Happy 25th Anniversary to Guru’s debut solo album Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1, originally released May 18, 1993.
Jazz has been a part of hip-hop since its inception. The creators of the hip-hop art form like Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa all incorporated records by artists like Roy Ayers and Bob James into their DJ sets. Mid-’80s hip-hop tracks frequently sampled songs like James’ “Nautilus” and “Take Me To the Mardi Gras.” And Gang Starr’s first single “Words I Manifest” sampled Charlie Parker’s version of “A Night in Tunisia.”
Truthfully, jazz has shown a love for hip-hop since the beginning of its popularity. Herbie Hancock released “Rockit,” a Grammy Award winning collaboration with Grandmixer DST. Miles Davis’ final album was Doo-Bop (1992), where he partnered with skilled producer Easy Moe Bee. And Branford Marsalis played the saxophone on Gang Starr’s “Jazz Thing,” the theme song for Spike Lee’s Mo’ Betta Blues.
So Jazzmatazz, the first solo album by Gang Starr’s Guru, is a logical extension of this musical symbiosis. Released 25 years ago, Jazzmatazz is the first successful example of fusing straight-ahead East Coast hip-hop with live jazz artists. Guru enlists a cast of jazz heavyweights to cut loose and show their love.
Given Gang Starr’s connection and his own deep and abiding love for jazz music, Guru putting together the Jazzmatazz project as his first solo album made perfect sense. Guru’s smoky, deep baritone always sounded like the spoken equivalent of a Ron Carter bass solo, and through his production for Jazzmatazz, he creates a sound that is perfectly suited for his vocals.
“My main concern was to maintain my street credibility and to represent the hardcore rap crowd because they got me to where I am now,” Guru says in the album’s liner notes. Guru worked to preserve the integrity of both the jazz and rap sides of the equation.
Guru generally followed one formula throughout the recording process. First, he’d put together the rhythm track (the drums and the bassline) and come up with the concept and title for the song. Second, the jazz performer would then record his soloist material over the existing rhythm track. Finally, Guru would lay down his vocals over the completed instrumental. The result succeeds in honoring both its rap and jazz masters. Both the lyrical and musical sides shine, as all involve shift tones and tempos from upbeat to mellow to melancholy.
The process works well throughout Jazzmatazz. “Loungin,’” the album’s opening track and first single, features the legendary Donald Byrd on both the trumpet and piano. Byrd solos throughout the track, using his unique style with both instruments to complement Guru’s vocals. Guru does his part as well, flowing with stream of consciousness raps that both extol his and Byrd’s skills. Vocal samples of Miles Davis talking about the power of jazz run through the track intro and choruses fit in well, maintaining the song’s mellow feel.
Other jazz luminaries excel throughout the album. Branford Marsalis plays both alto and soprano saxophone on “Transit Ride,” serving as Guru’s co-pilot as they guide the listener through the sights, smells, sounds, and pitfalls of the New York Subway system. Navigating the way through the harsh streets of NYC becomes a central theme throughout Jazzmatazz, as songs like “Down the Backstreets” (featuring Lonnie Liston Smith on piano and keyboard) and “Sights of the City” (featuring Courtney Pine on the saxophone and flute) allow Guru to offer simple yet powerful descriptions of the reality of living in poverty in New York.
Legendary vibraphonist Roy Ayers provides an active melodic backdrop on “Take a Look at Yourself,” as Guru scolds those who complain that they didn’t get a chance to thrive when they don’t take advantage of the opportunities that they have in life. The song also features one of Guru’s best ad-lib performances of his career.
“No Time to Play” is the album’s best track and a shot of pure musical joy. The song never fails to put a smile on my face. It’s ideal for rolling down an open stretch of highway on a sunny day. Guru raps about his determination to stay motivated and seize the day, while jazz guitarist Ronny Jordan lays down shimmering licks throughout the track, and gets ample time to shine on his own as well. DC Lee lends her vocals to the song’s chorus, with a little help from Gang Starr Foundation cohort Big Shug.
Guru doesn’t just showcase instrumentalists on Jazzmatazz, as other vocalists get to demonstrate their prowess. The extremely talented N'Dea Davenport, lead singer for the iconic acid jazz/UK funk group The Brand New Heavies is featured on a pair of songs dedicated to the pursuit of love and affection. She takes the lead on “When You’re Near,” dominating the deep, bassline driven track with her smooth vocals. She then really lets loose on “Trust Me,” the album’s second single, flexing her full range as a singer.
Guru enlists French rapper MC Solaar on the album’s third single, “Le Bien, Le Mal,” which is the closest thing to a traditional Gang Starr track on Jazzmatazz. While Guru provides his sturdy vocals, Solaar is the clear star of the track, flowing nimbly and expertly from line to line in his native language, proclaiming his lyrical domination and his disdain for those who deny respect for intelligent rap. The track is further bolstered by scratches from DJ Jimmy Jay and dancehall vocals from members of the French rap group Democrates D.
Jazzmatazz became a continuing side project for Guru throughout the ’90s and ’00s. He released the second and third volumes during the interims between Gang Starr projects, and released the fourth in 2007 after he left the group. However, the less said about that later album, produced by Solar (not to be confused with MC Solaar), the better. But overall, the first Jazzmatazz is the finest of the entries, and proof positive that Guru could take the lead on a project and excel.