Don't skip Miles Davis' last recording

SOUNDS ADVICE

July 05, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Jazz and rap? To a lot of jazz listeners, the combination seems about as appealing as a peanut butter and honeybee sandwich. So don't be surprised if many of Miles Davis' older fans discount or ignore the trumpeter's last recording, a jazz-rap fusion album entitled "Doo-Bop" (Warner Bros. 26938).

Admittedly, you'd think they'd be used to this sort of thing by now. Davis spent most of his career shaking up the jazz establishment, and given the soulful slant of his last decade, during which he sat in with everyone from Cameo to Quincy Jones, a posthumous rap album would hardly seem out of character.

Except that rap's musical landscape, with its pre-programmed rhythms, limited harmonic content and apparent lack of melody, seems the very antithesis of the jazz environment. Rappers, remember, don't pluck those rhymes out of thin air; most write before they record, an approach that leaves little room for improvisation, and even less for jazz.

Moreover, the fact that Davis died before finishing "Doo-Bop" means that what we hear on the album is less his doing than that of rapper-producer Eazy Mo Bee. Indeed, two of the album's titles were cobbled together from leftovers, with E.M.B. building rhythm arrangements around tracks Davis had cut some six years earlier. Not exactly a typical jazz collaboration.

Nor is it an entirely successful one. Although there are some truly dazzling moments on the album, "Doo Bop" hardly ranks among Davis' more substantial performances. It isn't just that the album feels incomplete, although E.M.B.'s after-the-fact attempts to contextualize Davis' leftovers never quite convince; rather, what hobbles "Doo-Bop" is that the rapping never quite lives up to the level of the instrumental work.

Listen to the instrumental work here, and it's easy to hear what Davis saw in the rapper. Although his name is unlikely to ring many bells, even with hard-core rapaholics, Eazy Mo Bee is a member of Rapping Is Fundamental, a trio that bills its blend of hip-hop rhymes and doo-wop harmonies as "doo-hop." (Hence "Doo-Bop," a blend of hip-hop and be-bop).

Even though there isn't much to the music harmonically -- most tunes are one- or two-chord vamps, with "Fantasy" being the only selection offering anything in the way of chord changes -- E.M.B. never lets the backing tracks become monotonous. Like any good rap producer, he builds from the bottom up, first establishing the rhythmic chemistry through a blend of drums and bass, then fleshing out the groove through an artful array of sampled sounds and keyboard color.

As is often the case with rap, a lot of what we hear is "looped" -- that is, pre-programmed and repeated in an endless electronic vamp -- but E.M.B. doesn't stop there. "Blow," for instance, uses a simple, one-chord vamp for its verses, but as much as E.M.B. relies on the constancy of the shuffling drums and loping bassline, he takes pains to maintain a sense of variety with the rest of the arrangement.

So not only does he vary his keyboard counterpoint as the tune progresses, but he even uses studio technology to shadow a few of Davis' phrases, thereby adding extra texture to the track. In other words, he knows how to do a lot with a little -- a Milesian trait if ever there was one.

But as much as this sonic seasoning adds to workouts like "Chocolate Chip" or "Duke Booty" (the latter title being a pun on the name of rapper Duke Bootee), "Doo-Bop" seems to stumble every time ol' Eazy opens his mouth to rap. The problem isn't that he's a lousy wordsmith -- E.M.B. does deliver some clever comparisons, like the line in "The Doo-Bop Song" promising to "cream you like the nougat," and his cadences are almost as imaginative as his production -- it's that he has absolutely nothing to say. And that means that the raps here are packed with such stultifyingly stupid lines like "You'll be sure to hear Miles do the whoopity shoo-bop."

Sure we will.

Fortunately, rap takes up less than a fifth of the album's 40-minute length, meaning that the pluses on "Doo-Bop" far outweigh the minuses. But those interested in a taste of what a jazz-rap fusion really could deliver would be better served by listening to "The Antidote" (4th & B'way 162-444-047), the debut of English guitarist Ronny Jordan.

True, Jordan is nowhere near the soloist Davis is, and the rhythm tracks he assembles with drum programmer Longsy D lack the witty sparkle of Eazy Mo Bee's work. But IG's rap on "Get to Grips" simply shreds any of E.M.B.'s rhymes, and Jordan's house-inflected reworking of Davis' "So What" is a delight.

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