drummer kassa overall plots a new jazz/hip-hop union

January 29, 2019
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On Go Get Ice Cream and Listen To Jazz, Kassa Overall’s first album as a bandleader, the acclaimed drummer/producer is stepping into a familiar minefield. Since hip-hop’s birth, its relationship to jazz has been as much a story of cultural continuity and the foundation-building of the “Next,” as of unrequited love, generational misgivings and missed opportunities. Despite huge individual albums, there’s been no well-defined path for the two musical cultures to move forward together, with the judgement of “success” and “failure” usually ascribed to whichever world the listener was coming from — at least until Kendrick Lamar got together with Kamasi Washington and Terrace Martin.

The 36 year-old Overall is no legend or novice, nor keen on conservative readings of the two musics or their union. For a while now, Kassa’s career — which already saw him playing behind jazz legend Geri Allen and electro-R&B futurist Gordon Voidwell, producing tracks for rap snots Das Racist, and creating new fusions with Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd — has been on course for a new land. First mapped by the likes of Dilla, the Soulquarians, Madlib and Karriem Riggins, it’s more recently been picked up by artists on the jazz instrumentalist divide; Robert Glasper and Makaya McCraven come to mind. And from its title on down, “Who’s on the Playlist?” is a study of Kassa’s vision of what this new union sounds like.

First off, it’s defined by shared language. Just listen how “Playlist” opens on a lyrically delivered Master P line, then slips pretty naturally into what is essentially a soulful duet, with Judi Jackson and Overall fronting an all-star band (featuring pianist Sullivan Fortner, bassist Stephan Crump and flautist Anthony Ware). But Kassa the hip-hop songwriter, producer and vocalist keeps interfering with the perfunctory script. “What’s the meaning of the algorithms if the rhythm is out of rhythm,” he says in one of the many great lines that questions modern technology, cultural consumption and outdated forms. But Kassa’s neither a traditionalist nor a blind techie looking for utopia here. The fluid way that “Playlist” moves from piano-trio softness to FlyLo-like sample moves, all without radicalizing the the song’s narrative, perfectly underpins the essence of Overall’s vision. In his hands, the minefield is a natural playground.

Go Get Ice Cream and Listen To Jazz is out now.