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Russell Gunn: Ethnomusicology Volume 3

Russell Gunn serves up his latest installment of Ethnomusicology, his explorations of combining jazz and hip-hop, with far better results than the previous one. Whereas Volume 2 was mostly marred by poor song choices and a noticeable lack of bite to support its provocative CD cover, which dressed the trumpeter in blackface against an American flag, Volume 3 offers more bite and less shock treatment.

As evident from the boom-bap beginning of “Celebrity Room Intro,” Gunn’s main hip-hop references date back to its golden age (1987-1995), when the genre was first seriously cozying up to jazz and seemed to brim with endless sonic and thematic possibilities. With DJ Neil Armstrong, Gunn brings back the art of turntablism, which is sadly, missing from much of today’s mainstream hip-hop, and on songs like “Variations (on a Conspiracy Theory)” and the deep-house stomp of “East St. Louis,” Gunn waxes a gothic, almost Italian-mafia vibe to the proceedings that speaks to both his fluidity with European classical stylings and his understanding and love for gangsta rap. Even the melancholy, R&B tone poem “John Wicks,” which almost tips over to smooth jazz, speaks to hip-hop’s golden years as Gunn inserts a taped conversation of various people reminiscing about Wicks and his haircuts and fashion sense back in day.

But it’s not just Gunn’s reverence for hip-hop that makes Volume 3 work so well; the playing is fairly excellent throughout. Gunn, himself, hones a hearty, flamboyant tone and a wicked sense of rhythm and melody that enable him to handle bristling uptempo tracks like “East St. Louis” as well as a Soulaquarian take on Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays.” And the accompanying ensemble, which features percussionist Kahlil Kwame Bell, saxophonists Kebbi Williams, Oliver Lake and Greg Tardy, keyboardists Marc Cary, Nick Rolfe and James Hurt, guitarist Carl Burnett and vibraphonist Stefon Harris, generates the necessary friction and improvisational interplay that prevent jazz and hip-hop from canceling each other out.

Volume 3’s only blemish comes in when Gunn starts to rhyme as his nasally, sonically-enhanced alter ego, Gunn Fu, on “The Critic’s Song.” The music is bumping and the message, directed at haters, who lambasted the whole jazz and hip-hop collaboration, is powerful; unfortunately Gunn’s rapping distracts and almost subverts his whole modus operandi into novelty. Had a bona fide MC such as Cee-Lo (whom Gunn has worked with), Q-Tip or Common delivered the message it would have resonated clearer. Luckily, Gunn doesn’t make the same mistake on “Strange Fruit” and its follow-up, “Stranger Fruit.” Instead, he lets the haunting soundscapes of blaring guitar, sustained keyboard drones, dogs barking and dissonant horn chords, along with Jody Merriday’s dramatic caterwauls and spoken words, convey the songs’ meanings.

Alongside fellow trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s jazz/hip-hop masterpiece, Hard Groove, Gunn’s latest turn on Ethnomusicology proves that further exploration of the merging of the two genres is, indeed, worthwhile.

Originally Published