Jazz Is Dead 17
Musical Performance: ****
Sound Quality: ***
Overall Enjoyment: ***½
Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad have helmed 16 previous recordings for the Jazz Is Dead series. They’ve worked with well-known jazz musicians, such as Roy Ayers, Brian Jackson, and Gary Bartz, as well as more obscure players. For Jazz Is Dead 17, they’ve developed nine tracks with jazz keyboard player Lonnie Liston Smith, whose discography includes 16 titles as a leader, and many other outings as a sideman. He contributed keys to albums by Miles Davis, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Gato Barbieri, and many other musicians over a career that began in the late 1960s.
Smith recorded a series of soul- and disco-influenced jazz albums in the ’70s, and many of his recordings from the ’80s leaned in the direction of smooth jazz. He returned to more straight-ahead jazz in 1986 with Make Someone Happy, but soon found himself without a recording contract. He recorded sporadically over the next ten years or so, but Jazz Is Dead 17 is Smith’s first recording since 1998’s Transformation.
As with other Jazz Is Dead recordings, Younge and Muhammad collaborated on the tunes with their guest artist. The two also played a variety of instruments during the sessions at their Linear Labs Studio in Los Angeles, California.
Greg Paul’s hard-stomping but funky drums jump out of the speakers on “Love Brings Happiness,” which features singer Loren Oden. Younge uses a wah-wah pedal on his guitar, which adds to the ’70s funk groove of the tune. The track also has elements of Latin rock, courtesy of congas and other percussion, which Younge also provides. Younge’s fluid but thumping bass prods things along, but it’s Smith’s arpeggios and flourishes that give the song its grandeur.
Oden also sings on “Cosmic Changes,” a thoroughly engaging slice of ’70s-style jazz/funk that doesn’t sound at all dated. Paul’s driving, rhythmically compelling drumming centers the multilayered instrumentation, much of it from Younge, that surrounds but doesn’t overwhelm Smith’s Fender Rhodes piano, which gives the song its harmonic richness. Oden sings on two other tracks, “Love Can Be” and “A New Spring,” and his singing is one of the great pleasures of Jazz Is Dead 17. His voice has range and power, but he brings sensitivity and grace to his performances.
The remaining five tracks are instrumentals built around Smith’s keyboard skills. His piano lines form the backbone of “Dawn,” which also features Younge on many other instruments, including reeds. On “Fête,” Muhammad’s bass locks in with drummer Malachi Morehead’s groove in support of Smith’s twinkling Fender Rhodes. “Gratitude” focuses on Smith’s acoustic piano, with Younge adding support on bass, keyboards, vibes, and other instruments that dart around Smith without taking attention from his melodic inventiveness.
Younge and Muhammad add small details throughout Jazz Is Dead 17 that give the arrangements atmosphere and texture. The spikey synth lines in “Cosmic Changes” have an otherworldly, ’70s sci-fi vibe, and Younge’s acoustic guitar adds to the song’s percussive momentum. A Hammond B3 brings some ’60s-style soul jazz to “Love Can Be,” but it plays against a ’70s-era synth. The effect is to successfully bring together different eras of jazz. Overall, each of the nine tunes on the album creates a strong groove, thanks in no small part to the drummers, Paul and Morehead.
Muhammad plays Fender Rhodes on one track and bass on four others. Younge plays multiple instruments on every track—as many as eight—so there’s plenty of overdubbing. The sound could have been clearer. Oden’s voice was not as sharply presented or as out in front as it should be, and most of the recording had a slightly distant feeling. I compared the Amazon HD streaming version to the LP, and the digital playback was a bit brighter, the LP more organic, but both could have used more space and depth. My pressing of Jazz Is Dead 17 was on a hefty 180 grams of vinyl and was flat and quiet.
The less-than-ideal sonics didn’t keep me from enjoying Jazz Is Dead 17. Younge and Muhammad have given a strongly individual jazz musician an overdue chance to make music on record. They also get to show their own considerable talents. The result is one of Lonnie Liston Smith’s strongest albums and one that reaffirms his skills and his place in jazz.
. . . Joseph Taylor