El-p High Water Review

BBC Review

Avant hip hop geezer El-p in the studio with the cream of New York's free jazzers...

Peter Marsh 2004

The Blue Series imprint is one of the most consistently adventurous American labels to have emerged in the last couple of years. One of its defining features is curator and pianist Matthew Shipp's willingness to experiment with loose collaborations between jazz musicians and experimentally inclined DJs and producers like Spring Heel Jack and DJ Spooky.

Avant hip-hop producer and rapper El-p (of Company Flow fame) is the latest addition to the list, teaming up here with a stellar cast of New York's finest players including Shipp, bassist William Parkerand trumpeter Roy Campbell.

It's become de rigeur to try and talk up the similarities between jazz and hip-hop (and indeed on the CD's accompanying documentary film you can hear El-p attempting that very thing), but this record (as you might expect) doesn't really attempt a straight fusion of the two. The problem is, its hard to know what it's trying to do.

What it sounds like is a fairly aimless jam session, which has then been played around with a bit on a computer and spiced up with a few beats and samples. This is an approach that can work wonders in the right hands, but El-p seems unwilling or unable to effectively engage with the material he has to work with.

Equally, the musicians seem to be slumming it much of the time as they fiddle around with the basic two chord vamps, simple riffs and skeletal modal constructionsthey're given to play with, or (on three tracks) Charles Aznavour's "Yesterday When I Was Young".

Here Shipp trots out pointless cocktail pianisms, presumably in an attempt to be ironic.It doesn't work.The longest of the three interpretationsadds a recording of El-p's dad crooning the song. It says much that this is possibly the most involving moment on the record.

It takes a lot to make the likes of Shipp, Parker and Daniel Carter sound like a bunch of noodlers, so maybe El-p should be congratulated on that front. There are moments of clarity and focus ("Get Your Hand Off My Shoulder, Pig" features some tidy rhythmic interplay, and Roy Campbell's luminous trumpet solo at the start of "Sunrise Over Bklyn" touches a few nerves), but by the time they've arrived you may well have lost the will to live; "Get Modal" has to be the most pointless, drivelsome thing I've heard this year.

Though High Water may have seemed like a good idea at the time (and still looks like one on paper), it certainly doesn't sound like one. A wasted opportunity this time, but no doubt Shipp and his mates have got much more up their collective sleeves. Watch this space...

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