On February 18, 2017 the Ecstatic Music Festival at the Kaufman Music Center in New York City presented Origami Harvest, a modern Jazz / Hip Hop fusion of the trumpet virtuosity of Ambrose Akinmusire with the postmodern rap lyrics of MC Kool A.D. Ambrose Akinmusire was the primary creative force behind this Jazz / Hip Hop collaboration which featured Kool A.D. along with the instrumental accompaniment of the contemporary string ensemble Mivos Quartet, piano and synthesizer effects by Sam Harris, and drumming by Marcus Gilmore. In an interview for Liquid Music website at the beginning of 2017, Ambrose states that Origami Harvest stands for a cyclical exposition of the various musical elements which make up the diverse ensemble’s presentation. During the performance each performer takes a turn at presenting his or her instrument’s unique voice as a metaphorical fruit, which is then harvested by the changes in the seasons. Through this cyclical performance, the sonic textures blend with one another and the juxtaposition of the diverse instrumentation folds upon itself in the same way that the folding of paper creates an origami image. The composition also explores how there is no clear beginning or end to a cycle as all preceding moods and textures morph onto the next section.
The piece began with the string quartet’s creating dissonant waves by making circular motions with their bows and sliding up and down the strings, which created the whispering sound of an ocean floor. This technique would be revisited several times. The intro by the quartet was a mix of dissonant and consonant sounds, which established an atonal motif for the rest of the piece. A different section also featured a modern chromatic piano solo, which was in contrast to the usual rhythmic groove patterns, Sam Harris, played on a synthesizer along with drummer Marcus Gilmore. MC Kool A.D. would typically rap over the synthesizer’s effects and drumming, and Kool A.D. would also add sparse lyrical content with varying dynamics throughout the sections. Interestingly, Kool A.D. attempted to mimic the virtuosic off-beat phrasing of Ambrose’s trumpet. Needless to say, Ambrose provided varies trumpet solos with the unconventional sounds of the Free Jazz form.
All the performers demonstrated a high level of musicality and control over their modern, unconventional sounds. Origami Harvest was successful in presenting a series of cyclical and separate sections featuring an atypical ensemble, however, the visual staging of where a performer stands while not playing could be improved upon or “relaxed.” There were awkward moments when MC Kool A.D. was just standing on stage silent while the quartet played. On other occasions, he compensated by repeating a lyrical phrase such as “and it don’t stop” or attempted to make creative moments. Ambrose also sat on a stool and avoided direct eye contact with the audience when he was not playing. The tension onstage could have been relieved if the performers had had more freedom to move around the stage. Perhaps, Ambrose or Kool A.D. could even have walked over to conduct a different section, which did not feature them. I believe this would have relaxed the visible onstage nerves of the musicians. After all, there is countless footage of Miles Davis or Jon Coltrane walking to the side of the stage to smoke a cigarette or gaze at the audience, while another performer took the spotlight.
With the current trend of musical fusions within the mainstream market, Origami Harvest is a commendable attempt to bridge the gap between the modern Jazz, Classical, and Hip Hop genres. Recently, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) received an unprecedented acceptance with mainstream audiences and won awards for successfully blending Hip Hop with Funk, Free Jazz, Soul, and Spoken Word. The album’s fusion was presented as a kind of avant-garde conceptual album, which featured Free Jazz prominent figures such as Kamasi Washington on tenor saxophone, Thundercat on bass/producer, and Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, among the various other instrumentalists. To Pimp a Butterfly brought Free Jazz elements into a Hip Hop production while Origami Harvest brought Hip Hop into a modern musical auditorium. The new and experimental trend that has united free jazz, classical avant-garde, and hip hop artists in a common musical aesthetic is evocative and inspiring.
Your connection with Kendrick Lamar is a good point. All of these “cross-over” projects really raise the important question about what, exactly, is crossing over into what? Whose territory is the “host”? Is there one anymore? Do we need labels anymore? What do the labels do for us? I suppose they help us with our expectations going into a performance. But I have to admit, the rapping in this show wasn’t anything like what I expected–it was sparse, percussive, extremely musical by leaving a lot of “open” space between sounds, and very sensitively executed.
What does the class think about labels setting up certain expectations and even stereotypes? Are labels useful or do they blind us to true musical innovation?
I remember reading the program and wondering what “post modern rapper” meant. Then during the performance I thought it was a description of how he combined “modernism” traits in his rapping like the sparse percussive phrases that were repetative in opposition to the more traditional flow of lyrical lines. I very much enjoyed the new approach Kool A.D. attempted as it also enhanced the aesthetic of Ambrose’s trumpet playing. I just personally would of liked them interacting more with each other and with the audience. I believe labels do get in the way of true musical fusion as they are inherently divisive and categorical, and have a historical past of targeting specific demographic groups based on race and social standing for the financial gains of record companies. I think labels could have a more positive affect if the motivation behind them was a pure creative descriptions that is inclusive of the actual musical experience rather then a categorical devise motivated by sales. As listeners and musicians I think we should disregard labels and pay attention to how one musical voice communicates with other musical voices and listen to what that conversation is about.
Maybe labels really are a modernist impulse–to name something and therefore to claim to understand it. Perhaps the postmodern project is to undo all labels and let things be! (which I have paradoxically labelled as postmodern!)