[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, “Bizarre Ride,” appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
Miles Davis once claimed, “The thing to judge in any jazz artist is, does the man project and does he have ideas?” Flying Lotus recently said about the bass god Thundercat: “There's never been a time I worked with Thundercat and he didn't have ideas.” His music also projects with astral dimension.
Jazz fusion isn't exactly a genre that has been overflowing with ideas lately. What was once the province of legends like Miles Davis, Tony Williams and George Duke saw its public face become the dentist's-office soul of Kenny G. Enter Stephen Bruner, the South Central-raised fusionist whose Apocalypse is my favorite record made in 2013. Released this week on Lotus' Brainfeeder imprint, it heralds the sort of low-lit jazz renaissance that occurs every decade or so.
If you have been keeping score over the last quarter-century of jazz, you've probably heard about more deaths and rebirths than on an episode of The Walking Dead. While it's not about to supplant Macklemore at the top of the charts, the truth is that jazz will never need a real funeral, aside from a New Orleans brass band procession.
During the early '90s, Gang Starr, Digable Planets and The Native Tongues all used jazz samples as the bedrock of classic records. Freestyle Fellowship applied modal techniques to their dizzying rap bars. Branford Marsalis, the saxophonist-leader of The Tonight Show band, dropped a Buckshot LeFonque record that featured co-production by DJ Premier. Miles Davis' final record, Doo-Bop, found him collaborating with former Notorious B.I.G. producer Easy Mo Bee.
During the last decade, Madlib kept the blunt aflame with his jazz record for Blue Note and his sorely unsung work under the Yesterdays New Quintet moniker. Many dismissed his wanderings as stoned indulgences, but time will eventually reveal him as the latest in a long line of unhinged and idea-laden jazzmen. Unlike his early-'90s kinsmen, the Stones Throw fusionist needed no external collaborators. His hybridization of break-beats and scratches with organic instrumentation was done solo.
If Dilla was our John Coltrane of beats, Madlib is our Ornette Coleman: unpredictable, radical and still alive making music, even if we mostly hear compilations of his old material.
If you're assessing the most influential artists of the 2000s, Madlib is at or near the top. His musical fracturing of the space-time continuum affected the sound and approach of Kanye West, Tyler, the Creator, Flying Lotus and J Dilla, and hence trickles to almost everyone in beat-driven music.
Not only did Lotus release Thundercat's new record, he also handled production. There are songs inspired by cats and by Wes Anderson films, and celestial threnodies devoted to the much-missed jazz pianist Austin Peralta, who died last year. What's so radical about their approach to jazz is they aren't attempting to emulate the fusion of Miles Davis, George Duke, Roy Ayers or George Benson (to name a few), they're using it as a starting point to create a modern jazz as affected by R&B, pop and hip-hop. (The pair also recently worked with Herbie Hancock.)
Nor are the Brainfeeders alone in abrogating preconceived notions of what jazz is and isn't supposed to be in 2013. Between Tyler, the Creator's production and The Jet Age of Tomorrow, Odd Future is almost as jazz it is hip-hop. The new Daft Punk record, meanwhile, has a song or two that sound directly swiped from Steely Dan. Even Mac Miller is planning a jazz album. Not to mention The Robert Glasper Experience, whose rap, soul and jazz fusion sells out venues across the globe.
But the most ideas belong to Thundercat's Apocalypse, which takes its name from the end of days but sounds more like a new start. Miles Davis might have put it more simply: That motherfucker can play.