June 1, 2017

beastie

Nitish Pahwa is readying his Lil Yachty jazz tribute.

At first glance, an album of mellow jazz interpretations may seem an inappropriate tribute for a group like the Beastie Boys, known mostly for music of a far opposite mien—thrashing, brash, sometimes bratty. Try to imagine the heavyweight rock of “Sabotage” or the rumbling bass of “So What’cha Want” stripped down to organ and saxophone, with the brazen energy replaced with a cool poise more suited for the coffee-house in your local gentrified neighborhood. As it turns out, a group of great jazz musicians did just that in 2004’s Boogaloo to the Beastie Boys, and what’s more, it surprisingly succeeds.

Boogaloo to the Beastie Boys is the second album in jazz guitarist Doug Munro’s Boogaloo tribute series on Scufflin’ Records, following a dedication to Beck and preceding future testimonials to Kanye and Eminem (Scufflin’ Records has several more jazz tribute albums to various artists, from the Isley Brothers to…Ludacris).

The project enlists session drummer LaFrae Olivia Sci, saxophonist and former Jack McDuff collaborator Andrew Beals, and legendary jazz organist Reuben Wilson, known throughout his decades-spanning career for similar funky covers of hits of yore (not to mention the nostalgic sample for Nas’ “Memory Lane ”). The album even features a cameo from late P-Funk legend Bernie Worrell, who comes in hot with a cosmic, tinkling electric piano solo on “Something’s Got to Give.”

Boogaloo to the Beastie Boys comprehensively covers highlights of the Beasties’ career, from the “old bullshit” punk days of “Egg Raid on Mojo” to the later ’90s with “Intergalactic.” Beals and Wilson respectively lead the show on saxophone and organ, literally transcribing the Beasties’ rapped cadences into their rhythms while liberally crafting their own melodies from these. They trade off verses and choruses just as the Beasties do, keeping the lively back-and-forth spirit alive—the tenor sax even recalls the high-pitched tones of Ad-Rock and Mike D, while the deep organ resembles the hoarseness of MCA. A little bit of the original fun is lost hearing the Beasties’ off-key singing in “Brass Monkey” streamlined into strict notation, but the funky rhythms keep it vibrant.

There is an infectious sense of fun in the way this group of musicians capture iconic moments from the Beasties’ discography and build off them into ecstatic moments all their own. In a typical jazz structure, each song starts off with the introductory verses and choruses before springboarding into extended solos for Beals and Wilson. Each solo is mesmerizing, energetic, and remarkably fluid—none sound pretentious or out-of-place in each song, seamlessly transitioning back into the starting verse and chorus at the end. While Beals and Wilson (and Bernie Worrell in his moment) are the clear stars, LaFrae Olivia Sci gets her moments filling in the iconic sampled drum breaks from “Shake Your Rump” and “Hey Ladies.”

The album is a joyful sequence of jam sessions, featuring a group of accomplished, exuberant musicians bound together by their mutual adoration for one of the all-time great rap groups. Of course, this is what the Beasties themselves were excellent at—taking past riffs and breaks and making them all their own.

After closing off with the laid-back “Namaste,” you wonder what further possibilities could have existed with the album—imagine what they could have done with the bouncy beats of “Shadrach,” or the weirdness of “Netty’s Girl.” Not to mention this album was released before Hot Sauce Committee Part Two, so we can’t know how this group would have taken on “Make Some Noise.” Regardless, the result is an endearing, delightful tribute — worthy of a listen by Beasties fans curious to see what happens when the group’s iconic hits are taken deep into the realms of jazz improvisation.