Sign up for our free newsletter
Philadelphia means different things to different people. The jazz connoisseur might conjure images of cosmic keyboardist and band leader Sun Ra huddling in a claustrophobic Germantown loftor of groups of well-dressed buppies swaying to the saxophone musings of smooth-jazz pioneer Grover Washington Jr. A soul brother might think of the O’Jays and the Intruders, while a drag queen might envision dance-floor hit-makers Patti LaBelle and Sister Sledge. But to members of the current R&B and hiphop nation, Philly is where artists keep it realor go to figure out how to get reala place that kicks out groovy, hard-hitting music that has little to do with trendy New York and Los Angeles.
Given the high-profile careers of acoustic-bass phenom Christian McBride, pianist Uri Caine, and drummer Ahmir Thompsonall native Philadelphiansit’s unsurprising that they’ve chosen to collaborate in the Philadelphia Experiment, even though their individual musical paths have traveled in three entirely different directions. McBride is the premiere jazz bassist of his generation. Caine, although less well-known, is steadily rising to the upper echelon of contemporary jazz players through his inventive work with clarinetist Don Byron and trumpeter Dave Douglas and the critical success of his reconfigurations of pieces by Gustav Mahler and Johann Sebastian Bach. As a member of both hiphop outfit the Roots and production team the Soulquarians, Thompson has defined the rhythmic spank of nu soul.
But if you look closer at these three, you’ll find that McBride has a love for funk that shows up whenever he picks up his electric bass and slaps out some chunky James Brown tunes. You’ll also discover that Caine’s European-classical background has never prevented him from laying down some boogie-woogie piano or locking in a soul-jazz groove. And that before Thompson began putting drum-machine programmers out of work, he was a budding jazz drummer who performed with the likes of saxophonist Steve Williamson and vocalist Cassandra Wilson. All of which affords the trio a unique chemistry that, on The Philadelphia Experiment, never explodes into anything truly unexpectedsomething that works both for and against the band.
To its credit, the Philadelphia Experiment never really takes the easy way out, avoiding both Gamble & Huff’s indestructible songbook and brawn-over-brains supergroup pyrotechnics. Its summer-breeze interpretations of Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man” and Elton John’s “Philadelphia Freedom” showcase the trio’s fluid, laid-back group dynamic, with McBride and Thompson in particular demonstrating a deep musical rapport. The two used to jam together as students of the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts; on tunes such as “Ain’t It the Truth” and “Ile Ife,” their interlocking syncopation recalls the powerful interplay of bassist Paul Jackson and drummer Mike Clark on Herbie Hancock’s landmark Head Hunters LP. And when the Philadelphia Experiment expands to include guitarist Pat Martino and trumpeter Jon Swana on the down-tempo original “Grover” and the funk retooling of Sun Ra’s “Call for All Demons,” all of the musicians sound as if they had been playing together since kindergarten.
The Philadelphia Experiment’s casual, keyboard-dominated workouts, however, seldom catch fire. There’s simply not enough rhythmic urgency in these tracks to make them full-fledged funk, and even the jazzier tunes sound too leisurely. Often, the playing is so restrained and unvarying that the Philadelphia Experiment sounds as if it’s trying to create easy-listening instrumentals for the hiphop generationor to revisit the lightweight grooves of Hancock’s uninspired Fat Albert Rotunda period. It’s only toward the end of the disc, when Caine reconstructs Washington’s schmaltzy classic “Mister Magic” into a rhapsodic eulogy, that the band generates some real heat. A record informed by so many divergent styles and bearing the name of a city with such an influential musical history should amount to much more than what a friend so accurately called “music to clean your house to.”
Given the endless hype generated during its numerous street-date delays, Philadelphia singer-songwriter Bilal’s long-anticipated debut, 1st Born Second, seems almost guaranteed to be one of the biggest R&B albums since D’Angelo’s 2000 masterstroke, Voodoo. And with both singers being members of the loosely assembled Soulquarians and owing a huge debt to falsetto heroes Prince and Gaye, comparisons are inevitable.
And yes, these two sons of preachers do have their similarities, especially when it comes to smoldering slow jams such as “When Will You Call” and “Soul Sista,” 1st Born’s first single. Both songs have the same Fender Rhodes-driven, bass-heavy sound that distinguishes much of D’Angelo’s music. But what separates the newest kid on the R&B block from D’Angelo, Maxwell, and other nu-soul crooners is that Bilal, who studied jazz and opera at New York’s Mannes Music Conservatory, knows that old-school didn’t begin when Berry Gordy built Motown. And whereas most of his contemporaries sound as if they listened only to the Mount Rushmore of soul singersGaye, Prince, Al Green, and Stevie WonderBilal’s supple voice hints more at Sly Stone, Bobby Womack, and P-Funk’s Gary Shider.
1st Born’s harrowing album-closer, “Second Child,” perfectly illustrates Bilal’s skill at integrating these influences into a compelling and singular style. The song is the CD’s most sonically freakish moment, with Bilal unfurling a sobering monologue about the hardships of black Americans against a murky backdrop of doomsday bass lines, menacing percussion, and helter-skelter piano riffs. “I was born as a second child/All I got was hand-me-downs,” he sings in the hellish, off-kilter chorus, establishing the missing link between Norman Whitfield’s psychedelic soul and Charles Mingus’ weird nightmares.
It’s this willingness to experiment that really separates Bilal from his nu-soul compatriots. At the tender age of 22, he’s worldly enough to sing the knowing verse “I hope to live to see 25” in the ruminative soliloquy “Sometimes.” Both pointed and pondering, “Sometimes” best articulates 1st Born’s overarching theme: Bilal as a man-child struggling with inner conflicts. In the song’s seven-minute span, he goes from wishing that he could be a Moses who helps his people escape the ghetto to a man on the brink of assaulting a nagging lover.
Throughout 1st Born, Bilal demonstrates a fascination with pimp culture that is almost frighteningly self-critical. The cryptic “Intro,” with its shadowy guitar, martial snare rolls, and whimsical lyrics, recalls the hilariously disturbing opening scene of Melvin Van Peeble’s 1971 flick Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song. Once the track segues into the Gothic “For You,” Bilal whips out the line “This might sound like some pimp shit to you/But I ain’t pimpin’/Please forgive me if I appear to.” And on the brilliant “All That I Am,” which finds Bilal navigating tricky syntax that falls somewhere between Sly Stone-style rambling and bebop improvisation, the singer makes references to legendary pimp memoirist Iceberg Slim as he again describes the plight of the black urban American male.
Such angst-ridden tracks as “Second Child,” “All That I Am,” and the Dr. Dre-produced “Fast Lane” are the sort of sharply scripted songs that Tricky desperately wishes he could construct to make inroads into the R&B mainstream. And though horny ballads such as “When Will You Call” and “Soul Sista” will satisfy those who like their soul singers to be one-dimensional love machines, the bulk of 1st Born Second reveals Bilal to be an uncompromising artist more than willing to get out of the bedroom. CP