Urban Renewal Project review: genre blenders

Los Angeles big band’s danceable fusion of jazz, hip hop and other musical genres heralds a multifaceted musical future

by PATRICK MCCULLEY

Take a trip to downtown Portland’s Rialto Poolroom, walk to the back and down a flight of stairs, and you will find one of Oregon’s newest music venues. The Jack London Revue, formerly just the basement section of the Rialto Poolroom, is everything you might imagine an old school jazz club might have looked like. Long and rectangular, low ceilinged, dimly lit, a half dozen tables with chairs upfront, crimson curtains hanging from one wall, it’s almost like being thrown back to the golden age of jazz.  One could easily imagine the likes of Charlie Parker or Ella Fitzgerald taking to the small stage upfront while patrons crowd for drinks in the back at the bar.

Urban Renewal Project performed at Portland’s Jack London Revue. Photo: Patrick McCulley.

But the Jack London Revue, considered the heir to Jimmy Mak’s jazz club that closed at the beginning of this year, offers a much wider range of music than those historical names and even the legendary Jimmy’s. The people doing the bookings might be taking on a lot of the local jazz scene that was left without a flagship venue due to the closing of Jimmy Mak’s, but also inviting performers and audiences who are open to branching out beyond jazz and into soul, hip hop, and more uncategorizable genres of music. And it was that spirit of openness and experimentation that helped bring the Urban Renewal Project to Portland on August 11.

The Urban Renewal Project is a Los Angeles based, multi-genre, thirteen person big band, complete with rapper and disco diva, on tour to promote their new album 21st Century Ghost. The style of music the URP plays is hard to put a finger on. Their instrumentation has all of the makings of a jazz big band, with a huge brass and woodwind section made up of trombones (Lindsay McMurray and Evan Mackey), bass trombone (Robert Todd), trumpet (Michael Gutierrez and Austin Drake), and saxophones (Brian Clements, David Wise, and R.W. Enoch). But the foundation for that band created by the rhythm section’s drums (Calvin Martin), bass (Dustin Morgan), and guitar (Tim Friedlander) incorporated many of its grooves more from pop, rock, hip hop, latin, and disco than jazz. And through all of that, the band acts as a vehicle for the lyrical mastery of rapper Elmer Demond and the sonorous, energetic vocals of Alex Nester.

After a short instrumental overture, the Urban Renewal Project’s second song really set the tone with a high-energy rock tune, “Another Day,” which transitioned from driving rock beat, incorporating Alex Nexter’s soaring voice, to a funkier, relaxed drum pattern and bass line, setting up Elmer Demond’s fast paced rapping. In the rock section, the energy and drive were provided primarily by the rhythm section, with contrasting smoothness in the vocal melody, but the funk section reversed the location of rhythmic tension, with the relaxation is in the rhythm section and the rhythmic drive in the rap lyrics. This level of detail says a lot about the planning and arranging that went into the charts this band and bandleader R.W. Enoch put into the music.

The URP hit their stride with the rock anthem “Road to Victory,” which opens with a short flute and sax melody, reminiscent of something you might hear in Karl Denson’s music. But the real meat is in the brass: monstrous thumps in the trombones paired with heroic fanfares from the trumpets sets the scene for a powerful song. With a refrain like “no one can stop me now/Or any other team/I’m here for number one/Gonna be the MVP” this song could easily be on the soundtrack to the next Rocky movie. (Which one are we on? Six? Seven? Never mind.)

Also impressive — something that us music nerds get picky about — is how good the sound was. With so many acoustic and electric instruments, micing and balancing can be quite the tightrope act for even the best bands and sound people, but URP and Jack London Revue’s sound tech pulled it off fantastically after their initial offering, and their precision was most evident in “Victory.”

The URP also offered instrumental music to contrast with their many vocal tunes, including an unnamed instrumental reggae tune, with a relaxed rhythm section and a deft drop on every third beat, and a drunken horn line snaking lazily over the top. This was one of the few songs that showcased instrumental soloists, allowing them to experiment with a variety of personal improvisational styles. This was maybe the only song in the band’s set that wasn’t fast-paced and packed with energy, and therefore contrasted nicely. But it also laid bare maybe the only deficiency in their performance, an absence of slower songs, the kind that you can dance closely to.

 

The URP also showed a talent for performing covers. Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie” lends itself well to an arrangement for big band, and unlike the original recording, URP’s jumps straight into into a fast paced funk. Their performance showcased the vocal talents of Nestor and Demond standing in for Timberlake and Jay-Z respectively. Demond wrote his own lyrics, in his own style, an original take on the song, the way a jazz musician might drastically change the melody of a song without losing the meaning entirely. Demond proved that he could improvise too, with a freestyle rap later in the second set. Audience members would bring up objects to the stage, and he would rap about each object in turn (a tie, a shoe, a five dollar bill) over a steady beat from drums and bass.

Hip Hop Harbinger

According to statistics released this summer by Nielsen Music, the combined genres of hip-hop/R&B/rap have outpaced most sales of rock to become the country’s new most popular music. I’m usually a little hesitant about making concrete proclamations about art and music based on industry driven corporate statistics, but I’m willing to believe that in this case hip-hop is well and truly America’s favorite genre.

URP shows one reason why. If hip hop meshes well with the styles of rock, disco, funk, jazz, soul, and reggae that the URP incorporates it’s because hip hop – the culmination of a lineage of numerous black American musical traditions merged with poetry – is all of these genres. Though separated by time and generation, class and tradition, they work so well together because they all comes from the same source.

Hip hop also has a very real and important part to play in telling the story of our times. Its musicians have always had the courage to stare down and call out the hard realities of oppression, institutionalized racism, police brutality, and poverty, taking head on subjects most genres would rather avoid. While the URP is more focused on the aspects of hip hop that encourage their audience to dance and party, and less so about controversial topics, their song “Newsflash” still weighs in on the conflict between technology and human being’s basic nature. Set over a brass and percussion theme reminiscent of a vintage newsreel, Demond’s lyrics contrast musically but mesh thematically, talking about the negativity of social media and internet news, and the seeming hopelessness of it all. The song’s refrain encourages listeners to “disconnect/live free/you’ve gotta unplug” as a means for coping with despair but reminds them “but still we going hard for that freedom” to affirm that participating less in media doesn’t necessarily mean giving up the struggle against oppression.

Despite hip hop’s national popularity, Portland’s indie rock scene still seems to be outpacing every other genre here. And eclectic new bands like the Urban Renewal Project don’t seem to draw as much attention from our locals as they deserve. Still, though the club was only about half full of mostly twenty and thirty-somethings, URP managed to get a lot of those people out of their seats and dancing by the end of their set. Inasmuch as audiences in Portland don’t tend to be the dancing type, this says a lot about how much energy the band poured into their performance. Despite the low turnout in Portland, URP’s multi-faceted, genre-mashing hip hop and soul music, danceability, energy, groove, and strong performance quality suggest great things to come in our country’s musical traditions. With the Jack London, Portland now has another place for tomorrow’s music to happen.

Patrick McCulley is an Oregon-born saxophonist, educator, and composer with an M.M. in saxophone performance. He is the saxophone instructor and director for the Portland Music Collective. His non-musical interests include tea, cats, rain, science fiction and international travel.

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