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When Miles Davis died in 1991, he was at work on the recording that would be his contribution to the much- touted synthesis of jazz and rap music. Roughly at the start of this decade, disparate voices began to proclaim a “natural” convergence of jazz and urban street music that would be the musical standard bearer for an emergent black cultural renaissance. “Rap grew in the hood so to speak, it came out of the same environment that Louis Armstrong came out of,” jazz musician Max Roach told the Los Angeles Times. Some rappers have interpret ed the association with “serious” music as an opportunity to recast themselves as cultural mavericks cut from the same stone as their bebopping elders. “A lot of the jazz musicians lived the same life as rappers,” opined hiphop producer Ali Shaheed in Billboard magazine. “It’s underground music.”
Davis’ posthumously released Doo-Bop was neither a particularly good nor particularly bad recording. Purists saw it as one last blasphemy from a heretical Miles who had long since deviated from the mainstream. Doo-Bop did however suggest that, good bloodlines notwithstanding, the marriage of African-American classical music with its urban cousin was no more sound than the matrimonial bond between Lady Di and Prince Charles. And like the match between the British royals, the union of the two musics has fallen short of the hype accorded it. It has for the most part seemed forced, superficial, even terminal.
Jean-Paul Bourelly and his Bluwave Bandits enter the fray just as the critical buzz over this “new jazz swing” has receded to a dull hum. Bourelly’s latest recording, Blackadelic Blu, is a lyrically funky brew that displays all the attributes of a truly successful synthesis. It might seem odd to discuss Bourelly’s work in the context of rap-jazz synth, but Blu‘s core sounds are drawn from guitar-driven R&B and rock. On the disc, vocalist/guitarist Bourelly is joined by organist Mark “Kundalini” Batson, keyboardist Carl Bourelly, bass player Mark Peterson, and drummers Alfredo Elias and Kevin Johnson. Batson’s warm organ work and a cameo appearance by saxophonist John Stubblefield are the most obvious borrowings from the traditional jazz palette. Yet Blu is a backbeat-heavy swirl with more than a liberal dose of electric guitar: Those who like their music loud will turn this one up, those who don’t need not apply.
Bourelly mines the urgency of street music without compromising his ability to write thoughtful songs with persuasive lyrics. On “Welfare Flower Child,” for instance, the Bandits spin a familiar tale of human hopes blossoming in defiance of oppressive realities. Bourelly narrates his “welfare baby blues” in a voice that is half-sung and half-recited, while Kundalini Batson of the alternative rap duo Get Set provides a vocal undercurrent that gives Bourelly’s singing some needed support. The selection pivots on a lazy two-chord guitar figure that is answered by a complex bass line. Tastefully restrained multitracking allows Bourelly’s guitar—his most compelling voice—to spontaneously bark and croon its own counterpoint. “Welfare Flower Child,” like many of Blu‘s tracks, keeps melody and harmony in the foreground. Samples, sequencers, bombastic tirades, and other borrowings from the rap universe are kept low in the mix.
“Welfare Flower Child” segues into “Song of Allah” without hesitation or warning. It’s obvious from their titles that either track could have devolved into another annoying, preachy pop-music tract, but Bourelly avoids this pitfall. Rescued by an understated lyric and the unapologetic insistence of its music, “Song of Allah” has the lack of pretense of a Pentecostal revival meeting. Here, multiple guitar parts overlay the drummer’s stuttering shuffle, and create the impression of two competing melodic lines struggling for space within a shifting rhythmic vessel. The song’s head-bobbing groove dissolves toward an apparent close only to be capped off by a stinging coda that explodes out of the momentary silence—perhaps a warning that Bourelly’s faith is no mere ornament for public consumption.
The CD’s longest and most finished title is also the least hiphop-dependent segment in the mosaic. The 11-minute “Restless Wave” builds an elemental Delta blues phrase into a growling gospel of impending joy. “Everybody feels a new one comin’ round the corner/Feel it in your bones feel it in your heart so strong,” intones Bourelly on the disc’s most successful vocal effort, “Gonna blow away the old dusty mold and bring the new one on.” Severity yields to sweetness in the last third of the song as Bourelly summons a convincing Curtis Mayfield-style falsetto. The chorus—“You can’t control the restless wave”—is hauntingly inspiring. Blu, like most good rap recordings, attempts to expose social contradictions without concealing the stance of the commentator: In this sense, it is militant music. It is by no means pessimistic music and, as in “Restless Wave,” its hope is a militant one in the ability to undo.
Bourelly nurses a throaty conversational tone from his strings that bites without breaking the skin: He is not afraid to bear down, yet manages to avoid sounding shrill or trite. His solos—as on “Welfare Flower Child”—tend to be heavily accented runs warbled by a rapidly pumped wah-wah or similar effect. Like Richard Thompson or Joseph Spence, Bourelly is thankfully inclined to seek the oddest path through a given scale. The 10 selections that make up Blu display not only his own signature but an encapsulated history of his instrument as well. From Charlie Christian to Jimi Hendrix—and even Kurt Cobain—the phylogeny of electric guitar is reconfigured on Blu.
“Lover’s Cool-Out” is a cool jazz oasis in the midst of the disc’s more edgy offerings. Bourelly turns down the volume on this instrumental to emulate gently strummed archtop played through the nostalgic embrace of a vintage tube amplifier. Although the smoothly cascading chords are stylistic loans from the work of Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, and George Benson, Bourelly and the Bandits can take full credit for their effective deployment against a lean backdrop of sampled staccato riffs.
Mostly, Bourelly’s deft fingers trace more recent applications of the electric guitar as a steely messenger of marginalized rage. Only now, buttressed by the street credibility of hiphop’s call-to-arms, the rage rings out with a renewed élan. Bourelly has succeeded where others have faltered by figuring out that if jazz and hiphop are to reside under the same roof, it has to be the right jazz: Confrontational rap and faded archival jazz are rarely miscible. A John Coltrane sax run abbreviated, looped, and knitted into a hiphop rhythm track forfeits the context that makes Coltrane’s music memorable enough to merit sampling. Contrast how the seasoned abilities of tenor player John Stubblefield are applied to the rugged canvas of Blu‘s “Runaway Train,” not to mute its graffiti colors, but to provide a nonverbal reflex of squeals and bleats to compliment Bourelly’s lunges and slashes.
The jury is still out on jazz-rap fusion as a viable aesthetic movement, but the debate has at least been given a new twist by this work. Bourelly brings to the wedding an evolving jazz that is already comfortable with a broad vision of instrumentation and appropriation. His is the open, electrified, funked-up jazz that James Blood Ulmer, Ronald Shannon Jackson, and Sonny Sharrock brought into being after Miles Davis’ electric transgressions blazed the trail. Perhaps Miles did have a successful rendezvous with rap after all. When you consider that Bourelly and his compatriots in the self-styled “hiphop nation” are less than one generation removed from Davis’ pioneering efforts to find common ground between jazz and the renegade music of his day, you almost have to wonder why it took so long.