Thirty-three-year-old D.C. pianist Hope Udobi belongs to a generation of musicians, raised on hip-hop, electronica, and indie rock, that has brought new life to jazz fusion in this decade. Unlike many of his peers in that generation, Udobi buys into the first fusion wave’s vocabulary of long, careening lines and dense textures. On the other hand, he is dead set against the dissipation that ultimately ruined the likes of Return to Forever and Weather Report. In the Wild, Udobi’s debut album, is stacked with satisfying original tunes that stand as bulwarks against such self-indulgence.
That description sounds like smooth jazz. Udobi never lets himself, or the listener, off that easily. The steady rolling groove and conversational, guitar-and-synth lyricism of “Lost,” for example, accompany a weird harmonic progression that the keyboardist makes even weirder with an ersatz electric organ timbre and pitch bends. (He switches to a Fender Rhodes for a virtuoso improvisation, preceded by a blistering Jonathan Epley guitar solo.) Its basic funk groove also appears on album opener “The Beginning of the End,” in the form of a standard-issue funk lick from Charles Wilson, soon joined by an insistent one-note poke from bassist Mikel Combs. Trumpeter Theljon Allen and tenor saxophonist Elijah Easton’s simple joint riff brings with it a dark swirl of piano and synths. They anchor an ominous and complex solo from Easton, which Allen takes over at its climax—bringing with him new layers of spooky electronics—and makes even more elaborate. The title track, meanwhile, has a simple progression and a melodic motif that Udobi plays with classical piano mannerisms, and gymnastic horn extensions from the melody and a hyper-syncopated drum and bass rhythm, as well as a paint-peeling solo from Allen.
In short, it’s uncompromising, heady stuff, both compositionally and improvisationally, which makes it no compromise at all to put an alluring entryway on each piece. It’s hard to overstate the immediate staying power of the main motif of “In the Wild.” “Spiral” and “Wonderland” both offer disorienting 5/4 meters (breakneck in the former case, graceful but puzzling in the latter) that Udobi ornaments with hooks. “Spiral” plays up its dizziness with a funky piano line, both swaggering and uncertain, and filters into Udobi’s astonishing long solo. The beginning of “Wonderland,” meanwhile, is all prettiness and (apparently) delicate steps, shaped into a kind of ruptured waltz feel. Its emotional payload gradually becomes more fraught, especially when Udobi’s synths and Epley’s guitar enter the mix, ending in a kind of yawning sonic chasm—a trap laid with winsome bait.
Then there’s “Love and War,” the peaceful, fragile tune that in another, instrumental-friendlier era might have been a hit song. It’s a beautiful, warm melody with reverb suggesting distance, like a faraway mirage that’s forever out of reach. Easton adds a resplendent, warm tenor solo, but it’s an oasis in the middle of long, electronic drones that in the end dissolve into a burst of musique concrète. Fusion struggled to balance experimentalism with listenability on its first go-round; 40 years later, Udobi has solved the puzzle.