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El-P: High Water / Craig Taborn: Junk Magic

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It’s Twofer Tuesday: two exciting upcoming jazz releases by Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series.

The first, El-P’s High Water (due in stores March 9,) begins in a suspicious manner – not for a jazz album, necessarily, but for a jazz album issued via the Blue Series imprint of Thirsty Ear, and especially under the guidance of a hip-hop guru. For the first two minutes, dramatic, moody piano and muted trumpet fills the air with a very traditional sounding duo performance, but this quiet, reflective mood only lasts for those two minutes. This mood quickly gives way in the second track, as an ambiet-inspired, echo-laden trumpet gradually finds itself layered in performers, quirky sounds, and beats. The rest of the album is much like this – a hint of something traditional set off-center by sounds of the new. El-P shows his hip-hop heritage with much usage of sampling, turntables, and sound manipulation, but the attitude is never questioned – this is jazz, but it’s undoubtedly not your father’s jazz.

In an interview provided with the promotional copy of the album, El-P reveals that his role in the project was less player and more simply as a producer. He approached the project with the attitude that he was there to document the process and encourage players with the pedigree High Water‘s performers are known to have, and then to use what he witnessed as a basis for his own explorations. This attitude proved to be fertile ground, as El-P manipulates the elements in such a way that he allows the performance to shine through without being overshadowed by a flashy presentation, which will also allow the album to still sound fresh years from now.


Craig Taborn issues another slab of envelope-pushing jazz with Junk Magic on April 20, carrying on with the forward-looking theme of the Blue Series in a slightly (very slightly) more traditional manner than El-P’s offering. “Tradition,” for Taborn, however, means more in an avant-garde direction, relying heavily on the strong improvisatory skills of the band backing his keyboards and piano. The result is a slightly more ambient atmosphere than one would normally associate with Taborn, but it does not come across feeling foreign or forced, possibly due to the presence of violinist Mat Maneri whose own work seems to specialize in a similar, angular attack on jazz. Often, the music comes across reminiscent of score work for a film – moody, dark, and moving, such as the opening minutes of the title track. In fact, it sounds straightforward for the first couple of minutes until a mechanized beat and keyboard beeps begin to overwhelm the natural instruments and the track takes on a more aggressive, even sinister, attitude. Rather than sounding like a jazz album gone electro, it’s the opposite – electro gone jazz, as if Aphex Twin (or, more fittingly, given his jazz-bassist skills, Squarepusher) paired up with some cutting edge jazzers to cut something the IDM (“intelligent dance music”) freaks could get into. The jazz pedigree always shows through, however, so jazz fans need not worry that this is too much outside of the jazz realm. Tracks like “Bodies At Rest And In Motion” can’t hide their avant-garde obtuseness, even under skittering drum machines.

The big difference on these two releases is the beat – it’s less jazz and more street-savvy hip-hop. Will it sell to the hip-hop crowd? Unlikely – only the adventurous listeners who probably are already keyed up for El-P’s release will seek it out. Hopefully, however, they’ll pull in some intrigued open minds from both camps – who then might go on to create their own blend of these two seemingly disparate genres.

(Taborn’s Junk Magic is not available for preorder on Amazon yet, sorry, but be sure and check out his fantastic Light Made Lighter, also a Blue Series release.)

(Open minds dig unproductivity.)

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About Tom Johnson

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    Junk Magic is great…i’m still trying to digest it. there’s a lot going on there.