Arguably it was A Tribe Called Quest who first used jazzy live instrumentation in 1991 on their classic album “The Low End Theory” where they collaborated with the great bassist Ron Carter. Even though I loved that album, it wasn't until I got older that I truly realized the live Jazz elements used there as it was more sparse compared to the totality of Jazz-Rap fusion and live instrumentation present on Jazzmatazz. I should also mention the 80s rap group Stetsasonic was the first to use live instrumentation on a Hip Hop record and their producer Prince Paul would go on to work with De La Soul, a member of the Native Tongues family with Tribe Called Quest. While those projects paved the way for a full blown Jazz-Rap concept in Jazzmatazz, the Jazzmatazz album itself would pave the way for live band Rap groups like The Roots to take the concept even further as evident in their 1995 release “Do You Want More?!!”. Guru, who sadly passed away in 2010, should not only be regarded as one of the greatest emcees of all time, but also given proper dues and respect as a progenitor of the Jazz-Rap crossover genre. He was the main creative force behind the making of Jazzmatazz.
On this project Guru assembled a superstar lineup of Jazz musicians. Guru also is credited as having arranged, mixed and produced the album. It was recorded in 1992 at D&D studios in NYC. The Chrysalis Records label released the album in 1993. I was lucky to see Guru perform live with his group Gangstarr on two different occasions and I will always cherish those moments. One show was at a college where the Black Eyed Peas opened for them (I honestly couldn't wait for BEP to finish their set and leave more time for Gangstarr). The other show I saw was even better as they played with Erykah Badu, Common and The Roots (a superstar line-up).
The vinyl itself: My copy is a reissue pressed in 2016. A big issue with many rap vinyl pressings is sibilance and I'm happy to report that this record does not have a high amount of sibilance. The bass response is clear and does not muddy the overall mix. The horn sections are usually panned wide and given the space they need to sit alongside Guru's vocals smoothly. The cover art emulates old Blue Note records with solid blue in the upper third containing the album title while the rest of the frame features an extremely cool looking green tinted B&W picture of Guru exhaling smoke in front of a microphone, surrounded in darkness save for one bright light on his face. The backside of the cover contains extensive liner notes and credits, again in the style of classic Blue Note releases. Guru says in the liner notes: "Jazz's mellow tracks, along with the hard rap beat, go hand-in-glove with my voice."
Guru gets straight to the point and explains his ideas behind the project alongside a trumpet. A nice relaxing introduction.
Features Donald Byrd on trumpet and piano. The boom-bap beat blends seamlessly with Byrd's relaxing trumpet notes. When listening you can close your eyes and imagine sitting in a smoky jazz club and mellowing out to this amazing music. Some critics say that Guru's lyrics are too simplistic, however I believe the simplicity is equal parts accessible and deceptively complex. Guru himself said it's “mostly the voice” that matters, meaning his amazing tone, delivery and cadence. On those merits he excels with his vocal work. There are also interesting conversations between Guru and Donald Byrd embedded in the song about the music industry.
“When You're Near”
Features N'Dea Davenport on vocals and Simon Law on keyboards. A great groovy bass-line accentuates the keyboard chords. N'Dea's voice is smooth and seductive and she's given equal time on the track with Guru which strikes a fantastic balance.
Features Brandford Marsalis on alto and soprano saxophone and Zachary Breaux on guitar. My favorite track on the album. I love the interplay between the sax and guitar. The song creates an atmosphere that succeeds in making you feel like your are on the metro. Guru's cadence on here is stellar and the rhythm keeps your head bouncing. Marsalis' mix of saxophones and melodic playing is equally relaxing and stimulating.
“No Time to Play”
Features Ronny Jordan on guitar and D.C. Lee and Big Shug on vocals. Smooth jazzy guitar licks are prominent in this upbeat track. D.C. Lee sings a great chorus that's infectious and easy to sing along to.
“Down the Backstreets”
Features Lonnie Liston Smith on acoustic and electric pianos. Though many Hip Hop artists have sampled Lonnie Liston Smith's records, Guru one-ups them by actually having the musician himself play on his record. The rhythmic swing in his piano playing here induces lots of head nodding.
Similar to the Introduction, where Donald Byrd prefaced his feature track by playing a short trumpet line while Guru spoke, this track gives a preview to Roy Ayers' vibes while Guru converses.
“Take a Look (At Yourself)”
Features Roy Ayers on vibraphone. Another staple in Hip-Hop sampling appears in the flesh to perform on Guru's album. This is my third favorite track on the album as I'm a huge fan of Roy Ayers work. I love Guru's simplistic hook and it's fun to rap along to. The vibes on here are absolutely magic and exude sweetness.
Features N'Dea Davenport on vocals. The most traditional Rap/RnB sounding track on the album that works to balance out the stronger jazz fusion elements of the other songs.
“Slicker Than Most”
Features Gary Barnacle on sax and flute. It's so fresh to hear a flutist soloing underneath an emcee rapping. These fusion elements are what make Jazzmatazz so unique and valuable.
“Le Bien, Le Mal”
Features MC Solaar in an outstanding international collaboration. You know an emcee is talented when you don't speak their language and they still capture your attention. His tone mixes perfectly with Guru's and together they made a beautiful song. It's my second favorite track on the album.
“Sights in the City”
Features Courtney Pine on alto and soprano sax and flute, Carleen Anderson on vocals and Simon law on keys. A beautiful closer as Guru tells a serious story against a backdrop of more bluesy style Jazz fusion.
5.0 out of 5.0 Octaves.
All serious music collectors should own this record.