Next Collective – Cover Art (2013)

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One of the striking features of the current crop of jazz stars poised to dominate the scene is how so plugged in they are with their contemporaries on the rock, RnB and hip-hip side of music. Today’s twentysomethings and thirtysomethings more than the prior generations see low (or no) barriers separating jazz from other music forms, especially the popular music forms. On their own records, they outwardly display as much fealty to the old jazz forbears as the Young Lions have done about a half generation earlier, but they’ll throw in a hip-hop beat here, a rock chord progression there, an indie vibe on a song or two, and then perhaps cover a Bjork, Radiohead, Oasis, Babyface or Prince tune.

The Next Collective makes all those influences and objects of admiration explicit. This alliance is a supergroup of some of the best of the emerging class: Logan Richardson (sax), Walter Smith III (sax), Matthew Stevens (guitar), Gerald Clayton (keyboards), Kris Bowers (keyboards), Ben Williams (bass), Jamire Williams (drums), and as a guest on some tracks, Christian Scott (trumpet). In a few days, they will debut with Cover Art, a collection of covers, all pulled from that contemporary music side.

The Next Collective is democratic to an extreme not often seen even in bands ostensibly formed to be leaderless. Each of the members got to select one or two tunes from the canon of contemporary mainstream music, and produce and arrange that track for the band. There’s minimal plugged-in instruments played on this album, outside of Stevens’ electric guitar.

Though Scott only appears on half of the album’s ten tracks, his shadow is long over this project. The purpose of this project seems to be to embrace the jazz of the past within its harmonic/rhythmic framework while filling up that framework with the language of these more popular forms. Up to now, Scott has been at the forefront of this endeavor to make jazz vital today within the present world of music; he even has a name for it: “stretch music.” Moreover, Smith, Stevens and Jamire Williams have been past or present members of Scott’s band, and his open embrace of other music styles, especially the styles that are played a lot on the radio, have rubbed off heavily on these guys. Splitting up the chores of song selection and their arrangements has the added benefit of insuring that there’s no sameness across the album, though the clear overall purpose for the endeavor also insures that it’s coherent, too.

The soft glowing “Twice,” by the indie group Little Dragon, is replicated in spirit by the group, but they slip more layers into the harmonics and rhythms underneath, mainly through Stevens’ shimmering guitar gives it an indie edge and Williams odd syncopations. On “Africa,” The collective brings to bear D’Angelo’s pretty descending chord figure, which presents an opportunity for both Richardson and Smith to engage in some likeable harmony lines together. Pearl Jam’s “Oceans” is reworked even further, but the kernel of the song remains, and Stevens applies Metheny-like pillowy notes to it (he does this again during Dido’s “Thank You”).

“Refractions In The Plastic Pulse,” a Stereolab song, is their most successful integration of deceptively simple, circular pop melodies with the immediacy of jazz. The first half of the song a easygoing, sunny vibe established by Ben Williams’ bubbling electric bass line and Bowers’ Rhodes and Richardson’s flute. The second half of the song takes on a more explicit rock sound with Stevens’ guitar getting edgier but it’s all played within a jazz waltz. A rendition that’s not quite as hypnotic as the original, but just as arresting, and likewise more revealing with each listen.

Scott contributes to only five of the ten tracks (and arranged/produced two of them), but he leaves a big footprint. He releases his fury on Jay Z and Kanye West’s “No Church In The Wild,” which contrasts artfully with Clayton’s considered modulations. He’s nimble on muted horn all through Ben Williams’ labyrinth arrangement of N.E.R.D.’s “Fly Or Die,” and his frail enunciations on mute are gorgeous on Drake’s “Marvins Room.”

The quiet revolution in jazz isn’t being led by the trumpeter alone, however, and the Next Collective’s remarkable debut makes the statement that there are plenty of highly skilled, insightful other revolutionaries to lead the charge. Cover Art is special in that they are all leading that charge together on the same battlefield. And like any battle, Cover Art kills.

Cover Art will be released February 26 on Concord Jazz Records.

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