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John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet at the Earshot Jazz Festival

After ruling the hip-hop underground, championing the cause of black rock, starring Off-Broadway and appearing in films of both blockbuster and art-house varieties, Mos Def has proven himself an explorer as well as an eclectic. Along the way, the Brooklyn rapper has amassed a sizeable and dedicated following–hip-hop aesthetes ready and willing to follow his lead. And on a recent Friday the 13th, they were led to a noisy stretch of West 3rd Street in Greenwich Village, where their hero was launching a three-night incursion onto conspicuous jazz turf.

Mos had chosen propitious partners for this endeavor. Trumpeter Wallace Roney has been an advocate of the early-’70s fusion of mentor Miles Davis; one might reasonably assume that his sax-playing brother Antoine shares the sentiment. Pianist Orrin Evans has long nursed an affinity for Afro-centric soul and R&B, most recently with the falsetto crooner Bilal. Bassist John Benitez is well accustomed to cultural and musical fusions. And drummer Will Calhoun is a member of the Black Rock Coalition’s biggest success story, Living Colour–as well as Black Jack Johnson, Mos Def’s spirited tribute to the movement.

The band took the stage without preamble, slipping into a sinuous late-night groove so unobtrusive that it didn’t interrupt the din of conversation at the bar. Then a disembodied voice announced the star of the hour, and Mos Def appeared, nattily dressed in a newsboy cap and a striped dress shirt. Joining the group onstage, he proceeded to speak-sing a sort of Valentine to the city–cataloguing the taxicabs, street bustle and subway lines that crisscross the urban topography. Including a nod to both September 11 and the more recent citywide blackout, he added: “New York City, I don’t know why I love you. / Could be you remind me of myself.” The band, by way of response, kicked into an energetic Afro-Cuban montuno, over which the Roney horns played a crisp unison figure.

Befitting a Valentine’s weekend run, Mos had stitched together a repertoire with love as the common thread. That was the excuse, anyway, for a cute appropriation of “Crazy in Love,” the Beyoncé smash hit. After warbling comically through the head a few times, Mos opened the floor, affording each of the horn men a chance to wreak havoc with the song’s oscillating two-chord theme. Evans and Calhoun soloed as well–the former with patient restraint, the latter with an unapologetic display of technique. As parody, it was pitch-perfect; and as a jazz vehicle, it was more than serviceable. The same was unfortunately not true of the following number, “Q-P, Gangsta of Love.” Dedicated to Cupid, the tune–with its tepid muzak and too-simple lyrics–superimposed Hallmark sentiments over toothless grooves, without a trace of the mischievousness that the song title implied. It’s a testament to Antoine Roney’s imagination that he managed to imbue his solo choruses with life and a shape.

Even in his usual context as an MC, Mos Def often tends toward a melodic delivery less evocative of street hip-hop than of vintage Gil Scott-Heron. At the Blue Note, he employed his resonant baritone to full effect, displaying an unstudied but entirely convincing knack for old-school soul. The problem was the repertoire. In addition to the unfortunate “Q-P,” Mos and the band performed Whoudini’s “Friends” with an unfortunately facile lyric (“Friends–how many of us have them?”) and an unimaginatively pentatonic melody. Tellingly, an audience member interjected at one point to plead for “something for the B-boys”–to which Mos Def responded with a seamless, sensitive freestyle verse that brought a fleeting magic to the song. Teasingly brief, that moment–Mos Def’s only straight-up rap of the set–showed a glint of his sharpest talents. It also underscored the best argument for hip-hop’s allegiance with jazz: improvisation on a theme.

Of course, it’s the artist’s prerogative to reach beyond his grasp, and by emphasizing the singing, Mos was purposefully placing himself on less familiar ground. It’s also likely that he’s been closely watching the recent career arc of Outkast’s André 3000, who has managed to pass himself off as a sort of lounge crooner. At the Blue Note, Mos went so far as to cover “Prototype,” a sunshiny soul throwback from André’s GRAMMY-winning album The Love Below (Arista). What was missing, from that rendition and the love-themed set as a whole, was a spark of earthly desire (or more plainly, lust). And that’s not to say that Mos Def isn’t capable of it: Fans will remember the brilliantly seductive pas de deux of “Ms. Fat Booty,” from his 1999 album Black on Both Sides (Rawkus).

Love, for Mos Def, is rarely unencumbered by social context, so it stands to reason that the set’s twin peaks refracted the emotion through a lens of human tensions. The first was Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew,” crossed with a lyric that Mos had dubbed “Superstar Boogeyman.” Starting with a horn tattoo, the anthem settled into its brooding ostinato, with vocalese. The rendition was noteworthy not only for the contributions of the soloists (Evans in particular), but also for its tensile lyrics (“Love is a dangerous necessity”). As for the second highlight, it was the only song Mos had imported from his usual repertoire. “Umi Says” proved itself both a reliable crowd-pleaser and an effective valediction. Emphasizing optimism in the face of mortal uncertainty, the song carried love out of the realm of conjecture and into the hands of a community. Toward the end of the song, Mos Def added a line: “Son, you got to fight for L-O-V-E.”

So will jazz figure prominently in Mos Def’s future? Given his schedule, chances seem slim. A few days before the Blue Note gig, he had popped up across town at a CD-release for Roc-A-Fella rapper-producer Kanye West, on whose debut he makes a compelling cameo. Later this month, he’ll mark the release of his own highly anticipated new album, the first in five years. And then there’s his film career–one movie about to hit theaters, and another soon to begin shooting. So jazz may not be at the top of the list, for now. But that doesn’t lessen the impact of this foray, which had its problems but also showed some tantalizing potential. Further development along these lines really would be something to behold–for Mos devotees and open-minded jazz fans alike.

Originally Published