POP / Rising to the occasion: Jazz musicians? They never show. Phil Johnson on how the fifth Red Hot HIV awareness album overcame an age-old problem

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The Independent Culture
As subjects for songs go, the condom does not provide the most inspiring basic material. Even Cole Porter, whose songs formed the text for the first Red Hot Aids and HIV awareness album, might have struggled to come up with anything more creative than the obvious 'I've got you over my skin'.

On the latest Red Hot project, the album and video of Stolen Moments: Red Hot and Cool, the rap group the Pharcyde try a fairly literal interpretation in 'The Rubbers Song' ('Roll me on, roll me on' is the chorus), but even the more inventive of their rhymes - 'the beauty of the booty got me in a trance', say - tends towards bathos given the enormity of the problem they're addressing.

Elsewhere, however, the message is conveyed with subtlety and style by a cast that joins conventional jazz performers like Ramsey Lewis, Lester Bowie, Herbie Hancock and Pharoah Sanders with the acid jazz and rap neophytes of Digable Planets, Michael Franti, Guru, MC Solaar, Me'Shell NdegeOcello and Incognito with Carleen Anderson.

The collaboration of Sanders with two members of the Last Poets is a particularly astute rejoinder to the normal 'politically correct' discourse that characterises the HIV benefit genre; a scabrous stream-of-consciousness rap that uses some hard-hitting imagery (including a possibly actionable reference to poor old Diana Ross) set to the teeming improvisations of the Pharoah's tenor sax.

'The aim of the project', says the album producer and video director Earle Sebastian, was 'to direct the message of HIV and Aids to so-called 'people of colour' globally, because no one had ever targeted the black community before. The medium was to be jazz, which I was very happy about because jazz is the music of struggle and the music of blackness.'

Picked out by the Red Hot organisation after a brief career in pop videos and a spot doing an election commercial for Bill Clinton on MTV (the joke is that he thought he was doing a promo for George Clinton), Sebastian, a South African-born Londoner, enlisted the help of GRP Records, who own the rights to the Impulse catalogue - recorder of John Coltrane, Sanders and much of the militant jazz of the 1960s - and then set about bothering artists until they agreed to become involved. 'The intention was to fuse the older school', he says, 'with the newer school, almost like passing the baton, and to thus get over the message of HIV to a much larger audience.'

The final product comprises an album, a bonus CD of instrumentals by Sanders, Branford Marsalis and Alice Coltrane, the video (to be shown by Channel 4 in December) and, eventually, an additional album of tracks from the Impulse vaults.

Getting the artists together for the video - filmed at a concert in New York in March - proved to be difficult. 'They were all on tour all over the place,' Sebastian says, 'and prior to the shoot they had only half an hour's rehearsal. I knew I'd never get them all together again, so the idea was that we'd record the whole thing on 48-track and that would be the album.

But the concert went so well that the next day I got on the phone and asked them to make it a proper album and get into the studio, which they did, in lots of different places.'

With some artists it became, like Sinatra's Duets set, a case of phoning in their contributions on separate lines, with DAT tapes of the tunes circling the globe in search of a final mix. Ramsey Lewis's piano intro to Incognito and Carleen Anderson's 'Trouble Don't Last Always', for example, exist despite the fact that the principal performers never actually met, as with Me'Shell and Herbie Hancock. The video, however, showcases some terrific real-time performances, with Me'Shell playing with Joshua Redman and Wah Wah Watson, Digable Planets with Lester Bowie, Joe Sample and Watson again, and the French rapper MC Solaar declaiming about angels dying while ex-Miles Davis bassist Ron Carter goes up and down the fretboard as if practising scales.

The video attempts to convey the seriousness of the cause by mixing interviews with HIV victims with those of performers like Guru and the Pharcyde and with the black academic Dr Cornel West, who testifies to the problem of homophobia in the black community as a legacy of church and neighbourhood teaching. A weakness of the overall enterprise, though, may be that no overtly gay jazz musicians, like Cecil Taylor say, are involved.

Sebastian concedes that homophobia in jazz, and the black community generally, is rife, 'but in my mind homophobia runs rife in all working- class communities'.

The video interviews with artists also concentrate on rap rather than jazz, to an irritating degree; when Guru is asked what jazz means to hip-hop, for example, the camera focuses on his partner, the veteran trumpeter Donald Byrd, who, as a doctor of musicology, might be expected to have something to say on the matter, though instead he remains mute, looking rather like Desmond Tutu caught relaxing with his homies.

According to Sebastian, Pharoah Sanders proved to be the star. 'I called him up,' he says, 'and told him what we were doing and he said, 'Of course I'll be involved.' I told him the date of the gig and when it came he just arrived, looking spectacular. I never even called him again. You know what's it's like with jazz musicians; they never turn up.'

'Stolen Moments: Red Hot and Cool' is available from GRP (album) and Polygram (video) (Photograph omitted)