A Rapper, Backed Up by Brass
What do you get for the guy who has everything? You give him a sparkly evening to redefine American popular song, of course. But unless the guy is a brilliant performer and a born bandleader, you might want to add some accessories to that gift: a bunch of rehearsals, a merciless musical director.
At Jazz at Lincoln Center's Allen Room on Thursday, Mos Def opened the spring season of Lincoln Center's American Songbook series, giving him carte blanche to frame the subject with his own predilections. In hip-hop terms this is chicken feed, but Mos Def isn't Jay-Z, and the gig had a long profile within certain influential strata: a boutiquey show in New York's most beautiful theater, preceded by weeks of positive chatter. The concert was sold out, with a long standby line in the lobby of the Time Warner Center.
He had a fairly killer rhythm section, with the keyboardist Robert Glasper, the bassist John Benitez and the imaginative hard-funk drummer Chris Dave. He had an easy, tenable concept, combining a quartet with the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, a brass-band octet he's been working with a little; it did exactly what street brass bands are good at, making a powerful arrangement of whatever music is put in front of it. The stage arrangement looked amazing, with the brass players arranged, four on a side, into opposing crescents facing each other, the night sky and blinking lights from traffic visible through the window behind them. It had the steam of righteousness, too: nearly all members on stage were dressed in matching hoodies reading "RIP Sean Bell," referring to the man felled by police bullets in Queens on his wedding day in November.
But after a few good minutes, Mos Def's attention wandered, as if he were a guest performer waiting for his rescue. By the middle, the show was unsavable. The intent was to honor and protest, connecting music and politics. And the show wasn't misguided or convoluted; Mos Def just seemed uninterested in delivering.
The rhythm section started up Screamin' Jay Hawkins's "I Put a Spell on You," and the brass band filed down the steps of the theater to the stage. Mos Def, a middling singer at best, hid out within the folds of the song. Soon the band played an easy ace: a version of "The Grunt," an old churning instrumental recorded by James Brown's backing group. "Float like a butterfly, sting like J.B.," Mos Def mumbled over the funk. "Yes sir/Yes sir/Yes sir. ..." A slowed-down version of the same vamp followed, giving the alto saxophonist Casey Benjamin a long solo.
Mos Def performed his new "Dollar Day," written in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a song with a backing track borrowed from Juvenile's "Nolia Clap"; the horns boomed out the song's thin synthesizer line, and Mos Def crooned reggae style. Hurricane-as-metaphor opened up the possibility for a version of Neil Young's "Like a Hurricane" — inert, badly sung, with an ugly keyboard arrangement.
And then came an endless version of the Stylistics' "People Make the World Go Round," a protest tune worth celebrating, but probably not as bland mounting for long, perfunctory solos. Here Mos Def freestyled for a few minutes, reminding us that he is still a rapper, despite any other aspirations. Tossed off and improvised, it was the most committed part of the show.
By the time he got around to "The Star-Spangled Banner," Mos Def seemed ready to miss an opportunity for provocation, and he did. After that, the De La Soul cover, "Stakes Is High," didn't mean much, as music or as repertory.