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El-P: High Water (Mark)

New Yorker Jaime “EL-P” Meline is best known for his bombastic, psychedelic hip-hop productions and virulent rapping for Company Flow as well as his career as a solo artist for his Def Jux label. For pianist Matthew Shipp’s Blue Series, the caustic MC/producer hooks up with the resourceful house band, Blue Series Continuum, and overturns everything you know about him.

While El-P produces, arranges, composes and mixes High Water and adds idiosyncratic synth fills, he keeps a respectful distance from the crack jazz improvisers-and his trap shut. The brief CD bookends-“Please Stay (Yesterday)” and “Please Leave (Yesterday)”-find Roy Campbell’s mournful muted trumpet and Shipp’s lachrymose piano in a sentimental mood. Who suspected that beneath El-P’s gruff, nihilistic exterior, there beats the heart of a romantic softy?

But with the epic “Sunrise Over Bklyn,” El-P & Co. strive for higher planes. Campbell’s trumpet soars with Don Cherry’s soul-inflating grace and Shipp sprinkles high notes like baptismal water. Meanwhile, Guillermo E. Brown’s drums plod martially while Steve Swell’s trombone and William Parker’s bass lurch with dogged persistence. (Strangely, the rhythm recalls Argent’s AOR staple “Hold Your Head Up.”) Toward the end, the band pushes for a stirring climax, but it seems burdened by inertia.

More successful are “Get Your Hand Off My Shoulder, Pig” and “Get Modal.” The former nonchalantly struts to Brown’s unpredictably funky meters and Campbell’s soulful coloration while William Parker powers the latter with a metronomic bass line as the group elegantly swings and mutates the pop standard “Where Is the Love?” When El-P loops a grittily passionate soul belter into the mix, he cranks up the intensity to the level to that of his acclaimed Fantastic Damage album.

While El-P shouldn’t quit his day job, he has given jazz a sanguine tweaking from an outsider’s perspective.

Originally Published