The Process – Jon Batiste, Chad Smith, Bill Laswell [TrackList follows] – M.O.D. Technologies MOD0015, 49:01 [10/21/14] ***:
(Jon Batiste – piano, electric piano, Hammond organ, electronic keyboards, harmonaboard, percussion, co-arranger, co-producer; Chad Smith – drums, percussion, co-arranger, co-producer; Bill Laswell – bass, guitar, electronics, co-arranger, co-producer; Tunde Adebimpe – vocals (track 2); Killah Priest, Garrison Hawk – vocals (track 6); Toshinori Kondo – trumpet (track 4); Peter Apfelbaum – flute, tenor saxophone (track 6), soprano saxophone (track 11); Dominic James – guitar (tracks 7, 10))
Here’s an unusual but apt tagline for a release, “Three master musicians who’ve never met came together to score a film that would never be made.” That’s the premise for the 49-minute album, The Process, from keyboardist Jon Batiste, drummer Chad Smith and bassist Bill Laswell. The threesome joined forces in 2013 to generate music in a studio, with nothing written in advance, for an upcoming film which never appeared. Although, as things tend to go, the result wasn’t done in a solitary surge of creativity, but evolved or got processed, into a multi-genre outing which blends urban jazz, funk, hip-hop and more. Batiste, Smith and Laswell had not performed as a group before. Laswell’s advice was, “It’s a process, it’s a process,” and so the participants rose out of any comfort zone and made music which has its own story to tell. The Process was issued in late 2014, but got scant attention at the time. It deserves some late recognition. You can get an idea of what transpired by watching a brief making-of video which has in-studio music snippets and interview sections.
Batiste is an exploratory, eclectic jazz-inspired artist from Louisiana, who traveled to NYC to study music and became part of the city’s music community. He’s done straight-up jazz records, and also presents a mix of jazz, gospel, pop and R&B via his band Stay Human. He will be the bandleader for the new nighttime TV talk show, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, which replaces David Letterman’s CBS late-night network show. Laswell has made a career being out of step from any expectations, shifting from free jazz (see his recent foray with drummer Milford Graves, Space/Time-Redemption) to dub reggae to rap/hip-hop. Smith is the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ drummer, a member of the hard rock supergroup Chickenfoot and concurrently heads the all-instrumental jazz-fusion ensemble Chad Smith’s Bombastic Meatbats. Laswell, Batiste and Smith enlisted special guests for some of the 11 tracks, including TV on the Radio’s vocalist Tunde Adebimpe; rappers Killah Priest (of the Wu-Tang Clan) and Garrison “Hawkman” Hawk; NYC-based avant-garde jazz and jazz-fusion trumpeter Toshinori Kondo (a Laswell collaborator who has also worked with Peter Brotzman, Herbie Hancock and Ryuichi Sakamoto); and multi-reeds player Peter Apfelbaum (he has been associated with Carla Bley, Don Cherry and others).
The Process contains varying degrees and types of music, which means it does not always have a unified flow. There are hard-hitting jazz-fusion pieces; vocal songs with funk and hip-hop overtones; and Batiste improvises three solo piano interludes (“B1,” “B2” and “B3”) which act as foundational constructs. Anyone who wants a sneak peek of the material can stream short extracts of the tracks. The glue which holds everything together is Batiste’s multi-layered keyboards (he switches from acoustic piano to Hammond organ and utilizes various electric keyboards) and Smith, who supplies the rhythmic route, his hammering tom-toms and bass drum maintaining a deep bottom end. Subtlety isn’t his strength, but most of this material isn’t meant to be easy-going. Jazz-fusion fans should listen to tunes such as ultra-funky “Timeline,” where Batiste’s organ has the spotlight (at times he calls to mind the Southern soul of the Meters), while Smith delivers a relentless beat and Laswell contributes in-the-pocket bass lines. There’s more organ, with a 1970s vibe, on the equally funk-filled “Black Arc,” which sounds like an update of some forgotten gem from a Blaxploitation soundtrack, but with a twist by way of Laswell’s reggae-tinted bass riffs. “Spiral” is another one jazz listeners will appreciate. While there is a similar, persistent groove powered by Smith’s brawny, tribal drum patterns, he provides percussive touches which augment the groove, and Batiste slips in synth lines which impart a washed, liquid undertone. Unfortunately, this cut also follows a singular path without much variation, which some might embrace while others may need more modification in tempo or time signature.
The two numbers with horns furnish some interesting, modern jazz sensibility. The high-caliber “Haunted” has a quality reminiscent of early-1970s Miles Davis, (think “Funky Tonk” distilled into less than six minutes). Kondo’s processed trumpet also helps evoke Davis, back when Davis used an effects pedal connected to his horn. Apfelbaum is heard on the only medley, the seven-minute hip-hop/jazz hybrid “Turn on the Light/Ascent.” The opening section highlights rappers Killah Priest and Garrison Hawk. Priest sing-speaks about cosmic consciousness, while Hawk adds a Jamaican flair as he raps about freedom and justice. Then the track slows down into a semi-acoustic jazz template, with atmospheric keys, low bass and Smith’s relatively nuanced percussion. Apfelbaum’s tenor sax is saturated with digital effects, bringing about an otherworldly outcome, like jazz from the outer planets. The most outstanding piece is the should-be-a-hit “Drop Away,” which places Adebimpe’s distinctive and captivating vocals amidst a funk/soul arrangement tethered by Smith’s rock-steady drumming and Laswell’s throbbing bass. Laswell’s dub reggae characteristics come to the fore on the closing, dub-ambient “The Drift,” which glides through dark waters, anchored by Smith’s propelling percussion, Laswell’s dimly-lit bass lines (which seem to emanate from two rooms beyond the studio) and Batiste’s myriad keyboard glitches and noises.
TrackList: B1; Drop Away; Timeline; Haunted; B2; Turn on the Light/Ascent; Black Arc; Spiral; B3; Time Falls; The Drift.