A Tribe Called Quest and Guru showed us that jazz and hip-hop share plenty of common ground. It’s when that crossover gets topical that the connective tissue grows even stronger, stretching back through the protest rhymes of Gil Scott-Heron, Miguel Piñero and the Last Poets—and if you want to dig really deep, back even to Langston Hughes’s Weary Blues, recorded in 1958 with Charles Mingus.
In their previous collaborations—2003’s In What Language? and 2006’s Still Life with Commentator—Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd deconstructed and thoroughly modernized that relationship. Jazz and hip-hop become building blocks for a complex, performance-based cultural critique, wherein pianist Iyer taps into electronic textures and free improv, while Ladd turns his sharp MC’s wit toward an incisive analysis of issues ranging from post-9/11 paranoia to the oppressive hyperreality of the infotainment age.
“Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project,” the latest Iyer-Ladd endeavor, is an ambitious piece of musical theater based on the phantasmagorical waking visions of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. (“Sleep Song,” coconceived with Baghdad poet Ahmed Abdul Hussein, debuts here in November.) Both tribute and sociopolitical commentary, the project features verse by young veterans Maurice Decaul and Lynn Hill, with a cast that includes avant-jazz pros like Guillermo E. Brown, Liberty Ellman and Okkyung Lee. True to form, Iyer and Ladd continue to mix music and media, but always with the goal of telling a story that’s concise, accessible and as serious as the nightly news.—Bill Murphy
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