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To Pimp a Butterfly: the shape of jazz to come?

Kendrick LamarKendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly feels and sounds like one of the most important albums in years. I only wish I were able to explain properly why that might be so, but it would take somebody with a much deeper and more secure knowledge of the musical idiom and, more important, the social context from which it springs.

In his excellent Guardian review, Alexis Petridis invoked the names of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Sly Stone. I hear something different. What it reminds me of — and this is about as high a compliment as I can pay — is a group of albums that came out in the late ’60s and early ’70s, reflecting black America’s various states of mind in that turbulent era: the proud isolationism of Eddie Gale’s Ghetto Music, the deep lament of Art Ensemble of Chicago’s People in Sorrow, and the rage within the Last Poets’ debut album (the one containing “Niggers Are Scared of Revolution”). It doesn’t sound remotely like any of them, of course, but it springs from the same collective consciousness, albeit from a very individual and, as it seems to me, original viewpoint. It, too, speaks of a turbulent time.

If you want to take your involvement further than appreciating the surface of the album, by getting to grips with the complicated issues that Kendrick Lamar is exploring, it’s worth listening to it once all the way through while reading the lyrics, which can be found here, along with a certain amount of textual analysis. Introspection is not uncommon among rappers, and there’s a refrain which crops up on several of the tracks: “I remember you was conflicted / Misusing your influence / Sometimes I did the same / Abusing my power, full of resentment / Resentment that turned into a deep depression / Found myself screaming in a hotel room.” But what’s going on here is not solipsism or self-pity. Lamar seems able to find a connection between his own soul-searching and a broader social context.

The totality of this very big and complex picture is what counts, but among the individual highlights for me are the sudden explosion of hard bop in “For Free? (Interlude)”, the appearance of Ronald Isley to sing a single resonant verse at the end of “How Much a Dollar Cost”, and the extraordinary passage in the closing “Mortal Man” where Lamar edits in sections of an interview given by Tupac Shakur, interposing his own voice in the place of the original interviewer (we don’t know whether he has rephrased the questions, or is merely repeating them). Tupac talks about the imminence of conflict: “I think that niggas is tired of grabbin’ shit out of stores and next time it’s a riot there’s gonna be, like, bloodshed for real. I don’t think America know that.” He died in 1996, almost 20 years before Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and, now, Walter Scott.

Easier for me to talk about is the contribution made by people such as the trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, the pianists Robert Glasper and Brandon Coleman, the saxophonists Terrace Martin and Kamasi Washington, and the bassist Stephen Bruner (known as Thundercat) and his brother, the drummer Ronald Bruner Jr. The inclusion of these musicians in a project such as this, and in Flying Lotus’s You’re Dead from last year, might be among the best things to have happened to jazz in recent decades.

Ever since the eruption of bebop, which moved jazz away from the dancefloor, there has been a problematic relationship between jazz and the popular music of the day. Sometimes, as with the Charles Lloyd Quartet of the late ’60s, Miles Davis’s post-1968 music, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and, in a lighter tone, the work of Ramsey Lewis, Ronnie Laws and Roy Ayers, jazz has edged closer to the relationship it enjoyed in the ’20s and ’30s, when it maintained a balance between mind and body. It may be — although I say this very tentatively — that we are seeing the beginnings of re-engagement at a more organic level.

From the jazz perspective, there are extremely interesting interviews about the making of To Pimp a Butterfly with the participants here (with Natalie Weiner of Billboard) and here (with Jay Deshpande of Slate). Martin, Steven Ellison (Flying Lotus), Washington, Coleman and the Bruner brothers are around 30 years old and, like Lamar, grew up in Los Angeles. Several of them received an informal education at the late Billy Higgins’ regular World Stage gig in Leimert Park. Akinmusire, who is a similar age, was born in Oakland. Glasper is in his mid-thirties and was born in Texas and studied in New York. They are equally familiar and comfortable with the music of John Coltrane, Public Enemy, Sun Ra, Tupac Shakur, Thelonious Monk and Snoop Dogg. They know these idioms from the inside. And they’re finding ways to make that familiarity work.

I’ve also been listening to an advance copy of Washington’s extraordinary debut album, a three-CD set called The Epic. It’s a big work in title, tone and textures, almost three hours long, divided into 17 tracks, and lining up a 32-piece string orchestra, a 20-voice choir and the occasional vocal contribution by Patrice Quinn alongside a 10-piece jazz combo. An extract from one of Malcolm X’s most celebrated speeches also makes an appearance.

In its layering of the combo and the choir, The Epic has some of the sweep of Max Roach’s It’s Time and Donald Byrd’s I’m Tryin’ to Get Home, both of which were arranged, in 1962 and 1964 respectively, by the African-American composer Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson. In jazz terms, it stays mostly “inside”: the moves are the familiar ones of modal jazz from the era of A Love Supreme, before Coltrane cut loose in 1965 with Ascension, which took him into the final phase of his career. Any disappointment at a failure to engage with those later developments is mitigated by the sheer energy with which the music is attacked, and the degree of inventiveness on display within the now-traditional forms.

Washington’s music comes at you in waves, surging and receding with the power that Carlos Santana and Mike Shrieve were looking for when they tried to harness Coltrane’s sound and spirituality to the drive of their own Latino rock on Caravanserai, Welcome and Borboletta in the early ’70s. Multiple drummers, multiple electronic keyboards and modal structures are among the common elements. This is music in search of transcendence and/or catharsis.

Forty years later, however, there’s a great deal more self-assurance about this project, and the solos — particularly those of Washington, who has a sound as big as his ideas, and the trumpeter Igmar Thomas — never lack conviction or substance. Here’s a sample, a comparatively straight-ahead 14-minute piece called “Re Run Home”. You might find that the trumpet-trombone-tenor sound puts you in mind of the front line on Coltrane’s classic Blue Train, but there’s nothing to object to in that: why not use it as an available colour, offset by a very differently orientated rhythm section? Stay with it through to the conclusion, where the textures grow sparser but the groove intensifies.

It’s too early to be definitive about all this, to claim that this new development represents the future, or to dismiss it because the kind of jazz they’re exploring/exploiting isn’t, of itself, new and challenging. What matters is that some interesting young minds are facing up to the problem of where jazz goes next, and they’re turning it into an adventure.

* The photograph is from the insert accompanying To Pimp a Butterfly. The credited photographers are Denis Rouvre and Roberto Reyes. The Epic will be released at the beginning of May on the Brainfeeder label.

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12 Comments Post a comment
  1. David Everall #

    Richard,

    Have you seen the Robert Christgau Review of this album (link below) ?
    View story at Medium.com

    April 10, 2015
    • I hadn’t, so thanks for pointing it out. An excellent summary. The Village Voice was extremely stupid to get rid of Christgau.

      April 10, 2015
  2. GRAHAM ROBERTS #

    I hadn’t spotted the Alexis Petridis review of Kendrick Lamar’s ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ but I am sufficently intrigued by your comparison with Eddie Gale’s late 60s recordings to add it to my ‘must buy’ list. Gale’s ‘Ghetto Music’ and its successor, ‘Black Rythmn Happening’ – featuring Elvin Jones – are amongst the first jazz albums I can remember buying, probably influenced by Melody Maker reviews at the time. I love them both – but what a pity that they seem to have been overlooked by various Blue Note CD re-issue programmes; probably too much to expect that they might be given a CD release now, but I live in hope!

    April 10, 2015
    • Ghetto Music was reissued on CD a few years back by the very good Water Music label of San Francisco. Still available, I think.

      April 10, 2015
  3. Glad to hear (and see) that they are letting Cuba back in. Thanks for this.

    April 10, 2015
    • V good to have a jazz perspective on this excellent album. I think a couple of tangential non-jazz points of interest are
      1) direction of travel (given that his last UK shows were essentially quite traditional rap events it will be interesting to see if Lamar now hangs around in this fertile terrain or strikes off in another direction)
      and
      2) the Kanye factor – West currently casts such a long shadow over self-consciously futurist notions of what a rapper can and should be that he’s almost daring young guns like Kendrick to look backwards to go forwards

      April 10, 2015
  4. Jeffery Gifford #

    No writer that I know of goes back to the same sources you do. Eddie Gale, Art Ensemble and Blue Train among those tributaries framing a picture of street life today makes for an interesting precept for a listening experience. Thanks for your perspective. For the heads up, Kudos for the heads up on THE EPIC and Kendrick Lamar,

    April 10, 2015
  5. WKB #

    I’ve been playing “i” for months mainly because it samples “That Lady”, which I can listen to all day. As this review points out however, on the album, it becomes something much more profound:

    http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/20390-to-pimp-a-butterfly/

    Nicely made observation re. James Brown in Boston 5/4/68.

    April 11, 2015
  6. Reblogged this on and commented:
    I don’t often re-blog stuff but I love these open and thoughtful reflections by Richard Williams on two of the most important albums of 2015 – I’ve llstened to both a lot over the past month and and along witn D’Angelo’s ‘Black Messiah’ are both investing your hard earned dosh in.

    April 11, 2015
  7. Dear Richard
    When I saw “WordPress – To Pimp A Butterfly” arrive in my inbox I was intrigued when I saw it was you, and read it immediately. To Pimp A Butterfly was already on my buy list but after reading your piece, as humble and respectful as it was insightful and informative, I was moved to buy it immediately.

    Now I’m writing as I listen for the first time, and I’m already looking forward to listening again, with the lyrics in front of me, as we did when lyrics were printed on LP sleeves.

    I feel blessed to have experience the likes of Stevie, Marvin, Sly et al, at their awe-inspiring peaks but I almost envy young people discovering To Pimp A Butterfly and converting friends to its funk, melodies, fiercely adventurous – and deeply serious – brilliance. I’ll be doing the same.

    Thank you.

    April 12, 2015
  8. Jon-A #

    “What matters is that some interesting young minds are facing up to the problem of where jazz goes next, and they’re turning it into an adventure.” I bet Chris Barber, Ken Colyer, Monty Sunshine and the boys felt that way back in ’53…

    I just can’t see it. I think people are reading far too much into some young folks importing a few dated Jazz flourishes into their music. Now, if Tyondai Braxton and his dad start collaborating, THAT would be different.

    April 18, 2015
  9. Richard – great to hear you enthusing about The Epic and Butterfly – I’d add You’re Dead and Thundercat’s The Golden Age of the Apocalypse to that list – so refreshing and bursting with ideas – I’ve seen Thundercat playing what most jazz heads would describe as vocal-led jazz rock fusion to 20-year old kids (some 3,000 of them at Flying lotus’ Roundhouse show last November) who lap it up not really knowing what they are hearing but loving the energy and the vibe… improvising to crowds that big is happening now – the question is how do the old and new ‘jazz’ audiences begin to talk to each other – and more importantly how does the incumbent jazz media engage with them too?

    Keep listening to the good stuff 🙂

    April 30, 2015

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