IT'S OUT. Finally. What should have been one of the great jazz records of 1995 has finally been released after an odd four-month delay from its original announced release date -- Courtney Pine's "Modern Day Jazz Stories," the only fusion of jazz and hip-hop I've heard that actually works. It only serves to help make 1996, in less than two full months, a spectacular year for new jazz records. (Listen to the new discs by Randy Weston and Terence Blanchard -- "Saga" and "The Heart Speaks," respectively.)
Why the delay? Pine's announced plans for an April U.S. tour with DJ Pogo may have had something to do with it. You don't release a record and then tour for it six months later. Two months later, maybe, but not six.
Why combine jazz and hip-hop? Why not? As University at Buffalo jazz professor James Patrick is so fond of saying, jazz itself is a fusion. Hybridization is its birthright from New Orleans on, so why should it stop being that way now?
Besides, 32-year-old Pine -- who was labeled for convenience the British Branford Marsalis when he first started out -- is already a cultural fusion by nature and nurture. He's London-born of West Indian blood and seems to have as advanced a sense of Celtic melody as he does a natural proclivity for jazz.
What makes "Modern Day Jazz Stories" so spectacular is that it demeans neither jazz nor hip-hop. It's a superb jazz record in deliberately and gorgeously accessible genres in which the sampling and the turntable rhythms of DJ Pogo are used with great cleverness as colors, not distractions.
When Branford Marsalis tried to marry jazz and hip-hop in his "Buckshot LaFonque" project, the results were so artificial and chaotic that on every tune it sounded as if the bride and groom wanted to pack their suitcases in the middle of the night and go back home to Mother and Father. On "Modern Day Jazz Stories," you're hearing the sound of a musical honeymoon, and it's a delight.
Pine and Pogo had a truly extraordinary cadre of American musicians to help: Geri Allen on piano and Hammond B-3 organ, bassist Charnett Moffett and one of the most creative of all young drummers, Ronnie Burrage. Sitting in for two luscious tunes is vocalist Cassandra Wilson, with guest appearances, for good measure, by guitarist Mark Whitfield and trumpet player Eddie Henderson.
I had a tape of this thing going in my car for about three months without getting tired of it. I fell in love with it on its first tune, "The 37th Chamber," a hand-clapper reminiscent of Joe Zawinul's "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" for Cannonball Adderly. On the very next tune, Cassandra Wilson's deep ebony voice is inlaid around Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain" and the hook is in, never to come out. Before it's over "Dah Blessing" sounds like a happy pastiche of a movement from Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" and "Each One (Must) Teach One" sounds like a Horace Silver soul celebration.
It's blatant jazz popularization, but not in a way that cheapens or vulgarizes Pine's models even the slightest bit. It's just one extraordinary British jazz musician expressing the pleasures of one kind of jazz fusion and popularization with phenomenally precise, fluent and even fierce post-Coltrane playing. He has, in addition, a jubilance that may well be constitutional. In other words, Courtney Pine is one happy player on every track of "Modern Day Jazz Stories." He is, therefore, one of the precious few who can make fusion and outright popularization seem like God's work. Rating: **** 1/2 .
While Pine succeeded breezily and wonderfully in doing what Branford Marsalis tried so hard and so clearly couldn't do (and lost his "Tonight Show" gig in the process), Marsalis has teamed with his father, pianist Ellis Marsalis, in a sumptuous duet record called "Loved Ones" that is one of the best discs either has made. The premise of it was clearly to send out a bunch of musical valentines to standards with women's names -- everything from "Delilah's Theme" and "Bess You Is My Woman Now" to "Sweet Lorraine," "Louise" and "Miss Otis Regrets." But all that intended program served to do was inspire father and son to make one of the most melodically rich and musically intimate jazz records you will ever hear.
The liner notes by son (and brother) and producer Delfeayo may be pure jive, but for once, the disc's title couldn't be more apt. The love between these two musicians is audible and soul-filling to hear. On a few occasions, in fact, you can hear son Branford's soprano or tenor saxophone champing at the bit to play a dissonance or a tone at the extreme end of the musical mode, only to be advised by a couple of decisive chords from the family patriarch, "Why don't you play what's there first before wandering off to play something else?"
The tenderness and respect from these two players couldn't possibly be more basic, and the music that results from it is quietly majestic. What they do on "Maria" and "Bess You Is My Woman Now" finds deep wells of expression within the song that have seldom been touched. And both the engineer and the instrument Ellis Marsalis plays befit the paterfamilias of what has become the most important musical family in jazz.
Though it seems to have been released for Valentine's Day, they probably should have released it for Father's Day. If ever there was a record that was, quite literally, a "song for my father," it's "Loved Ones." Rating: **** 1/2 .
Another side entirely of Marsalis pere is offered by "A Night at Snug Harbor," a 1989 Ellis-led convocation at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival for some Big Easy homeboys and friends. This is Ellis Marsalis, not as introverted melodist but as the extroverted pedagogue and leader of a jam session for tenor saxophonists Rick Margitza, Tony Dagradi and Donald Harrison (the latter a great rarity on tenor). Art Blakey sits in on one tune and trumpeter Nicholas Payton -- who was then all of 15 years old -- startles everyone with a high-powered prodigy blast that clearly had audience and musicians alike in ecstasy.
This is the Ellis Marsalis who has been the center of one of the great jazz renaissances of the century. The notes, again by Delfeayo, might have made more of an effort to distinguish between Dagradi and Margitza's solos, but the playing is robust and swinging throughout. Rating: *** 1/2 .
COURTNEY PINE Modern Day Jazz Stories (Antilles 314-028-2).
ELLIS AND BRANFORD MARSALIS Loved Ones (Columbia CK-67369).
ELLIS MARSALIS A Night at Snug Harbor, New Orleans (Evidence ECD-22129-2).