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|March 5-11, 2009
• Black or white
An albino Muslim rapper from Minnesota discusses race in America
by Dan Hinkel
• Voice of reason
The Bad Plus freaks out fans by adding new band member
by Dave Kirby
Black or white
An albino Muslim rapper from Minnesota
discusses race in America
by Dan Hinkel
This is the part of the Brother Ali story where the writer lists Ali’s unusual demographic characteristics, because we can’t devote our attention to his talent until we address his appearance, his religion and the incongruity between his race and his career. Brother Ali is an albino white Muslim from Minnesota who makes black music consumed by white fans. He identifies more with black people than white people, and he hasn’t always corrected people who thought he was a black albino, because, he used to think, why should it matter?
“Why would you think that this is a black person?” Ali asked. “There’s more going on there.”
These days Ali acknowledges that his race matters, for better and worse. We’re not colorblind and we don’t speak a language of ethnic complexity or racial ambiguity. Ask the first black president, a half-white Christian with an African name who grew up in Indonesia, Hawaii and Kansas.
On his next full-length album, Ali plans to dig into the racial dysfunctions he has tried to escape. Ali, a gifted lyricist and dexterous vocalist with a trumpeting preacher’s voice, plans to rhyme about a formerly prevalent rumor that he’s black, which started with erroneous news stories he didn’t immediately contradict. White people have the choice of ignoring race, but Ali chose black friends and a traditionally black job. His race is never overlooked.
“It’s kinda defined my life, my existence,” Ali said.
Ali, born Jason Newman, grew up around the Midwest. Being albino was a “really heavy challenge,” and he caught worse grief from white kids than black kids. White kids judged him. Black kids had jokes, but they weren’t cruel. Ali said they treated him like a human, not a freak.
Ali cites the moment that continues to define his worldview. A teacher sat him down and told him he would have to be the good kind of special, because blending in wouldn’t be an option. She told him he would have to decide his own identity or submit to its definition by others.
“Nobody ever said anything that helped me like that did,” Ali said. “That kind of set me on the course of really examining what that meant.”
Across two LPs and two EPs, Ali has been “strictly autobiographical,” he admitted. With his upcoming LP — per his pattern, an EP will precede the album this month — Ali plans to explore race and tell the stories of people he loves. He conceptualizes this as introducing his work friends to his personal friends. This is another racial intricacy in Ali’s life: He never intended to help make rap safe for white kids. But Ali says he knows almost all his fans are white.
“I don’t question my own authenticity based on that,” he said.
While Ali is a clever lyricist, topical coherence would be a welcome development. Ali packs his lyrics with dart-sharp metaphors, but too often on his occasionally great 2007 album, The Undisputed Truth, Ali’s verses are strands of chosen-one boasts, catch-all competition disses and God-thanking reveries. He draws and redraws his moral boundaries, asserts then reasserts that he is touched by God. He sometimes sounds like a befuddled preacher vamping because he has lost his place in his Bible.
When he is focused, his rhyme pen is a flamethrower: enlightening and destructive. In the song “Here,” he brutally critiques himself with a haunting metaphor comparing his soul to a hermit in an old house. On a second cut, “Faheem,” Ali offers a thrilling, vulnerable display of his love for his son and his fear of letting him down.
His best work is not all sad self-examination, a point proven by two recent online releases. Ali assaulted DJ Benzi’s “2nd Time Around” mixtape track, dealing a crushingly righteous hand-of-God diss to cliché MCs: “People are starvin’, you’re talkin’ ’bout ballin’/can’t think of nothin’ more important than that jargon/hundred different ways to describe diamonds sparklin’.”
Ali’s musical strengths also shimmer on “Mr. President (You’re The Man),” Ali’s in-the-moment election night tribute to Barack Obama. You can hear Ali’s joy as he spills catharsis over impossibility reversed, inaugurating the first positive moment in the political lives of a vast section of voters.
For once, race mattered to Ali in a way he didn’t find disturbing or depressing.
“I was thinking, holy shit, all these white people, he convinced all these people that he’s the best to lead us,” Ali said. “That really
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On the Bill
Brother Ali performs with Yak & the Reminders at 9 p.m. on Thursday, March 5, at the Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.
Voice of reason
The Bad Plus freaks out fans by adding new band member
by Dave Kirby
The Bad Plus are the type of artists that revel in confusion. And after a lengthy career of reconstructing rock hits and lost lounge croons as jazz-trio nuvo-standards, building a portfolio that alternately befuddles and infuriates the downtown jazz cognescenti, what was left for them to do but undermine their own subversive paradigm… and record an album with a singer?
Heresy, and that’s saying something for these guys.
“It came from initially the idea of wanting to collaborate with someone,” said bassist Reid Anderson of the band’s recent album, For All I Care, “to make a different kind of record than what we’ve made in the past.
And it became very clear that we all wanted to do it with a singer.
“It had to be a special kind of singer. We talked a lot about whom to get, but we finally decided on Wendy based on the fact that she and Dave had a relationship, and I remember hearing a demo CD they did about 10 years ago and thought of her voice and was really impressed by it.”
Longtime fixture in the Bad Plus’ native Minneapolis alt-music scene, vocalist Wendy Lewis divides her space between subtly evocative reads like Cobain’s “Lithium,” vaguely sinister ballad noir (“How Deep Is Your Love”), almost-faithful trib rock-outs (“Barracuda,” “Comfortably Numb”) and stark soul scratching like the gorgeous Roger Miller broken-heart lament “Lock, Stock and Teardrops.”
Lewis moves stealthily through these numbers, finding heights of redemptive release at times, but also smaller moments illuminating the darkened corners set off by the band’s sometimes angular, almost-cubist arrangements, prowling as if this territory is familiar to her, neither unduly careful nor defensively possessive.
Rock music isn’t supposed to be possessed of the kind of harmonic subtleties that a lithe and aggressively irreverent jazz trio like the Bad Plus trades in, but the trio’s long record of coaxing sometimes graceful, sometimes ugly-mutt jazz instrumentals from such determinedly unsubtle wellsprings as Yes and Tear For Fears and Blondie and Nirvana reveals a trio unafraid to fail. Testing that fearlessness with a singer, which runs the risk of reducing their inverted creations to subtitled literals, may be perfectly logical after all, just another day with these guys rolling grenades around the barroom floor.
But as the double-tracked chorus of the Flaming Lips’ “Feeling Yourself Disintegrate” soars to its almost death-defying climax, consonant and whole and unashamed, you have to wonder if these four musicians were reading each other’s minds.
“Right, well that’s why it was so hard to find somebody, or even think of somebody, because there are a lot of considerations. And this wasn’t going to be a record of a singer being backed up by the Bad Plus; this had to be a record where it’s the Bad Plus and there happens to be a singer there. Y’know, it was purely organic — we were all in touch with each other. Wendy included.”
Anderson says the intention was not to produce a jazz trio album with a singer — and Lewis is no jazz singer, anyway — but to create a kind of integrated experience, something they all found common precedent for.
“Kind of the inspiration for the record is the great record with John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman… and really just because that was the sound of the Coltrane quartet when they were at the height of their powers and had this really established band sound, and going into the studio with this singer. Y’know, it’s just a different kind of energy. It stands, in our opinion, as one of the greatest records ever made, and the reason is that it’s not just a band backing up a singer; it’s really a band sound that’s fully confident, y’know? Fully self-aware.”
…substituting Maurice Gibb and Wayne Coyne for Billy Strayhorn and Irving Berlin, of course….
Engineered by Tchad Blake (“..no one produces the band really, we’ve always been self-produced…”), the record is plainly a success — the roiling, unsettled madness that lies at the core of the Bad Plus’ subversive inventions reaches over Lewis’s shoulder from time to time, slapping the listener back to attention. And mortared with a handful of tight, quick-study classical etudes by Milton Babbitt and Stravinsky, the Trio-plus delivers a full helping.
But we wondered about the fans, all those lost-in-the-lab types who have been getting it or nearly getting it for years, now hearing a singer up in front. Can even the co-conspirators be uncomfortable with paradigm shifting?
“The response we’re getting most of all is, ‘Y’know, I wasn’t so sure about this idea with this singer, but it really works, and we really love it.’ I really think, if you’re open minded and give this record a chance, if you like the Bad Plus, there’s only more to like on this record.
“Of course, there are people who are going to be resistant to any kind of change, and, uh, I’m sorry if we’ve disappointed anyone.”
“But… not that sorry .”
On the Bill
The Bad Plus performs with Michelle Shocked for etown at 7 p.m. on Sunday, March 8, at the Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030, and at 8 p.m. on Monday, March 9, at the Soiled Dove, 7401 E. 1st Ave., Denver, 303-366-0007.
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