LEADERS OF THE PACK / Nothing new under the fun: Jazz Band Of The Year

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IT'S THE art of the century, but it doesn't know which way to turn. For jazz, the problem is that it went from birth to decadence in 60 years flat, ignoring most of the side-turnings in the dash for development. So what does it do next, now that it has its very own equivalents of John Cage and Carl Andre, and can't shake off that confusing double appetite for both evolutionary momentum and (because that's the way it started) a popular audience?

The Evan Parkers of the world see jazz as an unfinished experiment; the Wynton Marsalises choose to re-examine its neglected byways. Both approaches are justifiable and rewarding, but the music's most urgent need is to reconnect with a broad young public. The best chance of that is through people like the British keyboards-player Mel Simpson and disc-jockey Geoff Wilkinson, known as Us 3, whose recent album, Hand on the Torch, samples the classic sound of Blue Note modern jazz and uses it as the foundation for an acid-jazz / hip-hop fusion so infectious that one track, their version of Herbie Hancock's classic 'Canteloupe Island', became a dance-floor favourite and, eventually, the jingle for a fried-chicken television ad.

'Canteloop', as they call it, uses Hancock's catchy piano riff - lifted directly from the original 1964 recording - and rephrases it against contemporary beats, adding new horns, bass, percussion, and a rap commentary by Rahsaan. Elsewhere on the album, the formula is applied to the original music of drummer Art Blakey, guitarist Grant Green, altoist Lou Donaldson, and other Blue Note heroes.

Purists see it all as childish tampering: why replace the lucid trumpet of Freddie Hubbard with some chap shouting 'Funky] Funky]', or the nonpareil drumming of Tony Williams with an electronic machine? Others, among whom this critic is happy to count himself, simply like the noise they make (give or take the odd reservation about the predictable content of the rapping) and feel that, since the technology can't be uninvented, it might as well be turned to constructive use. And to act as though the appearance of 'Canteloop' threatens the existence of 'Canteloupe Island' is to underestimate the resilience of art. Unlikely as it may seem, Simpson and Wilkinson are the jazz musicians of the year.-

(Photograph omitted)