Music

The Jazz is Dead label avoids being a vanity project to create something entirely new

Jazz is Dead from Adrian Younge and A Tribe Called Quest's Ali Shaheed Muhammad features artists who have managed to slip below the commercial radar.

Rich heritage Saxophonist Gary Bartz, a Jazz is Dead collaborator, onstage in Copenhagen with Miles Davis in 1971 Photo by Ib Skovgaard/JP Jazz Archive/Getty Images

Having spent the past decade optimistically watching jazz creep out of the sidelines and into the mainstream, I felt slightly defensive last summer when an album arrived in my inbox from a new record label called Jazz is Dead.

All consternation died away however when I realised who was behind the project.

Ali Shaheed Muhammad of A Tribe Called Quest and producer Adrian Younge, a self-described student of classic soul, had gathered some of the most interesting heritage names in jazz to record brand-new material under their steer.

JID001 is a compilation featuring original recordings from accomplished artists who have, to some extent, flown under the commercial radar, but whose records are cherished and referenced often by musicians, DJs and collectors alike. The sampler gave a glimpse of the full-length albums to come from each featured artist.

JID002 came next – vibraphonist Roy Ayers’s first studio album in 18 years. Anyone familiar with Ayers will recognise the 81-year-old’s typical breezy summery musical character, and it’s given a shakedown here by Younge’s soulful production.

JID003 and JID004 followed, with Brazilian jazz funk fusion acts Marcos Valle and Azymuth respectively, followed by a release I was particularly excited about, a new record from Doug Carn – best known as a pianist and organist, and for his cult 1970s albums Infant Eyes and Adam’s Apple. Carn’s JID005 is dark and funky, full of his trademark juicy Hammond organ sound that fills up every space between the sax, trumpet and Younge’s Fender Rhodes piano.

The collaborative aspect with Younge and Muhammad, who co-write most of the music for the label, gives the whole series a beatsy, rootsy sonic coherence.

Saxophonist Gary Bartz’s contribution, JID006, is one of many collaborative recordings he’s made over the past few years.

Prior to signing with Jazz is Dead he made a record with London group Maisha, and he has toured, recorded and evolved consistently since beginning his career with greats like Charles Mingus, Max Roach and Miles Davis. His work with the Mizell brothers in the 1970s was sampled by Muhammad for A Tribe Called Quest.

Like his JID labelmates, Bartz’s work has been borrowed from extensively by hip-hop – Jurassic 5, Warren G and Young Disciples among others have mined his back catalogue. Brazilian pianist Joao Donato’s music has been a resource for a more recent generation of producers – Action Bronson and The Avalanches among them. Donato’s JID007 is a swirling, turbulent take on his signature laid-back bossa sound.

What could easily have descended into a vanity project has instead produced a satisfying full circle

Jazz is Dead takes its name from an LA concert series, and according to Muhammad it’s intended to be bold and provocative rather than morbid or critical. It surprised me to learn however that the name itself has been a draw for some of the musicians involved. I spoke to Gary Bartz around the time of JID006’s release, and he expressed an enduring irritation with the word jazz and its origins, the fact that it was born out of brothels in New Orleans, and he seemed to feel genuine relief to be putting a word he never felt a comfortable association with in its grave.

Long-time Gil Scott-Heron co-writer and collaborator Brian Jackson felt the same way; the label name was a persuasive factor in his decision to create his first full-length album in two decades. Younge’s elaborately equipped studio was the clincher – Jackson found himself tripping over the instruments filling up every nook of the recording space on his first visit. When he noticed Younge even had a harpsichord, that sealed the deal.

Despite being the latest in the series, Jackson’s contribution was actually recorded first, and set the tone for what was to come. JID008 is my favourite of the bunch; it’s sweet, fluttery and understated with a few choppy moments – a fulfilling listen even with the notable absence of a harpsichord.

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To say the albums sounds contemporary is beside the point; these artists have never been stationary in terms of their sound. They are not the types to rest on the laurels of their past recordings, and it’s a gift to have a label like Jazz is Dead to facilitate their fresh material. Even the uniformity in the album names emphasises the focus being entirely on the music.

What could easily have descended into a vanity project has instead produced a satisfying full circle. Beyond a tribute, or a greatest hits series, the artists Younge and Muhammad sampled and referenced so prolifically in their music have now linked up with them to create something entirely new. Jazz is Dead – long live jazz.

Anne Frankenstein is a broadcaster on Jazz FM

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