10 August, 2004@12:00 am
Weldon Irvine was a true original in American music. He was a uniquely soulful jazz pianist with a vision that touched all of his peers, from Joe Henderson to Nina Simone. He was a conduit of experience to the hip-hop world, influencing and working with artists like Black Star and Q-Tip. He was a philosopher who, like Sun Ra and John Coltrane, regarded music as a vehicle to take mankind to a better place. And like many great American musicians, his life ended tragically. In 2002, he unexpectedly took his own life, shocking those who knew him.
Madlib, the mad hip-hop genius from Oxnard, California shares a musical sense with Irvine. They both have a sound that combines familiar, honest grooves with an otherworldly drive and desire. And, more simply, they both see clear connections between jazz and hip-hop. Madlib got his start by producing for Tha Alkaholiks and then moved on to create albums with the Lootpack and on his own. He debuted his jazz side project, Yesterday’s New Quintet in 2001 with a pair of EPs and the full-length album Angles Without Edges, which was a blunted but very well-composed revision of the meaning of jazz. Under the YNQ moniker, Stones Throw records has now released Madlib’s tribute to Weldon Irvine, and given Lib’s ravenous following, it is sure to be a success.
However it’s important to note that Madlib didn’t create A Tribute To Brother Weldon for public consumption. It, like the recent Stevie project, was made by Madlib, for Madlib and a small group of privileged listeners. But it doesn’t really hurt anybody to release these albums, and many more people can enjoy them this way. But the thing with Brother Weldon is that you can tell that you weren’t meant to hear it.
From start to finish, Brother Weldon is an extremely intense record. Its brooding experiments make it a challenging listen to those expecting to hear clear melodies or consistent grooves, and unfortunately, its breakneck pacing doesn’t make it the most rewarding project Madlib has released. It starts with the nine-minute-long “Prelude/Run With The Sun,” which offers the listener no time to get acquainted with the record; you just have to dive in. It is a free-flowing collection of drum-based sketches, and it’s tough to really grab onto anything. Like much of the album, the amelodic nature of the track makes it hard to grab a hold of, and Madlib’s constant tempo shifts make the tension palpable.
Some of the numbers are less free, such as “Time,” which is a dense 3/4 groove that most certainly flies. “Still Young, Gifted & Broke” takes its title from Irvine’s first venture into musical theater, and it begins with a easy going riff that would be at home on Angles Without Edges, and slowly, but efficiently, builds into a maddening climax. Other tracks are more demanding of the listener. “The Beginning, The Middle & The End,” nearly seventeen minutes in length, is perhaps the most self-indulgent piece of music Madlib has ever released (though it’s hard to fault him for being self-indulgent on a record that was made for himself). Though the motif of the song is constantly changes, it always feels like it’s building towards something that never materializes. There is really no reason to listen to it more than once, and even that might be too much.
Given the amount of music Madlib puts out, it would be wrong to say that Brother Weldon is a misstep. It most certainly is an interesting record, but it lacks focus in any musical sense of the word. You can feel the passion behind Madlib’s playing, but an album with almost no melody and very little in the way of composition can only have so much replay value. It is truly great that in today’s hip-hop culture, where “originality” is a quality that only applies to those who are already famous, Madlib chooses to experiment constantly. But not every experiment can yield a Quasimoto or a Madvillain. A Tribute To Brother Weldon is more of a curiosity than anything else, and by the end of the year it is sure to be obscured by other Madlib projects.
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