It’s only 10 p.m. on a frigid Friday at the Mercury Lounge, a dimly lighted East Village club, and a 10-man acid jazz band called the Groove Collective is already heating things up.
As congas, drums and electric bass lay down a pulsing Latin-tinged beat, the players begin a free-flowing jam that builds from interlocking riffs on keyboards, horns and vibraphones into a galloping jazz groove. Soon the dance floor is packed with a multiracial mix of hipsters in their 20s and 30s, all nodding and bobbing to the percolating beat.
“It’s so refreshing,” says Kenneth Willardt, 29, a photographer who has recently discovered the acid jazz scene. “I’ve always loved jazz, but it kind of died out. And I’ve gotten so tired of rap and grunge. Acid jazz is really positive.”
Since it emerged from London’s dance club underground five years ago, acid jazz has grown from a cult into a global phenomenon. A fertile fusion of traditional jazz, 70s soul and funk, Latin percussion and hip-hop rhythms, it has spread from England to America via acid jazz parties staged at clubs like the Cooler and the Supper Club in New York, Brass in Los Angeles and Soul Sauce in Philadelphia.
Acid jazz has also taken root in Germany, Brazil and Japan, where local musicians are concocting their own derivations. As a result, some originators of acid jazz have begun to shy away from the term, which they feel no longer describes the diversity of the new hybrid. They prefer names like street soul, eclectro, jazz not jazz, hip-bop and alternative rhythm-andblues.
With its upbeat vibe, underground allure and funky beat, acid jazz by whatever name bridges the musical gap between neo-beatniks in their 20s and middle-aged baby boomers. And by tapping the black roots of modern pop, it has introduced a new generation of listeners to vintage jazz and soul.
“It’s definitely the hippest thing out there right now,” observes Jared Hoffman, president of Instinct records, in New York, which has some 20 acid jazz titles. “You go to any bar or downtown boutique, and this is what you’re hearing. It’s still underground, but it’s growing.”
Now acid jazz may be poised to enter the American mainstream. Its increasing influence has been noted in recent months by both Rolling Stone and Billboard magazines; Billboard devoted most of the cover of its Dec. 17 issue to acid jazz.
The commercial and critical success of groups like Digable Planets, the Brand-New Heavies and Us3, whose album, “Hand on the Torch,” has sold more than 700,000 copies in America alone, has piqued the interest of major record companies.
Island records, for example, has issued a follow-up to its popular compilation “The Rebirth of Cool.” Geffen, Sony, Mercury and Warner Brothers all have albums by acid jazz artists due early this year, including new disks by the New York soul-jazz band Repercussions and England’s Jamiroquai.
Meanwhile, smaller, independent labels like Instinct, Talkin’ Loud in London and Ubiquity in San Francisco are continuing to produce a stream of vintage jazz-funk reissues - acid jazz anthologies and albums by new artists like Greyboy and Jhelisa.
“There’s an older crowd that is beginning to discover, wow, there’s music that they can buy again that’s funky and exciting and has the energy that disappeared from adult pop,” says Hoffman. “At the same time it’s capturing a younger audience that came at this by listening to hip-hop.”
The cross-generational appeal of acid jazz has revitalized the careers of jazz and soul musicians like Bobby Byrd, who was the co-writer and sang on James Brown’s “Sex Machine” and who recently released his first studio album, “On the Move,” on Instinct.
Warner Brothers has jumped on the reissue bandwagon with Mwandishi, a double CD of tracks by Herbie Hancock that he recorded with a fusion jazz ensemble for the label between 1970 and 1972.
Acid jazz is also inspiring creative collaborations between jazz veterans and younger stars. “Stolen Moments: Red Hot and Cool” pairs traditional jazz masters like Hancock and Donald Byrd with up-and-coming artists like the rapper and producer Guru and the singer Me’Shell Ndege’Ocello.
“It’s the music of this decade,” asserts Byrd, who worked with Guru on the 1993 jazz-hip-hop album “Jazzamatazz.” For Byrd the union of hip-hop and jazz was not only natural but inevitable.
“The jazz of the 1920s and 1930s was always the music of the kids and the people,” says Byrd, who is currently at work on “Jazzamatazz, Vol. 2” and a new incarnation of his pioneering jazz group, the Blackbyrds.
“Jazz was always a dance music until Miles Davis cut the tempo and it became more of a concert hall experience,” he says. “Now it’s returning to its roots.”
Hancock, whose jazz fusion recordings are a major source of inspiration for many acid jazz artists, believes that the fast-forward blur of contemporary American culture has left an emotional void only jazz can fill.
“The information flies by us so fast,” he says. “As a result, young people are searching in the past for the thing that’s going to lead them to the balance that the human spirit has to have in order to feel like itself. One of the things they’ve found in jazz is a freedom of expression and a palette with a broad spectrum of colors.”
Hancock’s new record, “Dis Is Da Drum,” will be released by Mercury early this year. He describes the record as a mix of African and American street beats overlaid with jazz melodies played on acoustic and electronic instruments.
While some purists balk at the notion of marrying the thrusting rhythms of hip-hop to the nuanced sophistication of jazz, Hancock finds the two genres perfectly compatible. “It all started back from gospel music and the influence of Africa and slavery at the turn of the century,” he says. “Then out of that evolved the blues and rock-and-roll. So I don’t know how anyone can say there’s no relationship, because it all comes from the same tree.”
Gilles Peterson, of Talkin’ Loud and the London disk jockey credited with coining the term “acid jazz,” now rejects it as too outdated to be meaningful. What started as a lark when he mixed classic jazz numbers with Brazilian percussion tracks and electronic “acid house” dance beats in the late 1980s has evolved into an array of styles that ranges from the electronically sampled jazz groove of Us3 to the eclectic hip-hop of Urban Species to the soulful pop of the Brand-New Heavies.
“To me, the spirit of acid jazz is something that was happening in 1989-90, and then it sort of translated differently in different places and became different things,” Peterson explains. “So that’s why I say that acid jazz, as a term, is dead.”
What does the future hold for acid jazz?
Gary Katz, who worked with Steely Dan and is now producing records for the Groove Collective and Repercussions, believes that “it’s just a matter of time before one or five artists come along and bust it open for a mass audience.”
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