7 Facets of the Urban Jazz Genre / by Noor Kalouti

Hello all!

I’ve compiled 7 pieces of urban jazz, and each song is a unique facet of the genre. Now you might ask yourself, what does she know about urban jazz? Well beyond my disproportionate listening and a B.A in Contemporary Music, I have my dedication to the genre. As I defined last week, I define urban jazz as “21st-century music that appropriates traditional or experimental jazz.” Since there’s no official definition—and concrete definition would be limiting—my aim is to showcase how the wave of urban jazz has trickled into a variety of genres.

Before we start,  allow me to tribute the artists that laid the foundation for this genre. You can skip to the reviews if you’d like, but since today’s post is academic in style it begs for a little musicology section.  

In some genres the link between jazz and said genre is clear, and the combination is natural. Hip Hop and R&B is an example of that since they both have the same roots. Artists like Africa Bambaattaa, Erykah Badu or A Tribe Called Quest took the first steps in popularising jazz-hop, neo-soul and everything in between.  Now, to overlook the significance of black culture and its influence in the genres of jazz, hip-hop, and r&b would be profoundly ignorant. So it’s important to note that as black culture aged— and ultimately had the space to grow — so has the genre. Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp a Butterfly  owes its success as a distinct progressive jazz album to the forefathers of experimental jazz whether it’s Miles Davis or Mrs. Badu.

It’s less obvious to pinpoint where and how jazz began influencing genres like rock, metal or electronic music. Rock and jazz are relatively opposite (from a cultural standpoint as well) but as soon as electronic music entered into the mainstream (around the 1970's), it mediated between these cultural and artistic extremes.  Frenchman Ludovic Navaree, a.k.a. St. Germain, is often commended for being the first to dabble with electronica and jazz. As soon as synthesis, sampling,and looping became established getting quality jazz sounds didn't require as much time and training. Even though I love St. Germain’s song Rose Rouge, I'd like to pay tribute to newer and more experimental artists like Squarepusher.

To your fresh ears, this his British-born producer may sound like he's the furthest thing from jazz, and in some songs he is, but in others, he has a profound understanding of the genre and how to incorporate it into his unique style. I've mentioned Squarepusher twice now, so yes there's a bit of bias I have to admit. Most critics won't refer to him in this discussion, probably because of how far his sound is from traditional jazz. But I believe his music is important, and I mention him to display the lengths this genre can reach. If it weren't for Squarepusher, we wouldn't have Flying Lotus, and that would be a sad, sad world. So, with that said let's begin listening to Flylo.

Note, I will start with the more experimental pieces and work my way back to the mainstream.

1. Pickled!: Flying Lotus

Meet Steven Ellison, better known for his stage name Flying Lotus, Flylo or his rapper name Captain Murphy. He is a multi-genre music producer, filmmaker, and rapper from Los Angeles, California.

Jazz is literally in his bloodline, as the nephew of Alice Coltrane and cousin to Ravi Coltrane (John Coltrane's saxophone-playing son) FlyLo has been listening to jazz since before his birth. Knowing this, it should be no surprise that he can compose pieces like Pickled! and produce albums like Cosmogramma which blew the minds of critics and musicians alike back in 2010.

I chose Pickled! to demonstrates FlyLo’s radical appropriation of jazz, and his pioneering work in experimental electronic music. It is by no means the best piece in the album (my favorite is Zodiac Shit) but it is the best example of digital jazz and his Flylo’s distinctive sound. On Pickled! we can easily hear a track like Beep Street by Squarepusher on a paved the way for FlyLo's equally unique sound. Both FlyLo and Squarepusher are signed to the same label, Warp Records, which is well known to sign the most accomplished of electronic musicians.

FlyLo’s compositions are is the result of someone that has studied Jazz to a T and grown tired with the conventions of the genre. If I had time I would rant about Cosmogramma’s massive influence on hip-hop and electronic music, but that would require a whole other blog post. FlyLo is considered to be one of the founders of this niche genre if anything he is a forefather, but having recently released 7 short pieces his work too relevant no to include in on the roundup.

2. Detroit Part I: Shigeto

Released in August 2013, Detroit Part I is the headlining track on Shigeto's album No Better Time Than Now released on Ghostly International. You can hear how Flying Lotus's work may, in turn, have paved the way for Shigeto's music. It's like a musical Russian Doll!  Zach Saginaw, who makes music under his middle name Shigeto, emerged out of Ann Arbor, Michigan with this texturally comprehensive piece of music. Beginning with a scattered landscape of rhythms and video game sounds and ending with this gradient of fuzzy jazz utterances.

The attention to detail is evident, and with these sounds, Shigeto advances a narrative.I imagine myself walking on a decimate one-way road, in the center, and flying around me are these colorful out-of-place birds. It's abstract, I know, but that's all thanks to Shigeto's artwork. In Detroit Part I, he develops this ambient aesthetic in into a complex web of images and emotions. This piece is by no means stagnant, it ages beautifully and demands we the patience to listen to it do so.

3. Sphynx Gate/The World it Softly Lulls

I can't possibly have a discussion about urban jazz without mentioning Hiatus Kaiyote (my favorite band, ever, ever!). I've chosen a track that is a mashup of two separate hits, Sphynx Gate and The World It Softly Lulls, both of which are slightly altered for this piece. These two tracks are on their debut album Tawk Tomahawk, released in 2013, but this mashup was dropped later on their EP Live in Revolt.

Hiatus Kaiyote is labeled a 'neo-soul' or 'future soul' band, indeed they are clear descendants of Erykah Badu or Jill Scott.  A trademark of Hiatus Kaiyote's sound is this technically challenging music - music for the sophisticated listener. Often with artists like that, the outcome tends to be less musical (Dream Theatre comes to mind) but Hiatus Kaiyote manages to avoid the trap of sounding like a perfect musical machine. A band like Hiatus Kaiyote has members who have individually mastered their craft, and as listeners, we forget how obsessive artists can be when it comes to their musicianship. Good music is not necessarily difficult music, but in the case of Hiatus Kaiyote, it is both.

There’s just too much to be said about each member of this Australian quartet, it’s wildly impressive how talented each individual is. Although Nai Palm gets the most spotlight like all vocalists, she is by far not the most skilled. She is, however, the lead songwriter and I am always baffled by her song structures. Unlike other songwriters, Nai writes for the band and then for herself; when performing they are not lead by her, she is merely another instrument. I mention this because it is a very rare quality to find in vocalists, yet what sets jazz groups apart from other types of bands is the tradition of each instrumentalist having a solo. Improvisation and band dynamic are at the core of Hiatus Kaiyote’s ingenuity and success, one can both see (on stage) and hear how fluidly they respond to each other.

Another trademark of Hiatus Kaiyote is the radical meter shifts and section changes you hear in this piece. If anything Sphynx Gate/The World it Softly Lulls is an exception in that it is a combination of two distinct songs, most of their tracks will include these unique sections within one song (Shaolin Monk Motherfunk is an excellent example). The manner in which Hiatus Kaiyote can organically blend earth-shaking soul, hip-hop subtleties, and the warm comfort of smooth jazz will never cease to amaze me.

Bahia Dreamin: Kariem Riggins

Karriem Riggins has often shifted between the hip-hop and jazz scenes, gaining a reputation as a multi-instrumentalist and producer. Being primarily a drummer, Karriem's music is heavily rhythmic, like many drummers Karriem work experiments with the role of a meter, but unlike many producers, his sound captures the human subtleties of rhythm. Bahia Dreamin' is a lazy head-trip, a tipsy amble on cotton-candy clouds until it's interrupted by classy acoustic jazz.

This Detroit-born beatmaker has become one of the most respected musicians in the jazz world. He's worked with Grammy-winning pianist Robert Glasper, Erykah Badu, Common, J-Dilla and so many more legends. Even before knowing that Karriem had collaborated with J-Dilla, I noticed his beats were clear successors of that style. The chopped up vocal samples, looping rhythms, and length of his projects are J-Dilla trademarks. J-Dilla's music rippled throughout the world of hip-hop, I could go so far as to say that it changed hip-hop for the better. There was no one like him, but his legacy is carried by artist like Karriem who continue to develop this niche of instrumental hip-hop and urban jazz.

Karriem's discography includes lengthy 29-track albums full of beats, loops and hip-hop instrumentals depicting the scope of his passion for the genre. Merely the length of his records mimic the discipline of a jazz musician (which he also is), can you imagine the total number of hours this man spends making beats, and how many go unreleased? Out of his massive repertoire of pieces, I chose Bahia Dreamin' because it sounds like a median in the spectrum of his work, it also postures his skill as a producer not only a drummer. It’s 24th track on his album Headnod Suite which dropped in July 2017.  

Don't Forget About Me: Noname

For those of you who have been keeping up with the roundups, you know that I'm a fan of Noname. I couldn't (and wouldn't)  pass up the opportunity to discuss another track on her recently released album Room 25. However, as I read through my notes on Don't Forget About Me, I notice that I've chosen a piece that demonstrates how jazz moves through the lyrical style and content more so than the instrumentals. This is a characteristic of songs I rarely analyze, only because I don't prioritize lyrics, but in the case of Noname, it's where she shines most.

The first detail I notice in this piece is that Noname is whispering. Her vocals are usually at the forefront of the production, but in this case, it's like she's whispering in our ear. Indeed, this lyrical story is one that asks you to listen closely and what better way to ensure that than with a whisper. This piece is about Noname's rise to fame and growing following, she reflects on how people may praise her for 'saving lives' with her music, but in reality, she’s the one who needs saving. In the first verse is a dark but beautiful play on words that one can easily miss, let's look at the lyrics:

Your family lookin like a prayer song
Your momma at the table cryin’
All her hair gone
Feeling fishy Finding Chemo
Smoking seaweed for calm
These Disney movies too close

We all know the Disney movie Finding Nemo, but what we didn't realize is that Nemo is Latin for "Nobody" (a.k.a. Noname). In this verse, she insinuates that her mother has cancer through this distorted play on words — one that is both witty and saddening. Is Noname Nemo trying to find her way home through an ocean of anxieties? Most likely yes, aren’t we all. On this piece, Noname isn't afraid of showing you her vulnerabilities, and she empowers them through her virtuosic storytelling.  If we consider the roster of vocalists in jazz history, a distinct characteristic (excluding their vocal quality) is this free-form storytelling style. Improvisation sets jazz apart from other genres of music, and that applies to vocal technique. Noname may not sing, but she tells a story with both the content and cadence of her words. Her flow is distinct, her form is free-flowing and her heart is her hands, beating stronger with each stanza of her story. If that doesn’t commemorate Billie Holiday, I don’t know what does.

iamddb vibe vol2

Back Again: IAMDBB

Born Diana Debrito – hence IAMDDB –  the Manchester rapper-singer IAMDDB blends hip-hop, trap, and jazz into a style of her own. This particular track isn't the best example of her trap sound, but within a minute of hearing her voice, her modernity and relevance are clear. Like Noname, IAMDDB has a lazy free-form vocal style, but unlike Noname, she banters with her listeners. What the lyrics lack in meaning, IAMDDB makes up for in pure swag.

I discovered IAMDDB through this piece, what caught my attention was the intro section's seamless transition into hip-hop. I have a bias towards ambient music and nature sounds, and I was drawn in by the rising jazz scale tip-toeing in the background. Once IAMDDB drops the hook singing "Back again, back again come through and I'm comin', and I'm back again"  I was both surprised and convinced. That first chord at 1:00 minute is like honey finally meeting tea after you've watched it slowly slide down the bottle. This silky, smooth hip-hop beat, with elements of trip-hop, jazz, neo-soul IAMDDB is enough to make me a follower of IAMDDB’s music, which I have now become.

This track is produced by DIBOUJONE and is the fourth track from her EP Vibe, Vol. 2 (though I think it would have functioned better as the first piece of the EP) released in 2017. This EP kickstarted her quick  journey to fame because soon after she released her debut album Hoodrich, Vol. 3. In that album, IAMDDB moves further away from the style you hear in this piece and closer to trap. However, she returns to urban jazz is her most recent album Flightmode, Vol. 4. with the charm of a jazz singer and the demeanor of a boss ass bitch.


Institutionalized: Kendrick Lamar

I know, I know who am I to be reviewing Kendrick Lamar? Well, I’m a blogger with a lot to say that’s who. I looked for a more underground piece of music, but in relation to the mainstream there is just no better example than this.

kendrick to pimp a butterfly

Institutionalized is off of Kendrick’s legendary album To Pimp a Butterfly which won a Grammy for Best Rap Album in 2015. The record stood out from other hip-hop albums in that it had strong elements of experimental jazz. Kendrick is continually looking for ways to innovate, and this album is probably the most sophisticated in his discography. On this song, Tommy Black produced the first part, and Rahki produced the second part, starting at 1 minute (so the majority of the song is produced by Rahki).

Rahki definitely develops the jazz aesthetic of this piece, first the lazy drum beat and then the clarinet dancing in the backdrop. This track collaborates with Snoop Dogg, Bilal and Anna Wise each of whom compliments the piece perfectly. Throughout the album, there is a jazz band present at least half the time; pianist Robert Glasper, producer/sax player Terrace Martin, and bassist extraordinaire Thundercat are among some of the instrumentalists. You can read about each track’s creation and composition here, the list is extensive.

Institutionalized concludes this week’s roundup because it showcases how experimental jazz entered the current aesthetic of hip-hop music. Although a lot of the pieces I reviewed draw from a traditional jazz sound, it’s far more interesting to me that an experimental sound has become accessible to the ‘common’ ear. Like many music nerds, I sometimes shame music that is too popular, but as I grow as a critic, I realize that accessibility is a quality worth noting. Kendrick’s reputation has allowed him to experiment with rap and jazz at a level of musical creativity that is still rare in the rap world. Lyrical innovation has always been the leading force, and artists like Kendrick have used their reputation to make room for urban jazz to develop alongside new school hip-hop.