The question “What is jazz?” continues to be one of the defining debates in the music world. From musicologists to critics and fans, there is no clear definition of what precisely makes the subliminal, expressive art form of jazz. Is jazz the sound of a blues piano chord? A solo saxophone flight vis-à-vis Yardbird or Coltrane? The sonic manipulation and space-inspired sounds of Sun Ra and players like Marshall Allen? The controlled cacophony and genre deconstruction of John Zorn’s Naked City? Experimental electronic music producer and rapper Flying Lotus—real name Steven Ellison—would say: “All of the above.” And he takes the answer to heart on his sonically diverse and challenging new LP You’re Dead.
In a recent interview with Jazz Times’s Nate Chinen, Mr. Ellison established You’re Dead’s lineage in the jazz canon, stating that “The idea of jazz back in the day is that it was supposed to grow and evolve and change, and be this great form of expression.” Grow, evolve, and change are three words that perfectly capture the essence of Mr. Ellison’s highly imaginative and complex musical expressions on this record. Much like the early jazz of New Orleans or any number of earlier Duke Ellington works, You’re Dead does not stand as an album so much as a single, extended, composition: a modern electronica/jazz symphony, if you will. The musical themes and sounds that Ellison builds in the primary sections “Theme” and “Tesla” serve as the basis for everything else that is to come on the LP. Like a painter laying out his palette before an observer, Ellison wants his listeners to be aware of the themes and modes he works with throughout the record. From those two numbers, You’re Dead takes the listener on a journey through a winding, unstable and constantly changing musical landscape.
In this way, and in the occasional lyrical interludes, the LP takes a number of literary cues in addition to the musical. With its frantic pace, space-inspired sounds, implicit social commentary and visionary outlook, You’re Dead is more reminiscent of Blade Runner or Phillip K. Dick science-fiction epic than the simpler formulas of other popular albums (having composition titles like “Coronus, the Terminator” helps too). Ellison’s narrative and musical stylization is also reminiscent of the literary forms of another Ellison: The literary “jazz symphony” that is Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The themes that color and resonate across Ellison’s novel—the state and pace of modern, urban life, the societal disconnect, racism and personal isolation—are all themes woven into the rich musical tapestry of this electronica-jazz odyssey. Flying Lotus even shows a sly sense of self-awareness regarding the narrative of the album, beginning the disc with “The Theme” and featuring the composition “Obligatory Cadence” near the close.
The compositions that make up the gesamtkunstwerk that is the musical odyssey of You’re Dead are often shorter than most early jazz recordings, averaging in around one and a half to two minutes. However, what Ellison does in those minutes would make the early masters of hot jazz feel inadequate. Take the two minute, eighteen second “Moment of Hesitation” where Ellison combines John Poole-style, rapid fire, brush drumming, near-atonal guitar, Herbie Hancock’s (in the flesh) atmospheric, dreamlike piano runs and the Yardbird flight of Kamasi Washington’s saxophone into a complex yet accessible and evocative burst of music. At other points Ellison will mix in fusion guitar a la Jeff Beck meets John Zorn, throw down subwoofer destroying beats, and let the compositions simmer with the heat of the gospel and R&B tinged vocalizations that creep in sporadically.
While many producers could have a similar arsenal of musical tools at their disposal (though maybe not Herbie), it is a testament to Ellison’s stratospheric skills as to how he arranges the disparate parts into the rich sonic portrait they are. The key—and this is where his inner jazz man shines through—is in how Ellison produces and arranges every second such that each moment of sound grows organically and spontaneously out of the previous one. Whether it is in the seamless transition between disparate sounding compositions, such as the subtly crafted one between “Fkn Dead” and “Never Catch Me,” or the abrupt evolutions which occur in tracks like “Turkey Dog Coma,” the improvisatory spirit of jazz shows itself strongly across the LP.
What is furthermore remarkable about this musical undertaking is that it is an essentially through-composed record. While Ellison will hint at recapitulations and refrains of earlier musical or tonal themes, the music of each composition is essentially different from any others’ on the LP. Much like how Ellington & Strayhorn would never fully repeat sections of their compositions—instead subjecting “repeating” phrases or sections to harmonic development or rearrangement—Ellison accomplishes similar by having continuously unfolding, fresh musical and sonic material for the album’s 38 minutes. Even with its improvisatory nature, most mainstream jazz still employs some form of repetition. Flying Lotus soars above this issue, returning the music to an improvisatory instinct not seen since the heights of the first generation of free musicians.
Of all the spontaneous movements on You’re Dead, none is more welcome nor more artistically staggering than the unfolding of Lotus’s magnum opus: “Never Catch Me.” Working with visionary hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar, Ellison creates the most vibrant four minutes of music he has to date. Lamar’s flow weaves between some of the most beautiful instrumentals on the record—chromatic piano chords juxtaposed with psychedelic gospel choirs—and what is easily Ellison’s most accessible and propulsive beat. Lamar and Lotus weave in and out of each other’s existentialist, artistic statements like Satchmo and Oliver. To hear them tango is a privilege for any self-declared music lover.
Just as the original impulse of jazz is to form, evolve, and change, Steven Ellison seeks to do the same for both the modern jazz album and the jazz musician. In his role as producer-composer, Ellison is beginning to reshape the potential of what the jazz musician can do and what the jazz composition and jazz record can be. You’re Dead is one of the most aesthetically demanding yet artistically pure and rewarding works of this generation. “But is it jazz?” Damn right it is. Flying Lotus reinvigorates jazz with its original spirit of innovation, evolution and constant disruption You’re Dead, and hopefully this album will bring new life to the current generation of jazz.
- Originally published as part of my Sunday Jazz Column for WGTB - Georgetown Radio