Osaka Blue Note, Osaka, Japan • March 8-9, 1999
Courtney Pine established himself as a juggernaut in modern jazz modification with his last two Antilles releases, Modern Day Jazz Stories and Underground . The new sounds that he dished out on those recordings are being challenged again. Some recent shows at the Osaka Blue Note in Japan found Pine and his combo busting loose with a neoteric style and energy hotter than wasabi on sashimi. But I’m not sure how to pigeonhole what I heard and saw. Was it acid jazz, hip hop jazz fusion, jungle jazz, or a just a jazz warrior with a modern jazz story?
Courtney Pine towers over his combo, attacking the stage in a flight suit worn from global musical combat. A black beret, headset, and portable mic with wires poppin’ out make him look like some tech freak. There’s more electric gear on stage too. DJ Pogo, with his Vestax, is scratching and spinning beats, and DJ Sparki is laying out looped drum n’ bass rhythms, samples, and bass lines through his hardware (keyboards, sequencers, and Macintosh). Robby Fordjour, the solid beast, decks raw beats from the skins, while trombone bad ass Dennis Rollins rocks steady with a stream of slick grooves. On jazz guitar, Cameron Pierre gushes melodic chords, and Mary Pearce melts vocals. Together, this is a powerfully connected combo with a tight sound full of energy, talent, and soul.
The show opened with the DJs jamming together as green guitar chords, trombone lines, vocals, and fat drums surrounded them. Mellow and dark drum n’ bass settled in the background as the clearly audible sound of record scratching in synch and in tune ejected. Then the sound of Pine’s soprano came floating through the crowd on wisps of high notes. The light soprano worried me, thinking that it might not be meaty enough to compete with the pulp of the combo, but his rich charismatic playing took off, fronting a sharp edge as he slammed the chorus for “Creation Stepper.”
“It seems like what I’m doing really is underground music,” commented Courtney between sets. “It’s not out there, no one really knows what we’re doing. We go to festivals and the organizers seem angry at us ’cause we’re not just a sit down and listen jazz band –that’s boring to me now. I want to get people up and into it. I want to make people dance.”
The combo shot out fast reworkings of Rare Groove vibes from the late ’60s with hints of soul, Latin, and Jamaican influence — a combination that surrounded Pine as a youth in London and in the early ’80s [jazz] club scene. These heavy jazz sounds in double time mixed with thicker helpings of drum n bass helped rock the club hard.
Jazz and hip hop artists have collaborated on making fusion over and over, but never as solid as this. Drum n bass artists have included tons of “jazz” elements, but none have made it as organic this. This is a jazz group, no doubt, but they’re stretching the parameters of fusion and the sound is refreshing, intoxicating, and inspiring. “ALL music has an energy. Whether it’s reggae, jazz, hip hop, drum n’ bass — there is an energy that connects with people. If you can tap that energy and make it happen then you’ve done it.”
Energy is exactly what makes Pine’s sound so novel. Courtney hasn’t sampled and remixed beats into songs in the studio. The addition of DJ Pogo and DJ Sparki are a key reason why it comes off so strong and so natural. They are members of the jazz combo — not some ploy. Their addition to the group is as essential as Pine’s saxophone, and like it, they are there from the beginning of a song till the end. “The music is centered around my sax, cause that is MY instrument. But I always write the beat. I have my own hardware at home. And so when I get something I like, I call in the other guys, Pogo and Sparki, and we work on it from there.”
Sparki’s work is best heard at the beginning of each tune. He backdrops samples, beats, and a bass line which the band folds on top of. He gets lost in that crisp sound, then rejoins through heavy bass solidification. On stage, I didn’t miss or even notice the lack of a live bass player, ’cause the sounds from Sparki are so full.
DJ Pogo rocks the house. This world champion scratch artist is at a surreal level of technical and artistic mastery. His ferocity dropped dope tornadoes of sound across the stage. The show’s most intense moment was in “Listen Here,” when Pogo and Pine traded solos, saxophone versus turntables. Later he soloed, scratching the shit out of Run DMC’s “Peter Piper,” while breaking his own thumb-enhanced beat on the decks and pulling deft tricks.
With a new album complete and ready for release, Courtney is brainstorming a project in which he’d record new material, let some brothers remix their own jungle and hip hop versions, and then he’d remix and play some more, laying his own Midas touch on top. “I tried to do it with Photek, but we couldn’t arrange it. He did tell me that I inspired him to play sax years ago, but he gave it up for hardware, and here I am years later calling him!”
Courtney Pine is prepared to front the world of jazz fusion. Since the mid ’80s, he’s been at the head of the UK’s jazz scene, which according to him, “is getting better. Definitely. The thing about musicians in the UK is that they are all techs. Most people are making beats too and they’ve got their own hardware and combining this with more and more music. The scene is coming up and is making something new.”
The new sound that Courtney Pine has made will pave the way for more modern electronic expressions in jazz. For the grand finale of his Osaka dates, Pine and Sparki were the only two left on stage. Some steady straight ahead drum n’ bass loops rocked as Courtney blew madness on top. “THIS IS DRUM N’ BASS,” he shouted to the audience. “This is what’s happening in London today!” The rest of the [Jazz] world may catch on next.