as hard to pin down as its unhyphenated sibling, funk. But just as you could spend the next couple of eons trying to define whether Western funk started in New Orleans, Cuba, the South Bronx or Mississippi, you could twist yourself into knots trying to distill the essence of improv-oriented dance music.

It’s best just to let it all alone and watch how the various conversations play out. To wait and see who takes which paths, which aesthetic questions attract the most serious minds, which ideas shouldn’t have been bothered with at all.

The importance of Jimmy Smith, Charles Earland, Lonnie Smith and Larry Young is clearer now than it was, say, 15 years ago. Ditto for electric Miles Davis. The work of the Prime Time and Art Blakey families should be required curriculum for anyone interested in diving into modern improv-funk, and while it took a while for people to catch on to the seriousness of P-Funk’s antipop explorations, its music has proven to be essential. On the other hand, it’s just as clear that folks should have left those hand-me-down Grover Washington Jr. riffs alone, just as the scores of faux-jazz chanteuses should expand their influences beyond Randy Crawford.

In post-’90s hindsight, it’s clear that acid jazz was a bust almost as soon as people figured out what it was. Not because it was a bad idea, but because the folks that purveyed it were almost always lame. Watered-down soul, elementary beatology and undergraduate musicianship were too often the rule not just for acid jazz, but for artists even loosely associated with it—unless, of course, your name was Jhelisa, Carleen Anderson, N’Dea Davenport, Me’Shell NdegeOcello or any other soul-influenced artist too committed to pass off limp Earth, Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder imitations as the “new wave” in jazz. Other artists, like Marc Cary, Breakestra and Society of Soul, had the chops and imagination to fully digest their analog, funk-and-soul influences.

In the larger universe of funk-jazz, there actually was a lot of interesting music in the past decade. Exposure was a problem, of course. Some of the best progressive-groove records had a hard time getting noticed. That was either because of their import status—Jamaaladeen Tacuma’s Dreamscape—their indie status—Jef Lee Johnson’s Blue on the late Coconut Grove—or a combination of reasons—see Steve Williamson’s Journey to Truth.

While the post-H.O.R.D.E. youth culture explosion produced more than its share of fumble-fingered, post-Dead mediocrities (and a, thankfully, apocryphal rumor about a John Popper Coltrane tribute), it also gave us folks like Charlie Hunter, Ben Harper and MMW, and reasserted the importance of New Orleans in the funk dialogue (Galactic, the Re-Birth Brass Band, Michael Ray and the Cosmic Krewe). Youth culture’s popularity also produced a heightened appreciation for the more fluid forms of hip-hop, a river that is as central to many younger jazz players as gospel and blues was to their forefathers. That river hit a high point this year with Common’s Like Water for Chocolate, which featured Roy Hargrove, Antonio Hart and Orrin Evans.

Abstract soundscaping and trip-hop cut both ways, producing some grotesque mutations worthy of an X-Men comic, as well as some truly eye-opening music from Vernon Reid, Graham Haynes, Praxis, Tricky and DJ Logic. Soundscaping also pointed back to the future and the work of some of funk-jazz’s edgier pioneers—electric Miles, electric Herbie Hancock.

Future shock or future schlock—let’s see how funk and jazz shake things out.

Originally published in September 2000

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