As pleasant and groovy as it is, the collaborative album never feels like a true Roy Ayers work.
Adrian Younge never wants you to forget he’s the man behind the music. Whether he is offering a sinister take on Philly soul for The Delfonics’ William Hart, serving splatter flick grooves to Ghostface Killah, or even making music with his own soul band, Venice Dawn, the producer and instrumentalist promotes his own mythology as a vanguard of old school grooves by adding the words “Adrian Younge presents…” to the records he helms. Now, there’s the Jazz is Dead series, which sees Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad (partners on 2018’s The Midnight Hour) team-up with musicians they admire to record LPs at Younge’s Linear Labs studio in Los Angeles. Released in March, Jazz is Dead 001 acted as an introduction to the project by gathering one song from each future installment, including collaborations with such dignitaries as Marcos Valle, Azymuth, and Brian Jackson. Roy Ayers JID 002 is perhaps the most consequential edition of the endeavor. Yet, it rarely feels like the true jazz legend is operating on the front line.
The first question that must be asked is why such an ugly naming system? At 79, Ayers hardly ever records anymore—this is being promoted as his first studio album in 18 years—so any new music attributed to him should be a capital-E event. But by fixing a number to his name, Younge and Muhammad frame the piece as very much their venture. Ayers is credited as co-writing every song and playing his famous vibraphone on seven of the eight cuts, so we can assume he had some agency over the final product. But since fuzzy guitars, low frequency drums, and heavy basslines have long been a staple of Younge’s productions, it’s his fingerprints we see all over Roy Ayers JID 002. And while Ayers’ playing is still smooth and lucious after all these years, his instrumentation is often buried low in the mix. There’s nothing like his 1970s vibraphone-led wanderings like “Mystic Voyage” or “The Third Eye,” and his singing voice never comes to the forefront of the arrangements. Rather than a lost Ayers classic, the album feels more like an interpretation of his music through Younge and Muhammad’s lens.
That’s not to say that Roy Ayers JID 002 isn’t a nice listen in its own right. Using Fender Rhodes piano, electric bass, monophonic synthesizers, mellotron, flutes, and many other toys, Muhammad (operating here as an instrumentalist and not the DJ that A Tribe Called Quest fans remember) and Younge forge a stoned and surly suite that incorporates 1970s R&B, psychedelic soul, and West Coast jazz. The borders of each jam are blurry; tracks are allowed to bleed into one another, further imbuing the record with a dream-like quality.
There are signposts to Ayers’ past throughout. The most obvious attempt at mimicry is “Synchronized Vibration.” Its soft-filtered grooves, female vocal harmonies, and references to that big star at the center of our solar system hark back to his most famous hit, “Everybody Loves The Sunshine.” Ayers early traditional jazz work is recalled on “Shadows of the East,” while the more propulsive Harlem rhythms of “Solace”—distinguished by Phil Ranelin on trombone, Wendell Harrison on tenor saxophone, and Greg Paul on drums—act as a reminder that Ayers’ Coffy soundtrack was a touch point for Younge’s brilliant work on Blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite.
The album signs off with a kick. “African Sounds” features a spoken word vocal from Younge preaching love, unification, and the memory of historical black struggle: “We have the choice to use our colors and sound to rebound against the hate, to circumvent the illusion seen through the misty shades of America,” he asserts. Ayers’ vibraphone rings in the background, the grandee playing the role of session musician with dignity. And that’s the biggest issue with Roy Ayers JID 002. Though Younge and Shaheed Muhammad may enjoy casting themselves as career revivalists, Roy Ayers JID 002, as pleasant and groovy as it is, never quite feels like a true Roy Ayers work.