Shades of Blue: Madlib Invades Blue Note

Although jazz institution Blue Note Records will turn 65 next year, the commercial success of its current star, Grammy winner Norah Jones, shows that the label hardly needs senior assistance. But a hit-maker like Jones comes along only once in a great while. Over the past decade, the fanatical acquisition of Blue Note's daring back catalog by beat-miners like L.A.-based Madlib -- who oversees hip hop-styled projects like Lootpack, Quasimoto, and Yesterday's New Quintet -- is the financial support that's most likely kept the label thriving. To show its thanks, Blue Note handed over the keys to its vaults for Shades of Blue: Madlib Invades Blue Note, which finds the agile hip hop producer fully leveraging his access, updating the label's vaunted old-school sound on its own gritty, innovative terms.

On Shades, Madlib subtly uses sample technology to revive and rhythmically boost tunes from Blue Note's crucial middle age -- the mid-'60s through the mid-'70s -- which saw the label both maintain its hard-bop legacy and nurture its new soul-jazz and jazz-funk hybrids. Making himself at home within the era's groove-centered sound, Madlib infuses his technique with Blue Note's urban yet transcendent aesthetic. On "Slim's Return," he gently scratches vocal bits from KRS-One and Gangstarr into Monk Higgins' "The Look of Slim," before trailing its string-section riffs into history's mist. Later, he turns the long groove of Donald Byrd's "Stepping Into Tomorrow" into an almost spiritual environment, caressing the original's murmuring horn lines and bridges, and foregrounding the ad-libs of one of its female background vocalists, instead of Byrd's lead crooning.

Refreshingly, Madlib refuses to enslave himself to tunes that fit into the default hip hop blueprint. He infects saxophonist Wayne Shorter's 3/4-time "Footprints" with delicately ringing vibraphone and swooping electronics, and sluices synth magic onto his enriched versions of Horace Silver's tumbling "Peace" and Herbie Hancock's wandering "Dolphin Dance." It's this kind of risk-taking that's long distinguished Blue Note and that has since rubbed off on Madlib, the label's most promising next-generation sonic scholar to date.

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