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El-P - High Water

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Artist: El-P

Album: High Water

Label: Thirsty Ear

Review date: Mar. 10, 2004

It’s interesting to see that Def Jux head honcho El-P has joined forces with the stable of players associated with the genre-bending Thirsty Ear imprint. But on the evidence of the wondrous, sonically adventurous Fantastic Damage, (and, perhaps more appropriately, of the instrumental remixes of that record) it’s not such a surprise. It certainly seems like a lot of people – critics, listeners, and musicians alike – have a lot invested in the kind of stylistic cross-pollinization the Thirsty Ear Blue Series (curated by Matthew Shipp) favors. This recording sounds – like a lot of the others in this series – very loose, like a free-flowing set of jams (complete with false starts and snippets of studio conversation) that aim to span the idiomatic divide. And let it be said that these attempted conjunctions between hip-hop and avant-improv have a lot of potential. But while this particular cast of characters – including El-P, pianist Matthew Shipp, saxophonist Daniel Carter, trumpeter Roy Campbell, trombonist Steve Swell, bassist William Parker, and drummer Guillermo Brown, basically the Vision Fest All-Stars plus guest – might seem especially well suited to pull off the synthesis, the result is a muddy mess.

For the most part, what hampers the recording is a reliance on a single type of musical form: the vamp. Over simple (and endlessly repetitive) chordal structures, the players just noodle. And none is guiltier of tedium and aimlessness than Shipp, whose altogether too-serious gospel-esque piano mars the disc from the opening “Please Stay” (I’ll refrain from the obvious joke in response to the title). Now, there’s nothing wrong with repetition – much good music, from hip-hop to chamber music, thrives on it – nor is there anything wrong with a nasty, funky vamp. But you’ve got to have something to say. And on the majority of these tracks, neither the feel nor the expressionism of the players seemed particularly happening for me. I usually enjoy these horn players quite a bit; but though they make some briefly interesting commentaries here and there – a dab of muted trumpet, a dollop of gritty sax, or a heap of fat low-end ’bone – it’s not really enough to transform the material overall. And while the Parker/Brown rhythm team is a superbly gifted one, they spend a lot of time here in a holding pattern.

The only distinctive moments come from El-P himself, and it’s to his credit that this is so. Occasionally tracks are somewhat carelessly shellacked in reverb and various forms of digital delay/processing (like “Sunrise Over BKLYN”), but in many instances El-P contributes fairly subtle production touches (there’s no rapping on this disc, so El-P’s considerable producing talents are the focus). He casts shadows on the acoustic instruments, or throws up an unexpected electric obstacle for them to navigate. Despite these bright moments, though, the whole is less than the sum of its parts, perhaps because the electronic content is relatively minimal compared to the acoustic noodling. The excitement that Shipp and Co. can sometimes generate seems completely absent among these obvious licks and one-dimensional moods, as does the chaos-within-order risk-taking of a lot of the Def Jux hip-hop crowd.

Jazz recordings that groove are everywhere to be found, and I could probably throw a dart and hit one that’s more compelling than this. Genuine syntheses of jazz and hip-hop (or any vernacular form, for that matter) are far rarer, and unfortunately this one doesn’t really hit the mark. Anyone who gets geeked by this simply because – gasp! – jazz players are thrown in with turntables and samples just hasn’t been listening to enough music for the past decade. Who cares if the water’s high? What matters is that these guys are just treading it.

By Jason Bivins

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