Two nights in NYC with the RBMA
Erykah Badu talking and 20 musicians improvising at the Red Bull Music Academy in New York
It’s a Red Bull Music Academy buzz, part of the 15 year old travelling music go-go’s New York invasion. Badu is one of many participants moving beyond the usual RBMA HQ and taking the show to the people. Not surprisingly, even in a city with hundreds of choice activities every night, most of the RBMA-in-Gotham activities are sold out.
Badu tells some great yarns, tracing her story from a childhood in Dallas spent digging Chaka Khan, Phoebe Snow, Ricky Lee Jones and Pink Floyd. It was hearing “Apache” which turned her head to be a MC. She’d some strike rate at the start. The first song she wrote? “Apple Tree”. The second one? “On & On”
“Baduizm” was, of course, the calling card that had all of the above and much more besides. It was the sound of Badu’s boho-soul going large, an album which still sounds incredible today. Every time I hear “On & On”, it brings back to a beautiful spring evening in London in ’97 when I saw Badu slay ‘em at the Paris Cafe. It’s the most evocative of albums.
But Badu has been moving on and upwards since then. She talked about how a couple of weeks in Philly with the Roots and especially Questlove calling the shots led to another batch of songs and a great run of work with James Poyser. She joined the dots between her old beau Common and the great Dilla, talked about Jay Electronica’s influence on her sound and brought us bang up to date with the “Windowseat” video, the grassy knoll in Dallas and a van which was parked in the wrong place.
Badu in 2013 has a lot going on. She still performs and delivers the magic (check her contribution to Janelle Monae’s new single below or her work with Robert Glasper here), but she also does other things. She’s now training to be a midwife, for example, and she still wants to be a “face-melting DJ”. Truly one of the most unique figures making out there music for those of us in here who want to go on that trip with her.
Wednesday night, the Masonic Temple in Brooklyn. You know it’s a masonic temple because there are various posters on the wall about masonic activites like dances organised by Tybor Lodge #4 and flyers offering opportunities to earn “limitless” money working from home (even them Masons have to eat).
Inside the great hall, there’s a big crowd waiting for a night of improvised round robin duets. One musician starts the proceedings, another joins in, another walks on and the first person leaves the stage. On and on you go until there’s one musician left standing two hours later.
There’s a giddy list of musicians onboard for this one, from bold-print musical adventurers like Questlove, Kim Gordon (who gave a fascinating talk earlier in the day), Glenn Kotche, Andrew Bird, Bernie Worrell, Robert Glasper, Thundercat, Julia Holter, Dosh, and Andrew W.K. to those downtown NYC figures and jazzers for whom improvisation is second nature like Matana Roberts, Vijay Iver, Don Byron, Joe Lovano, Erik Friedlander, Roy Hargrove, James Chance and Mary Halvorson.
As you’d expect, some duets work sweetly and others just don’t get their mojo together at all, There’s an early highlight when Questlove and sax demon (and Godspeed You! Black Emperor and TV On the Radio collaborator) Roberts dig a crazy groove for a few minutes which is full of possibility. Thundercat and Halvorson play off each other with incredible ease and aplomb, while Hargrove and Dosh find a line to hook up their respective outputs. Others just don’t deliver: Holter seems to be playing against rather than with her respective foils, while James Chance appears to have come with sheet music, which isn’t quite the improv buzz.
The best surprises pivot around Funkadelic, Parliament and Talking Heads’ keyboard shaker Worrell. He’s at the heart of the magic when he and Andrew W.K. strike up a shimmy keyboard boogie, while he’s the perfect lead for Kotche’s percussive twists and turns.
Not surprisingly, the jazz heads are totally switched on to what this is about. It’s pretty damn awesome to see the RBMA acknowledge their part in the NYC stew and bring them to the party – previous RBMA city visits have largely concentrated on electronic music’s muscle but this striking out is to be welcome. As DJ Spinna knits Glasper and Byron together, you get the sense of great minds falling with ease into place with the other person’s trajectoriies, while the Bird and Lovano play-off has mighty swing. You wonder if any of the collaborators will hook up again and where that will lead.