Madlib seems like one of those prolific musicians who makes innovative tweaks just to keep himself from falling asleep. After revealing in 2019 via Twitter that he made all the beats for his Freddy Gibbs follow-up collaboration Bandana on his iPad, the reclusive producer logged off—back into the silence of creating. Back to getting those austere and psychedelic arrangements just the way he wants them, without parameters. No constraints or duress of having to generate a certain numerical value that can be added to a press release about how many Spotify streams were attained. That used to be record units in olden times. But most definitely, his verve to make music is liberation. No, that tweet didn’t feel flexy at all. More like a “what it do.”
Somehow I missed the Madlib-Karriem Riggins collaboration album under the name Jahari Massamba Unit that dropped around Thanksgiving, Pardon My French. It is a completion of a 20-year cycle of jazz-oriented projects that Madlib began a while back when his jazz group Yesterday’s New Quintet debuted its Angles Without Edges on September 11, 2001. That’s the same exact day as Jay-Z’s The Blueprint—a date that holds space and significance for a new generation of artists, who in 2001 were still in diapers.
Looking back at YNQ, it was ‘Lib who kicked off the current re-exploration of jazz. Let’s not forget that last year was dominated by new-era jazz projects that sound like a beat tape—Georgia Anne Muldrow, Jeff Parker, and Dougie Stu to name just a couple who went this route. ‘Lib showed the way to playing and experimenting with the merits of abstract expressionism, a frequency within which jazz cooks. I’m not talking about rapping over jazz-oriented beats either. That’s washed. Madlib was constructing arrangements inspired by the Blue Note imprint, executing hip-hop-jazz melts from parts of Stevie Wonder’s vast discography, giving both catalogs new drip.
Lots of folks over the past 15 years have been swimming in the Madlib portion of the pool. But that loose, fragmented, and for sure funky mixtape modernity—yes, even the iterations from Queen Bey herself— cannot be as impactful as the delivery system progenitor.
There is no old-man-lawn shade thrown at any of the new jacks either—plenty of room for everybody. Bring your own style of stank, fo’ sho. More than enough for everybody to eat at the jazz table. But let’s sort the seating arrangements. In 2001, Madlib—much like Theo Parrish today—traded in his SP 1200 sampler for a Fender Rhodes, opting for a legacy in composition.
On Pardon My French, Lib teams up with Riggins, a production ninja in his own right, to make the kind of vintage jazz album the whole world was fiending for on Boomkat during April lockdown. Fit with Herbie Hancock Sextant vibes running throughout, Lib and Riggins lock on for knotty keyboard jazz meets boom-bap attitude. On the funk-yeah, yo-right “Etude Montract,” squirrelly synths close out the UFO-dank at the end, with full-on head-nod ease. It’s about as straight-forward as you’re gonna get here, screaming with warmth.
Most textures on the project run by moods. Some are chapters, others are hues. The shortened segments at the beginning are brief heat-ups that splash with cymbal crashes and trumpet wails echoing off in remoteness. Some will perceive the inability of these micro-segments to add up into a linear form as canoodling and auditory riffraff. But I hear Black voices without intrusion, speaking freely.
Like most of the YNQ discography, ideas from a previous era get plopped into the context of the now. Some make immediate sense, others take time. Gaze and chuckle at Lib’s dense wine game teased in many of the titles here, if you get stuck.
Madlib locates these thicc compositions in a place where the unbelievable becomes just a normal day. Riggins maintains, providing the nasty drum programming where our commander gets vertical like nobody’s watching.
Jahari Massamba Unit gives up the obvious joint at the end, an updated version of Idris Muhammads “Lorens Dance” made mainstream famous by the Beastie Boys’ “To All The Girls” on Paul’s Boutique. The version on Pardon My French is named “Hommage A La Vielle Garde (Pour Lafarge Et Rinaldi).” That Fred Wesley horny horn trombone soul feels like the JB’s coming home again. When done, go back and get familiar with the unfamiliar tracks that had no bread crumbs scattered to mark their trajectory.
Jazz, in any era or iteration, is about getting lost so you can get found.