Ropeadope Records Round-Up: The Independent Jazz Label Dumps Mo’ Fire

Alex Dwyer breaks down the next crop of LA jazz stalwarts.
By    August 11, 2017


Alex Dwyer recommends tethering your foldable chair to the KFC/Taco Bell light pole on 43rd and Central right now for next year’s Central Avenue Jazz Festival.

Let me get this straight. By the time this muggy L.A. summer is over and October arrives, we will have seen the Los Angeles Jazz scene produce the following solo debut albums:

Astral Progressions — Josef Leimberg, October 2016 (trumpet, To Pimp a Butterfly Alum)

Uprising — Miles Mosley, January 2017 (stand-up bass, West Coast Get Down)

Planetary Prince — Cameron Graves, February 2017 (piano, WCGD)

Triumph — Ronald Bruner Jr., March 2017 (drums, Thundercat’s brother, WCGD)

Attention Deficit — The Jonah Levine Collective, March 2017 (piano/trombone)

The Heart of Infinite Change — Natasha Agrama, September 9, 2017 (vocalist, Austin Peralta, Thundercat, & WCGD collaborator, Stanley Clark’s stepdaughter)

Spangle-Lang Lane — Ryan Porter, September 22, 2017 (trombonist, WCGD)

With keyboardist Brandon Coleman’s debut forthcoming and all the follow-ups you can imagine—including more from Kamasi Washington, who will chase his 2015 debut The Epic with the Harmony of Difference EP right as your L.A. Jazz appetite peaks on September 29—someone just needed to nudge drummer Tony Austin, vocalist Patrice Quinn, and guitarist Marlon Williams. We might as well make all the formal introductions now.

If none of these names mean anything to you, don’t worry. I didn’t know them twelve months ago either. You can trace them back to Kamasi or Kendrick. They have links to many touring and recording musicians that’ve mattered in the last decade. If the beat producer rise elevated DJ decks above the shadows emcees had long cast over them, the L.A. jazz renaissance has scooted instrumentalists from the fringes to the front of the stage. 

If the above names aren’t homework enough, there are three more recently-released L.A.-based jazz debuts that require your attention. Released through Ropeadope Records, the label seeming to catch every artist of this wave not already on L.A.’s Alpha Pup Records imprint World Galaxy or Gilles Peterson’s London-based Brownswood Recordings. Oddly, the following three albums were conveniently released during the only months not yet occupied by other L.A. jazz records (all together, these 10 debuts account for some 105 songs and 8 hours and 42 minutes of recorded music).

Someone’s writing the script here and we’re all thrilled it isn’t Damien Chazelle.

Adam Turchin – Manifest Destiny

April 28, 2017

Like the route Pennsylvania-based Ropeadope Records took to arrive just in time to catch L.A.’s jazz resurgence, saxophonist Adam Turchin sold his collection of saxophones and left New Jersey only to find a job in Los Angeles trading—would you believe it—saxophones. I’d like to think his chance meeting with Terrace Martin stemmed from an inquiry about the only sax Turchin kept from his prior collection, a vintage 1965 Selmar Mark VI tenor given to him by his father. Their connection set in motion the making of Turchin as a session multi-instrumentalist, recording with the many artists Martin’s been tapped to produce.

It paid off. “5:55am,” a standout groove on his debut release was spawned in the immediate aftermath of Turchin adding his baritone sax alongside Martin’s alto and Kamasi Washington’s tenor beneath Lamar’s feigning belligerence on To Pimp A Butterfly’s “u.” It rides the line between the buzzing and broken mind space where creatives find themselves once a night of making breaks into day. It deals in grace and gnarl, as Turchin seems wont to do throughout Manifest Destiny.

Taking a cue from his mentor Martin, Turchin has cultivated a knack of being able to select collaborators based not on their likeness but on the likelihood they can extract the best music from a moment. “Hardly a piece of cake for me to take a leap of faith / my destiny was calling. So I answered,” raps the under-the-radar jazz-prone emcee Javier Stark on the endearment anthem, “Fruition.” On the same track and two others, drummer Robert “Sput” Searight who bagged Ropeadope’s first Grammy Award in 2014 with Snarky Puppy, is leveraged for percussion sizzle and punch.

Expectedly, it’s a collaboration with Martin that remains. “Memories,” the album’s lengthy finale follows a thread from last year’s Velvet Portraits finisher, an interpolation of TPAB’s “Mortal Man.” Both seem to point to a place before Kendrick, around the turn of the decade when Martin was tossing out riffs for Snoop and Turchin wanted to know if he could join in, and they both wondered about the destiny of the music they most cared for.

It’s not at all surprising to also find trumpeter Josef Leimberg included on “Memories.” Leimberg, who was first to debut in this current run of releases, had probably asked himself the same questions as Martin, Turchin, Washington, and almost everyone else in the scene before he blew the first three unmistakable horn notes on “How Much a Dollar Cost.” Then-President Obama later famously called it his favorite song of 2015: the last normal year before whatever it is we’re in now.

I heard Leimberg let those three notes ring out at Union Station at a free show in March. There were no lyrics. There were only the frayed souls who came in need of solace and the loose ends of society you find strewn in clean, well-lit public places. If you were there or you can imagine it, that’s how “Memories” and “Mortal Man” before it, can make you feel.

However it’s remembered in hip-hop history, March 15, 2015 was a marker of something for jazz that’s only now beginning to manifest.

Terrace Martin Presents: The Pollyseeds – Sounds of Crenshaw Vol. 1

July 14, 2017

Rosecrans runs West to East, akin to a turntable’s crossfader. Crenshaw runs North to South like the scales on a saxophone. If these planes represent L.A.’s X (rap) axis and Y (jazz) axis respectively, many of the city’s definitive sounds can be plotted on a graph between DJ Quik’s Rosecrans and The Pollyseed’s Sounds of Crenshaw Vol. 1.  

That funk represents the other-dimensional Z-axis is the subject for another day.

Here on earth, Compton MC Problem—who goes by Chachi when he opts to trade in tepid stanzas instead of sweet sixteens—is a qualified tour guide for both these concrete continuums. Casual listeners came by their SoundClouding millions to hear Problem as Chachi on the first two singles from the debut Pollyseeds project, “Up & Away” and “Intentions.”

In what could be called the anti-pickup-liner’s anthem, Chachi prods a PYT gently on “Intentions”: “How many men have you turned down tonight?” You half-expect Problem, the rapper, to arrive after the hook to chop up another famous well-worn strip of Angelino asphalt the same way he did Rosecrans. Instead, he stops short of making any detoured promises along Martin’s knoll-roll of a production. He easily bobs amongst background vocalists Wyann Vaughn and Rose Gold on the track’s frothy tide.

Rose Gold’s “You & Me” feature is an appropriate pairing to “Think of You”—a standout track from Martin’s Grammy Nominiated Ropeadope 2016 release Velvet Portraits—where the budding songstress meanders with a lover in the spaces between Marlon Williams guitar plucks and Craig Brockman keys. Unassuming wordplay is the spine of the album and it’s fast becoming a feature of Martin’s work. The approach might as well be a lightyear away from another street he titled his first studio album with—Melrose—produced with Mid-City’s Murs in 2011. A song called “Dandruff,” from that album begins with a flurry of steam-drum-sounding flute loops, “My girl ain’t got no sex drive, she on the pill / but if she don’t fuck me then I know somebody will.”

If that doesn’t do it for you, the Melrose cover will.

Maybe the times necessitated a change. Maybe age did. They are currently building a metro line down Crenshaw boulevard, as evidenced in The Pollyseed’s cover art, and maybe now was the opportune moment for Martin to discover that for all the people he’s worked for and all the carefree music he could make on his own, there were voices and vibrations on quickly changing streets that needed framing before they vanished.

Martin’s Pollyseeds work is a project of curated glimpses. Perhaps nowhere is this effect more pronounced than the two-minute improvisation at the end of “Funny How Time Flies” where percussionist Sput, guitarist Williams, and Martin shuffle together curling riffs like flies flapping against a steady breeze. The destination seems inconsequential. Present and past images provide no answers about the future.  

It’s the questions Martin asks of us and himself and Angelino soundscapes that produce another set of his vintage, velvety tapestries.

What if you take a Mini Moog, a Korg Kronos, a Vocoder and an MPC on a walk through Leimert Park and set up when the drum circle isn’t going on? How does the Baltimore-forged Rose Gold look in the unfading light of L.A.’s endless summer days? If Martin and Kamasi Washington take their customary poses behind alto and tenor saxophones only to disappear for a full minute on a short song, do any corridors remain for nonchalant play? What does it mean for a song called “Wake Up” to sound like a reluctant lullaby?

In answering the question the album’s press release begs, “What’s to become of Crenshaw Boulevard?” A Pollyseed might ask: “What does it look like for something to move and remain still?”

Trevor Lawrence Jr. – Relationships

July 21, 2017

Not unlike how drummer Ronald Bruner Jr. spent much of his debut album eating outside the pyramid of strict jazz, percussionist Trevor Lawrence Jr. opted for a more omnivorous approach on his Ropeadope LP Relationships. Like Bruner Jr., Lawrence Jr. comes from a family of musicians. His mother and father performed with the Supremes and Stevie Wonder respectively. He boasts his own career as a touring and session player with a range of artists from Bruno Mars to Alicia Keys to LeAnn Rimes.

Corralled on “Cornerstone” are the three jazz players perhaps most responsible for boomeranging the music back into the mainstream: Kamasi Washington on tenor sax, Terrace Martin on alto sax, and Nico Segal on the trumpet he takes his moniker (Donnie Trumpet) from when he plays in Chance The Rapper’s band The Social Experiment. Like the best beat boxer in a cypher, Lawerence Jr. slaps the snare and splashes the cymbals in a composition designed to bring the best out of the improvisers and Washington, Martin, and Segal don’t let up. Even after the six-minute mark has passed, you get the sense this could have gone on for double that without any listener tapping a button or any player missing a note.

As skillfully as his label mates, Lawerence Jr. distills the talents of lesser-Zeitgeist-associated musicians, evidenced by his tapping of underrated saxophonist Teodross Avery to provide the album’s title track with caress and carnage in equal enough measure. Lawerence Jr. jumps on the sax himself on “Alicia’s Song,” and goes at it mostly alone on the brief “IG Interlude,” both of which might have worked in a Low End Theory set.

If you’re overwhelmed, as I have been, and have decided to lump all these releases into a single category to be listened to later, turn your attention to Lawerence Jr.’s collaboration with Rimes on the album’s final track “Lovestoned.” This song is unfathomable. First, LeAnn Rimes hits the word “Lovestoned” with honky-tonk octaves last seen when she collected a Grammy at 14-years-old for her rendition of Blue Mack’s “Blue.” Then, the production careens forward with a stampede of bass kicks that coalesce into a cup-runneth-over-of-optimism you’d sooner expect after a Pixar feature than the thoughtful jazz processional tracks that preceded it. The drum machine comes later—the horns and the keys too—but the infectiousness will last far longer than the recording’s three and a half-minutes.

It’s not my favorite song on the record. I doubt it will be yours. It might even end up one of the few misfires among the 105 songs in this onslaught of jazz debuts over this twelve month period. Yet it’s the perfect symbol for what these sudden jazz debuts can achieve.

The era of Miles, Coltrane, Monk—a time when jazz players played what they wrote and then hit the road to perform it for audiences desperate for a chance to bear witness—has become an abstraction. Vocalists dictate the industry. Players pick up work where they can.

But when a session drummer can release a debut album with an outlandish closing track featuring a singer who has sold 37 million albums worldwide, there exists, in abundance, what any great debut should strive for: well-expressed potential.

What would the music world look like if the players took over again? If this year is any indication, we might live long enough to find out.

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