Album Review: Chris Dave and The Drumhedz – s/t [Blue Note Records; January 2018]

The line “mi chiedi dove trovo i miei occhi chiari” from the poem ‘Ricordami Cosi’ composed by Italian poet Alfonso Gatto and translated by Jack Hirschman as, “you ask me where I got those clear eyes of mine”, manifests after several listens of this album; clarity is what I hear in the sound, clarity of vision achieved by authoritative musicians fascinated by music and life, incredible enough to offer a vibrant jazz that finds its dynamism where our world is vibrant: on dance floors, in rhythm and seductive vocals, and lyrics which are post-modern love stories of self and of others.

Jazz, born in the big city, is both apotheosis and epiphany: not only in its beauty but its high levels of feeling. It could only have been born in New Orleans, where, in Treme, a black community was more dynamic than most other communities in the USA. Jazz was never elitist culture, quite the contrary. It embraced working class “oohs” and “aahs”, and the fact that socialism was a force in the US at the time may be no coincidence. An art form which travelled widely, it took on different shapes, from free jazz to swing.

Chris Dave and The Drumhedz have a working definition for jazz: ‘non-elitist music gorgeously arranged and orchestrated for an audience’s investment’. “Universal Language” manifests this, as a track on which rap and singing coexist with high art instrumentation. “Whatever” is another such song: it speaks to every person with humour; a young woman repeating ‘whatever’ with attitude, as is said in different languages all over the world. Miles Davis went for the same on his album “On the Corner,” and I wonder if it inspired this album.

This album has existential aspects to its vision: it asks us to not live capitalistically, as time is often in the ‘today’, and to make time for other beings. The song begins with “we met somewhere”, for it is a love story, slow-burning, and vertical with pride in its positivity. “She was sent from heaven” sings Bilal on “Spread Her Wings” in a duet with Tweet, who responds with an ode to him: “and I love the look on your face.” The song’s rhythm is slow and sultry, as much as the vocals are. Drum kit ablaze, it slows down time.

The album’s highlight is “Black Hole” (featuring Anderson Paak). It has serious oomph; the kind that jazz was first created to deliver. It elevates itself above the fray thanks mostly to great music playing. The album in its entirety is phenomenal and should be listened to first and foremost for its great instrument playing but also its song construction. The use of humour in many songs is unique and mesmerizing. Enter “Cosmic Intercourse”, a song that is obviously a descendant of Sun Ra’s jazz, but this time much more attuned to popular culture, all of which contributes to make this album something else.