Is it jazz? Is it hip-hop? Is it rap? “Yes.”

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Us3: Hand on the Torch

In 1991, London-based producer Geoff Wilkinson was summoned to EMI Music’s London offices. He had released a 12-inch dance single that was getting a lot of airplay, The Band Played The Boogie. On it, he’d sampled a jazz tune originally released on Blue Note Records, now owned by EMI. Instead of getting sued, he somehow managed to talk his way into Blue Note’s vaunted jazz vaults.

The result for Us3—Wilkinson and production partner Mel Simpson—was the groundbreaking Hand on the Torch, originally released in 1993. The result for Blue Note was its first album ever to hit Platinum [selling one million copies].

The whole idea of teaming with hip-hop and rap artists was a risky one for the venerable jazz label. “It was a brave decision by [Blue Note President] Bruce Lundvall,” Wilkinson said, “but he made me record some demos first, to prove I could do it.” One of those demos became the first track of the album and my personal favorite, Cantaloop [Flip Fantasia]. It combines heavy samples from Herbie Hancock’s Cantaloupe Island and a sampled intro from an Art Blakey album with vocals by rapper Rahsaan Kelly and trumpet by Gerard Presencer.

Simpson does all the keyboard work on the album; Wilkinson handles samples and scratches, and the two share programming credits. Other personnel include rappers Kobie Powell and Tukka Yoot, sax players Ed Jones and Mike Smith, trombonist Dennis Rollins, guitarist Tony Remy, pianist Matt Cooper and backing vocalist Marie Harper.

Blue Notes’ vaults provide the talents of the aforementioned Hancock and Blakey as well as Lou Donaldson, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Grant Green, Bobby Hutcherson, Reuben Wilson and Donald Byrd, all jazz luminaries.

What could have been a musical trainwreck is instead a brilliant conversation between two very different music genres. The music video above [thank you, YouTube] of Cantaloop [Flip Fantasia] demonstrates the careful intertwining beautifully. As with many music videos, though, the visuals don’t live up to the music. You’ll probably get more from the music if you close your eyes. Seriously.

Throughout Hand on the Torch, the musicians show a real sensitivity to the jazz samples. They bring some nice surprises to it too. On the cut Eleven Long Years, they actually uncover a reggae-friendly rhythm in Horace Silver’s Song for my Father. The result is electrifying.

Maybe it’s because this album is already nearly 15 years old, but the lyrics show refreshing restraint when it comes to glorifying violence and the gangsta lifestyle. The subjects are there, of course—they’re part of urban life. But tracks like Just Another Brother are typical of their take on the topic; it tells stories that show how whatever circumstances brought someone to violence, the result is always the same—he becomes “just another brother on lock-down.” The bragging and posturing inherent in much of hip-hop and rap is of course there too, but even this is mostly and refreshingly free of misogyny.

There’s also a two-disk import version of The Hand on the Torch; the second disk contains the original jazz tracks that Wilkinson and company sampled. As much as I love jazz, I have to think that hearing them might be like having a magician explain how he does a trick. We always beg to know the secret, but when the magic is explained, we’re always disappointed.
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