In the early Nineties, good ol' homeboy Colonel Saunders decided that US3's outrageously groovy "Cantaloop/Flip Fantasia" would shift his funky chicken and tapped into the hip-hop sound of '93 and came up with jazz- rap. In its rich heritage of soul and jazz, rap saw the end to its mid- life crisis with the advent of sampling technology - a renaissance charted in the superb Rebirth of Cool series. While the competition wrangled in court over a snaffled horn-lick here or a drum-loop there, US3's Geoff Wilkinson and Mel Simpson were handed the Blue Note back-catalogue as their palette and went on to produce the legendary jazz label's biggest-selling album.
This year US3 re-emerged with the same sense of continuity and a deep reverence for their historic jazz foundations. But, in 1997, how does US3's essentially unchanged formula - the jazz greats reviewed through a purist hip-hop lens - stand up when the torch has been passed variously on to Arrested Development, G-funk, the pitch battles of gangster rap, jungle and The Fugees?
Such is Geoff Wilkinson's apparent burden of responsibility that US3's kid-gloves approach to their samples on Broadway and 52nd occasionally constipates an otherwise elegant album. Last Wednesday, however, with a rock-solid band getting its teeth into the tastiest morsels of Herbie Hancock, Donald Byrd, Wayne Shorter and other greats, compellingly funky workouts such as "Doin' a Crime" and "Caught up in a Struggle" lifted the band from the realms of coffee-table hip-hop.
Lesser rap outfits often exploit jazz as a spurious shorthand for authenticity, but the declamatory KCB and whippet-like newcomer, Spec, worked the audience energetically and provided a focus for the entire evening. KCB even attempted to rehabilitate the rap elegy with a dignified lament for his grandfather, though the ghost of Clive Dunn haunted "Grand Groove" throughout. Freed from the disjointed process of recording, Ed Jones's meandering sax, Dominic Glover's skittery trumpet and Jim Watson's often sublime keyboards meshed with fine percussion and drumming and nowhere did they seem more at ease with the Blue Note reputation than with Herbie Hancock's killer loops on "Cantaloop/Flip Fantasia".
Nevertheless, what deviations there were from a night of righteous groove served only to reveal US3's rather quaint sense of decorum. It's not that the nod to jazz poetry in "Sheep" or the Middle Eastern sax motifs on "Snake" weren't expertly deployed, but that you didn't look to US3 for musical daring. The upmarket crowd had come for superior jazz-rap and they drove away happy in their Citroen DSs.
As a class British act, and a valuable one at that, US3 are more usefully considered as part of a Camden funk axis with Soul II Soul and not really as a pioneering musical unit: the truly progressive spirit of jazz seems to lie with those intrepid explorers of weird, Mo' Wax. Until the day US3 have exhausted their rich Blue Note seam, it's "boogiewoogie, jamslam" for a long time to come.