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Drummer Kassa Overall's new album Go Get Ice Cream and Listen to Jazz was released in January. (Photo: Spencer Ostrander)
On a cold December night at Manhattan’s Jazz Gallery, drummer Kassa Overall, pianist Jon Batiste and bassist Ameen Saleem made music that was, by turns, hard-swinging, brooding, bluesy and abstract. It flowed easily, like a conversation in the coded patterns of old friends, rarely falling into anything like song form. To some audience members, here was a glimpse at a side of Batiste, who has gained fame as Stephen Colbert’s Late Show bandleader, that they didn’t yet know — playful to the point of subversion, an avant-gardist at heart.
“That’s who Jon really is, at least with me,” Overall later told me, “and it’s fun to bring that more into view.” Overall has a knack for bringing hidden things into focus, of getting people to be their true selves. The Jazz Gallery, a non-profit venue that has consistently nurtured nascent jazz careers, was packed that December night due to Batiste’s notoriety, but the audience was also wondering what Overall was up to and who he really is.
This show was the first of eight performances spanning seven months within “Time Capsule,” Overall’s commissioned residency at the venue. His first six shows paired him in various formats with innovative pianists — contemporaries, like Batiste and Sullivan Fortner, who arrived in New York City around the time he did, a dozen years ago; and more established players, such as Jason Moran and Craig Taborn. A January trio set with Moran and bassist Evan Flory-Barnes showcased two compositions by pianist Geri Allen, in whose Time Line ensemble Overall spent five formative years. The trio played the staggered phrases of Allen’s “Feed the Fire” at breakneck pace; her chant-like “Unconditional Love” dissolved into moments of tenderness. A March duet with Fortner — mostly one unbroken improvisation, with Fortner alternating between piano, Fender Rhodes and Hammond B-3 organ — grew gradually funkier and odder, looser and wilder. Satisfying as those performances were, they were just parts of a larger process. Overall recorded each set and then took those recordings to “the laboratory,” his term for both his laptop and his studio. For his final two shows, he combined that recorded material, chopped up and processed, with live performances.
Overall is hardly the first musician to combine live performance and remixes. His bridging of jazz and hip-hop cultures may be nothing new but it expresses a rare balance of skills and experience on both sides of the equation. He lives in both of these worlds. Those attending his Jazz Gallery shows might know Overall as a drummer with devastating technique through his work with Allen, pianist Vijay Iyer and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane. They could have heard his work as a spoken-word and laptop artist with drummer Terri Lyne Carrington’s Social Science band or his collaborations as a rapper and producer with the hip-hop collective Das Racist. Perhaps they’d caught his months-long stint on Colbert’s show, where he rapped and DJ’ed along with Batiste’s Stay Human band. Or maybe they’d downloaded his Drake It Till You Make ItEP, on which, for instance, he inserted a long, weird drum solo into a cover of the rapper Drake’s “Passion Fruit,” or his recent album Go Get Ice Cream and Listen to Jazz, a fascinating extension of the jazz/hip-hop/neo-soul hybrid that trumpeter Roy Hargrove pioneered. (The album features Hargrove, not long before his untimely death last November, on one densely moody track.) Go Get Ice Cream blends musical elements and cutting commentary with startling grace and power. In one spot, over rolling beats and a bowed cello, he raps: “What’s the best stocks? Prison and pharmaceuticals.”
[caption id="attachment_19775" align="alignleft" width="683"] Kassa Overall: “In our living room, there was a drum set, a piano, a trumpet, a sax and an early beat machine. So, by the time I was 5, I knew how to sequence beats.” (Photo: Spencer Ostrander)[/caption]
At a Brooklyn coffee shop in April, Overall seems much like he does onstage — sweet-natured, laid-back but nonetheless the source of torrents of ideas. “I was learning how to walk and talk and swing all at the same time,” he said of his upbringing in Seattle, Washington. His father was an avid jazz fan, his mother “a hippie who learned to play tabla drums.” His older brother played saxophone. “In our living room, there was a drum set, a piano, a trumpet, a sax and an early beat machine. So, by the time I was 5, I knew how to sequence beats. By middle school, I spent days doing that.” Overall soaked up Thelonious Monk’s recordings at the same time he was mimicking Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” By the time he entered Oberlin College, he had gigged as a drummer at jazz clubs. Studies with drummer Billy Hart and saxophonist Gary Bartz helped him understand not so much what to play, he says, but “why we play what we play.”
Geri Allen, he says, would often rehearse one set of music and then call for different tunes on the bandstand. “I resented that at first,” Overall says. “But now I realize that she was training us to feel the energy in the room and play what was needed, to be in that moment. Now I need to do that all the time.” As a young musician trying to break through in jazz clubs like Smalls and the Zinc Bar, he recalls Roy Hargrove as “the cat who came with his horn, ready to play with us, to teach us by example,” as well as “the one who paved the way, in terms of not getting locked into one style or into the past.” When Jon Batiste’s manager called him about sitting in on The Late Show, and asked if he could “scratch” with turntables, he said, “No, but I can do something better — what Jon actually wants, but doesn’t know it yet.”
“At times, I’ve been frustrated while explaining who I am and what I do,” he says. “I’ll say I’m a ‘drummer’ or a ‘rapper’ or a ‘laptop artist.’ I like to create ideas, have musicians perform those ideas, take those ideas and chop them up, have musicians play them again, you know?” He sees what he does as cutting-edge hip-hop production as well as the natural extension of what jazz musicians have always done — messing with what came before. It seems silly that he hadn’t really combined playing jazz and making rap or hip-hop tracks until his recent album, because he’s so good at this blend, so fluid and natural. He offered up his headphones and then played me “Good Lord, Good Lord,” drawn from Fortner’s organ playing during that March gig, and overlaid with his own rapping about the challenges of making a statement, and a living, as a musician. Next, he shared his remix of “What a Wonderful World,” from Batiste’s last album. Batiste had floated the well-worn ballad on a drone from a single note. In Overall’s remake, a funky 4/4 beat with a high-hat shimmy slides right in, the incongruity somehow serving instead of defeating the song’s reflective mood.
Overall said that he called his recent album Go Get Ice Cream and Listen to Jazz because a woman in London told him that’s what the local kids like to do these days. He likes that idea and thinks that younger listeners are connecting anew with the adventurous sounds jazz musicians make. “They can hear this stuff, and they respond,” he says. But his title also refers to a deeper idea. “It’s not just ice cream. It’s not just entertainment. It’s something much deeper. But it can still go down smooth.” - Larry Blumenfeld