The Blue Series and the Crossover Attempt
by Andrew Livingston
In early March, the Nielsen Year-End report for 2014 reported that sales of jazz albums were the worst sales in the country. Jazz is becoming the least popular genre of music and after a generation of innovation, jazz was being left in the dust of music genre's cross pollination and the speed of the internet to have audiences thirst for something new. But in the early 2000's, one label and one veteran jazz figure had an idea to reach new audiences with a new approach to a crossover.
The Thirsty Ear Recordings label was not new to creative concepts. Started as a marketing company in the 1970's, Thirsty Ear got into the record label business in the booming 1990's after a success of helping to market the yet-to-be-huge Alternative market in the '80's. The label's early catalogue success was in re-issues of industrial classics from the Swans, Test Dept and others. Thirsty Ear's adventurous spirit carried over when they tapped jazz pianist Matthew Shipp to be the artistic director of the new Blue Series. Shipp's aim with the series was to marry the current performers in hiphop and the burgeoning electronic scene with Shipp's contemporaries in free jazz.
So how did they do it? A series of albums cross-pollinated with the established and the new, with the old and the current, coupled with a stark & sleek design that accompanied all the album covers. They did it by offering cheap sampler CD's that could appeal to a younger listener willing to spend $3 for something new. The Sampler's were a good idea, putting names like William Parker and DJ Spooky next to each other, piquing the interest of a listener of one if not necessarily both. But there were three albums that were key to the crossover attempt.
Antipop Consortium vs Matthew Shipp (2003)
If there was ever a group perfectly assembled for the Blue Series it was Antipop Consortium. Taking their roots more from the pastiche of electronic music than the stripped down boom-bap of late '90's hiphop, APC were the brainchild of a poetry slam meeting between MCs Beans, High Priest, M Sayyid and producer Earl Blaize. In many ways, they exemplified the adventurous scene coming out of New York at the time, gaining comparisons to Aesop Rock and MF Doom, but the groups success wasn't found in the backpacker scene, but overseas and in the electronic realm. The strange thing about the album collaboration with Matthew Shipp that appeared as Antipop vs. Matthew Shipp is that it was the last Antipop album before they broke up. And for a group that was known for their knotty rhymes, one MC didn't appear in the album credits and the record is built on many instrumentals. But you can see why Shipp chose them as collaborators as piano chords become looped and topped off with John Carpenter-esque synth pads, a sonic fray that has organic and technology first playing off of each other than intertwining and then back to adversarial roles.
Outside of a true collaboration, it seems that Shipp handed Antipop a number of sounds and snippets and the group fashioned tracks after that, but it doesn't coalesce into a jazz band backing MC's. On some tracks, it's hard to tell if there is even a collaboration going on. It certainly sounds like a group on the edge of splintering, with directions going every way and singular voices taking over entire tracks. If Shipp wanted to work with Antipop it sounds like he was on the tail end of an era for them.
On the few tracks that sound the most cohesive, like “A Knot In Your Bop," you get a taste of what could have been the fully realized version of the joint effort. Drummer Guillermo E Brown is at his funkiest and bassist William Parker joins him into the grove, the efforts of the band, which include trumpeter Daniel Carter and vibraphonist Khan Jamal, have the roots of a wild and free groove. “Staph" has tight trio work of Shipp, Parker and Brown, with a ceiling of synth sounds and squiggles while MC's trade off sparse rhymes to let the sonics really sink in.
At the time, the hiphop scene had been through what was considered its renaissance of the early-to-mid 1990's and the scene was wide open. It wasn't a bad choice for Shipp to choose to collaborate with a group that was so left of center, but the timing of the collaboration was poor. Antipop disbanded in August of 2002, the album was released in February 2003. It also suffered from what sounds like too little in the room collaboration. The tracks are built with care, but too often it sounds like tossed off portions are working in tandem rather than coupled together.
The group had reunited in 2007 and kept in the good company of Thirsty Ear and Shipp. Beans collaborated with William Parker and Hamid Drake in 2006 for the Only album and joined fellow Antipop member High Priest for an effort with Matthew Shipp called Knives from Heaven, both of which appeared on Thirsty Ear.
High Water (2004)
Coming from the same geographic and spiritual area of NYC Hiphop, but sonically in another world, was El P. With his group, Company Flow, and later his label, Definitive Jux, El P became the cornerstone of a weird hiphop era. His choice to contribute to the Blue Series was a little left field, his tracks with Company Flow and under other albums he produced were blistering, dense pieces of sonic real estate. But in High Water, he took a different approach to the dynamic. The Blue Series Continuum, as the band was known, improvised to compositions sent to them by El P. The band remained the core of Shipp on piano, Parker on bass, Gullermo E Brown on drums and Daniel Carter on reeds and flute. They were also joined by Roy Campbell on trumpet and Steve Swell on trombone. When the compositions fully realized by the BSC, they were sent back to El P for restructuring.
The result is probably the best album produced in the series. El P abandons his hiphop roots and brings forth a subtle, open aired jazz album. Although some samples sneak into tracks, they're a topping on the structure built up by the BSC. El P's hands are all over it, but more in fingerprints than fists. The band's looping, rhythmic takes are perfect for addition and subtraction by a forward thinking producer like El P. Although it also doesn't have the collaboration in a room feel of the Antipop album, it is infinitely a more focused affair. El P's musical contributions blend and fit with the compositions, the band is in full beast mode, tackling track after track of adventure.
And although El P doesn't get on mic once, it doesn't make for a disappointment. The action is otherwise so strong and dense, adding another voice to it doesn't really make sense without taking a piece away, and that's a hard thing to rationalize once you hear the album. The one track that does feature vocals is “When The Moon Was Blue" which starts off with El P's signature thick synthesizer sound before breaking into a sentimental piano coupled with a gruff drum sound. The vocals, scratched and warbly, come from El's dad, jazz pianist Harry Keyes. The song is a sweet touch, but also has an underlying menace to it, and the ability to switch from sentimental to darkness mirror how much work El put into the album.
High Water received a number of positive reviews and as a coup for Thirsty Ear, had a peak position for US Independent Albums at number 46. Not bad for a jazz album produced by an obscure hiphop guy. El P went on to release solo albums and produce for many artists and is currently a member of the acclaimed rap duo Run The Jewels.
If the connection to hiphop seemed tenuous at best, bringing on Spring Heel Jack was a supremely left field move. The English duo of John Coxon and Ashley Wales were popular in the talent heavy drum and bass scene of the 1990's and even had a small bit of crossover appeal, producing “Walking Wounded" for Everything But The Girl in 1996. They had a career that could have rested on its laurels in the electronic scene, but by their 2000 album Disappeared, they began employing more of a jazz sound by bringing in John Surman for the recording.
Masses turned into first of many albums for Thirsty Ear and included a band of ridiculous pedigree. In addition to Coxon and Wales, the Blue Series Continuum for this album included Guillermo E Brown, Daniel Carter, Roy Campbell Jr, Evan Parker, William Parker, George Trebar, Ed Coxon, Mat Maneri and Matthew Shipp. Coxon and Wales used what seems to be a similar method to El P, working with the group, bringing in bits and pieces, but letting the organic nature of the ensemble dictate the turns.
“Chiarascuro" booms from the speakers as a double bass and handclap stomp, but instead of high BPM, it's slow and calculated- an Evan Parker solo wails above it before Guillermo Brown adds another level of aggressive percussion to it.
Coxon and Wales bring from drum and bass an ability to build around a simple bit and create a compelling pastiche of sound. They, rightly so, abandoned the trappings of dn'b for the album, and are not afraid to incorporate the more discordant sounds of a free jazz group. Where El-P's album was soft edges and curves, Masses has spikes and valleys of sound to complete the exchange. The album is rich with sonics, with hardly a missed opportunity to fill the air with something and Spring Heel Jack knowing when to pull back and when to lead.
The Spring Heel Jack album was probably the most complete version of what the Blue Series hoped to attempt. The collaboration's lead to a sequel in Amassed and then the same group plus Jason Pierce from Spiritualized got together again on Live. The next year, Spring Heel Jack came out with The Sweetness of Water. They had the most collaboration albums of the series.
The Blue Series still exists today, though production is down to a trickle and they've mostly abandoned the thesis of the series sometime around the late 2000's.
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