Jazz and hip-hop coexist along similar planes, however, a fusion of the two often results in a tendency towards one particular aesthetic. For The Roots, the soundscape certainly leans more towards hip-hop, with the jazz induced horn improvisations providing a throwback sound. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly falls under a similar category, despite the tune “For Free? (Interlude),” which places Lamar’s fierce flow alongside be-bop influenced quartet playing. Robert Glasper and Christian Scott lean in the opposite direction. Their records breathe improvisation, an occasional hip-hop beat or rap verse sneaking into the ensemble sound to achieve a sense of modernity. On his new record Sélébéyone, Steve Lehman is nearly dead center. His angular, modern-jazz melodies perfectly complement the jumping overtones of Gaston Bandimic’s flow with vivid production pulling from both idioms. Rhythm also plays a big role in the album, each song encompassing different influences in the underlying bass line, challenging the soloists to exist outside of their typical comfort zone.
“Laamb” kicks of the album intensely; the ominous drones complement the vocal urgency with anxious piano arpeggiations adding to the menacing ensemble sound. Slowly a beat emerges with both rappers presenting brief verses, before ceding the space to Lehman and Maciek Lasserre for a long-form sax duet. The song serves very well as an open-ended introduction: none of the soloists completely expose themselves with the lyrics remaining relatively esoteric alongside subtle improvisational melodies. “Are You in Peace?” carries a bit more weight. Many layers of Lehman’s sax playing linger over the modern jazz groove with highly articulated meter changes adding to the impact of the vocal and instrumental solos. Both rappers touch upon moving on in the world while staying committed to their roots. HPrizm suggests that his career “Depend[s] on the pen” but he “still spray[s] an aerosol,” implying that he has made it as a rapper, but still uses graffiti on the streets. Bandimic also talks about his community, first suggesting that they are on stage creating art: “we’re flourishing as God intended,” then reminding the world that they are still at war: “There is no peace and no love today, only war.”
The following tune, “AKAP,” provides a decline in sonic activity. Bandimic simply shares words over an electronic beat to release some of the tension that has been amassed over the first two songs. “Origine” essentially throws the listener back into the thick of things. Another ominous synthesizer beginning leads into a heavy beat with verses from each rapper as well as high intensity improvisations from keyboard and saxophone. Similar events occur on “Cognition” with a bit more time given to the instrumentals. The back side of the record may stand out a bit less than the front, but “Dualism” provides a dramatic high point as HPrizm is left in ambience with eerie melodies courtesy of Lehman; “Bamba” then ends the album off on a high note, its seven minute length filled to the brim with fiery performances.
The fact that Lehman’s group have placed rap within an advanced rhythmic space is no small feat and it may be the driving force behind the album’s ability to speak as both a work of contemporary jazz and hip hop. Syncopated underlying bass lines provide the listener with varying rhyme schemes as the rappers are forced out of their comfort zone. The rhythmic conception is also not entirely comfortable to the more jazz experienced players. From bass-driven, African rhythms to slight London grime-tinged electronic beats the album presents a variety of sounds with the soloists guiding each other throughout. There truly is a trade-off taking place. Another product of these varying rhythmic approaches is contrast. Although the album is a bit lacking in memorable vocal hooks, Lehman and his ensemble achieve contrast with each tune presenting different rhythmic motives in different ways. Just as the rhyme scheme is made more advanced by varying metric schemes, the melodic development is constantly being shifted as well, leaving the soundscape open for variation.
Sélébéyone comes together extremely well. Not only do all of the soloists present well-constructed material, they successfully construct a fusion of idiom without over-emphasizing any individual player. By displacing each other rhythmically, the players open a cultural dialogue in which style and delivery constantly oscillate, resulting in fresh sounds and musical conceptions.
Steve Lehman presents a fantastic example of jazz/hip-hop fusion. Perhaps the album could benefit from stand-out singles but the overall experience is fantastic. 8.5/10