Unorthodox band mixes rap with jazz
There are numerous bright lights emerging on the fringes of jazz these days. Attracting the acclaim of crowd and critic alike, these groups tend to be more unorthodox, less academic and more political than the average instrumental collective. Look, for instance, at the Jazz Mafia collaboration in San Francisco, and in particular at the Shotgun Wedding Quintet, a jazz band playing live beats under Bay Area rapper Dublin. Their second full-length album, “Tales from the Barbary Coast,” is one of those rare records that could function as a history lesson or a projection into the future, as a record that can enthrall the jazz neophyte, hip-hop fanatic and jaded jazz enthusiast all at the same time.
“Barbary Coast” is a collection of short stories that are rapped in verse and enlivened by the contributions of a thrilling band. Not only the voices of San Francisco but the footsteps, police sirens, frantic escapes and seedy hotels are brought into vivid light through the music. Dublin’s lyrics dredge the Bay and scour the streets for seedy material to unearth, and the tales that emerge are often sordid and always riveting. Opening with a tale of enigmatic lost love (aptly named “Vertigo”) and closing with an allusion of Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy (“To Be or Not B-Boy”), Shotgun Wedding Quintet plays blunt and direct no matter the subject.
The most confrontational songs deal with the subject of religion and politics, a combination that Dublin finds toxic to say the least. In “White Knight Riot,” he excoriates Christians who “praise [God’s] name but perpetuate evil” on the city’s LGBT community and on the minds of their children. “One hand on the Bible/The other hand on a gun/Sarah Palin said God brings light/So don’t believe in the sun.” The way the rage is framed, with booming bass drums, and guitars distorted with electronic effects, carries the song, which can be brutally critical in an eloquent way. Christians are far from the only targets of their songs. They stand in good company with people who romanticize suicide (“Too Hip To Live”) and the apathetic (“Politics”). Throughout, Dublin remains cool and detached with breaks into more manic cadences accompanying appropriate lyrical turns.
Meanwhile, the band is the furthest from subdued you could get. Few if any pre-programmed beats are present here. Instrumentalists are rowdy, talented and working with energetic compositions. pDubL, the drummer, gets a starring turn anchoring the beats with his nimble use of the bass kick. Because of the presence of a live drummer, the arrangements, including Dublin’s raps, feel more dynamic and have nothing of the monotony that can seep into more programmed rap sounds. Adam Theis contributes bass, trombone and tuba, adding plaintive wailing or humorous spikes at unexpected moments. Theis and the other instrumentalist, Joe Cohen, are multi-instrumentalists, with Cohen contributing saxophone, organ, synths and piano to the mix. Instrumental interludes feature some light improvisation from horns, keyboards and guitars, but the entire operation is tightly wound, sacrificing some of the spontaneity of jazz music but giving it a more purposeful and propulsive groove. These songs are danceable earworms as well as great stories, a powerful combination to be sure.
Shotgun Wedding Quintet is winning itself a considerable live audience in the Bay Area, and for good reason. Unafraid of controversial topics and armed with a bevy of instrumental talents and a knack for infectious beats, they have produced one of the best rap and jazz albums of the last few years.