With a bevy of releases and forthcoming projects from the likes of Jill Scott, Music Soulchild, Res, The Roots, Amel Larrieux, Ursula Rucker, Black Thought, and Christian McBride, the city of Philadelphia has re-established itself as the pulse of black popular music. It was little more than a generation ago that the city and its signature “Sound of Philadelphia” dominated the pop music charts via the music of The O’Jays, The Stylistics, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Patti Labelle, Teddy Pendergrass, The Intruders, and the Ebonys, much of which was crafted by songwriters/producers Leon Huff, Kenneth Gamble, and Thom Bell. The City of Brotherly Love is also home to Wil Smith, “Jazzy” Jeff Towns, whose Touch of Jazz production house is responsible for a good portion of Philly’s neo-Soul, filmmaker Cheryl Dunye (A Stranger Inside and Watermelon Woman) and prominent black intellectuals Farah Jasmine Griffin (If You Can ‘t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday) and Michael Awkward (Scenes of Instruction). More than a century ago it was in the city of Philadelphia that W.E.B. DuBois plopped down to write his classic ethnographic study The Philadelphia Negro.
In other words for some time now the city of Philadelphia has claimed significant black cultural capital that has often been overshadowed by that produced in New York, Atlanta, Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Some time ago the city also produced a young saxophonist who got his start playing in the kind of hard bop style organ-saxophone combos that the city would be famous for in the 1950s. John Coltrane’s “sheets” of sound would alter the landscape of modern jazz and usher in an era of intense probing avant-garde improvisation that would mark jazz’s transition from an accessible dance music to an high brow art form. Philadelphia Experiment the self-titled disc from the trio of drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, bassist Christian McBride and keyboardist Uri Caine, all native Philadelphians, acknowledges the rich legacy of jazz and soul in the city of Philadelphia creating a provocative stew that ranges from iconoclast solo improvisations to highly inventive and accessible instrumentals.
The Philadelphia Experiment was recorded over a three day period in September of last year. Thompson who is best known for his role as drummer in The Roots and as the impresario of Philly’s Neo-Soul revival was a high school classmate of Christian McBride at the Philadelphia School of Creative and Performing Arts. The school has also produced a number of Philly Soul elites including the aforementioned Larrieux and Musiq Soulchild. Keyboardist Uri Caine used to drive McBride to some of his earliest professional gigs in the city. Though Caine is firmly entrenched his avant-garde classical piano, McBride in mainstream Hard Bop and Thompson in Hip Hop/Neo Soul the “experiment” allowed them to draw on their distinctive sensibilities and create a sound that was unique to Philly’s musical legacy. The project also features guest appearances by other Philly natives such as guitarist Pat Martino and trumpeter John Swana.
The trio opens with a nod to Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way with the moody title track. “The Philadelphia Experiment” is a cacophony of exchanges between Caine’s urgent Hammond B-3 and Martino’s sinister guitar lines that is held together by Thompson’s insistent rhythms. The song acknowledges the creative landscape that Davis’ “electric” period cultivated allowing for the kind of cross-genre mixing that is at the heart of The Philadelphia Experiment.
While the project’s title track makes reference to the impact of “fusion” the choice of material throughout the project highlights traditions that were either eclipsed by “fusion” or those traditions that seemingly existed beyond the radar of “fusion.” Thus The Philadelphia Experiment logically includes a tribute to the late Grover Washington, Jr. simply titled “Grover.” Washington, who died during the Christmas season of 1999, was associated with the city of Philadelphia for much of his professional career as witnessed by his classic Winelight recording, which includes a tribute one of Philly’s other favorite sons Julius “Dr. J” Erving.
Washington is also generally regarded as one of the primary influences of what is called “lite jazz” where “jazz” soloists play over innocuous pop and R&B grooves. It is a tradition that can be traced to the great Miles Davis band that recorded Kind of Blue and the band’s two saxophonists John Coltrane and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley who would later become singular representatives of avant-garde and soul-jazz respectively. While Coltrane is generally lauded as one of the most important jazz instrumentalists, Adderley is given short shrift largely because his music was accessible and thus commercial. In the aftermath of his death in 1975, Washington would become the most popular proponent of what could be called “soul fusion”, a form that garnered none of the critical acclaim of “rock fusion” groups such as Weather Report. Though the song “Grover” begins with the familiar “lite jazz” groove it slowly evolves into a complex foray for Caine’s probing keyboard style and Martino’s chunky guitar. As a whole the song underscores the complexity of Washington’s own style, very little of which is reflected in the work of a host of “would-be Grovers” including David Sanborn (especially his early work), Gerald Albright (as Jigga would put it “he’s alright, but he’s not real”), and most famously Kenny G. To buttress their point about Washington’s significance The Philadelphia Experiment includes a stunning solo reading of his signature “Mr. Magic” by Uri Caine.
The trio recalls another soul music icon with their rendition of Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man”. The song was the title track of the soundtrack for a movie of the same name which starred Robert Hooks. Largely a foray by Gaye into instrumental jazz rife with hard bop influences, the recording was sandwiched in between two of Gaye’s most commercially successful and aesthetically meaningful recordings, What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On. Though Gaye was renowned for the spirituality inherent in his music — even sexual intercourse was a religious experience — the recording lacked any of the “gospel” sensibilities that made What’s Going On such a powerful cultural statement. Not nearly the commercial success of its predecessor — the title track is one of the few with actual lyrics — the recording was remarkable because its dark, moody colors anticipates the post-industrial (musical) landscape that would cultivate hip-hop a generation later. Thompson, Caine and McBride instead inject the track with a “gospel fervor” with McBride, in one of his best performances on the project, and Caine in particular transforming the track into a revival-like groove, which unfortunately is way too brief.
The real gems on the project are two tracks drawn from the catalogue of the under-appreciated ’70s hard bop outfit Catalyst. The quartet which featured Odean Pope on tenor saxophone, Eddie Green on keyboards, Al Johnson on Bass and Sherman Ferguson on drums recorded four sides for the Muse label between 1973 and 1975 (thoughtfully collected on the 32 Jazz release The Funkiest Band You Never Heard) much of which was obscured by the commercial fixation on fusion. Thompson and McBride in particular shine bright on the track “Ain’t It the Truth”. Joined again by Martino on guitar, the track “Ife Ife,” captures the classic Catalyst sound with Martino’s guitar playing the role initially performed by the song’s composer Odean Pope. Both songs were brought to the group’s attention by producer Aaron Levinson. As Thompson relates in an interview with Philadelphia’s City Paper, “He came up with the name, Uri Caine, Pat Martino, the studio and the idea of us jamming on classic Philly shit.He brought in a couple of albums like Catalyst and Grover, threw in Marvin Gaye because — six degrees of separation — he was a Frankie Beverly freak.” The quintessential R&B concert band (watch the crowds when they break into “Before I Let Go” or “Joy and Pain”), Philly native Frankie Beverly was discovered by Marvin Gaye in the mid-1970s.
Other highlights from the project include the Uri Caine and Larry Gold piano/cello duet on the Elton John hit “Philadelphia Freedom” and Christian McBride’s “hidden” multi-tracked “solo” on the Grover Washington and Bill Wither’s Grammy Award winning (from Winelight) tune “Just the Two of Us”.