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Northeastern to host hip-hop tribute to music of Coltrane

Leonard Brown | 9/17/2008, 6:41 a.m.


World-renowned artist and Roxbury native Guru will bring his Jazzmatazz series to life, joining super-producer Solar to perform at this year’s 31st annual John Coltrane Memorial Concert (JCMC) at Northeastern University’s Blackman Theatre at 8 p.m. on Sept. 27.

In addition to honoring the legendary saxophonist, the special hip-hop “Tribute to ’Trane” also opens the 2008-2009 season for Northeastern’s Center for the Arts.

As musicians and scholars, JCMC producers Emmett Price and I recognize that rap is the most contemporary expression of black American music culture, and that a number of rappers exhibit artistic integrity and personal qualities similar to those of Coltrane.

Rap is also similar to older established black music styles of blues and jazz. They all share common performance characteristics — all are vocal-dominant, polyrhythmic and possess a strong rhythmic drive — and all three genres have a history of expressing issues of social justice from the black American perspective.

For several years, we have explored the possibility of presenting hip-hop artists whose social consciousness and performance aesthetics are similar to those established over the 31 years of the JCMC. Artists we considered included Mos Def, Talib Kweli — and Guru.

The booming voice of the legendary hip-hop duo Gang Starr, Guru had already shown his love for and understanding of the jazz legacy through his critically acclaimed hip-hop and jazz fusion series, Jazzmatazz, which has featured collaborations with musicians such as Roy Ayers, Donald Byrd, Lonnie Liston Smith, Ramsey Lewis and Branford Marsalis.

This spring, we were able to contact Guru and Solar to discuss the possibility of their performing a tribute to ’Trane for the 31st JCMC. Our initial discussions with Guru and Solar focused on providing a historical background on Coltrane and, by extension, the 30-plus-year history of the JCMC.

Both were very receptive and appreciative of being considered. Most important, both had nothing but love and respect for Coltrane.

“I admire John Coltrane’s musical integrity and the fact that he did not sell out his art,” Solar said. “To me, that shows his class and stature.”

Guru’s Jazzmatazz performances are rooted in the ongoing evolution of black musical exploration, innovation and improvisation — all informed by knowledge of the traditions of the past.

In our view, Jazzmatazz represents the continuum of black American music in the 21st century. The series’ innovative and creative use of the syntax and semantics of black culture expression known as hip-hop is at the cutting edge of contemporary music.

Guru said he is aware of his responsibility as a musician, and has already written some of his thoughts on Coltrane.

“I think my lyric from ‘Jazz Thing’ off of the ‘Mo Better Blues’ soundtrack says it all,” Guru said. “… ‘John Coltrane, a man supreme, he was the cream, he was the wise one, the impression of Afro Blue and of the promise that was not kept, he was a Giant Step.’”

 Their JCMC repertoire will include interpretations of Coltrane’s “Acknowledgement,” part one of “A Love Supreme” suite, as well as the popular “My Favorite Things.”

With the artists’ understanding of the musical and spiritual legacy of John Coltrane, Guru’s Jazzmatazz performance at the 31st JCMC promises to be innovative, captivating, and compelling. For tickets or more information, visit www.jcmc.neu.edu or call 617-373-4700.

Leonard Brown is a professional saxophonist, an associate professor of African American studies and music at Northeastern University and the co-founder and producer of the John Coltrane Memorial Concert.