At D.C. Jazz Festival, Karriem Riggins revives close ties between hip-hop and jazz

June 16, 2013

On Saturday night, the D.C. Jazz Festival offered a heartbreaking choice: One could see the Roots and experience incredible drummer and hip-hop/soul producer Questlove or see the lesser-known, but equally talented, Karriem Riggins, a Detroit native who is also an immense drummer and producer.

Riggins, a protege of legendary producer J Dilla, has worked with rapper Common, singer Erykah Badu and jazz musicians Diana Krall and Mulgrew Miller. His LP, “Alone Together,” released late last year, is a bridge between those two worlds — an eclectic instrumental collection that mixes jazz, hip-hop breakbeats, warped soul samples and other sonic goodies.

As a hip-hop producer who samples jazz artists, and also a drummer who plays live versions of his jazz-sampling beats, he transports listeners back to a time when mainstream hip-hop and jazz were tightly bound. Listen to commercial rap today, and the link isn’t so apparent, but artists such as Riggins and jazz drummer Jamire Williams of Erimajare reviving that relationship, freshening it and, in the process, shattering the long-held notion that young people aren’t that into jazz.

At the D.C. Jazz Loft Pop-Up Hall on Saturday, 20- and 30-somethings gathered to listen to jazz from the Karriem Riggins Quartet, Erimaj, and locals Heidi Martin and Siné Qua Non. Some of it was straight-ahead, some experimental, some heavily filtered through the lens of hip-hop, but all jazz nonetheless.

Both Williams and Riggins performed pieces from famed avant garde jazz drummer Tony Williams (Erimaj’s cover of “This Night, This Song” was especially lovely), but jazz that more obviously connected to hip-hop in some way ruled the night.

The crowd went crazy when Erimaj played “something for the heads,” as Williams called it: “Rainbows,” a track from the MF Doom/Madlib “Madvillainy” album, which some may have recognized as the distressed piece “Kelly” from William Loose, Stu Phillips and Marvin Elling. More craziness ensued when Karriem Riggins and Co. performed “Make Em NV,” a J Dilla track that has been given a band treatment before (by the Roots) but sounded stripped and raw as interpreted by a jazz quartet.

Tracks from Riggins’s “Alone Together,” a critics favorite last year, were lush and bold live. On “Summer Madness,” the quartet played along with, but refused to drown out, the catchy Caetano Veloso sample at the center of the track. “Esperanza,” a short, springy, flute-driven piece on the LP, was transformed into a beautiful, dragging piece live.

Riggins showed off his lyrical skills, too, spitting rhymes from Supreme Team, his project with producer Madlib, while wailing on the drum kit. He also led the crowd in a chorus of “J Dilla, rest in beats!” while executing some killer drum work that jazz heads might call a “vamp,” hip-hop heads would call a “loop” and both groups would call dope.

Godfrey is a freelance writer.

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