It’s safe to say that with three solid albums under their belts (well, at least two solid albums…No More Mr. Nice Guy was questionable) and another one to come the following year, that by 1993 Gang Starr was peaking (shout out to the makers of the Netflix series Marvel’s Luke Cage for naming each of the episodes in the first season after Gang Starr songs, But I digress). A Premo beat was quickly becoming high demand, so when he wasn’t cooking up hot shit for his partner Guru to spit over, he was providing audible goodies for several other artists and quietly building his catalog and legacy as arguably the greatest hip-hop producer of all time. Not to be out done by Premo and his individual endeavors, Guru would also take on a side venture of his own. Many of the loops that Premo used on Gang Starr songs came from jazz records, so it wasn’t a far reach to hear Guru was releasing Jazzmatazz Vol. 1, which was his experimental solo project that would fuse hip-hop with live jazz.
Jazzmatazz would include live instrumentation and vocal contributions from such names as Donald Byrd, Roy Ayers, Lonnie Liston Smith and Ronnie Jordan, to name a few. Jazzmatazz didn’t sell a ton of units domestically, but it did manage to break the Billboards Top 200 R&B/Hip-hop albums (peaking at #91), and it also sold pretty well in Europe where jazz is more popular.
But you know my motto: sales don’t mean shit when it comes to determining the quality of music.
Introduction – Over a simple trumpet loop (or maybe Donald Byrd playing live? The liner notes don’t specify for some reason), Guru opens Jazzmatazz explaining why he took on this “experiment”, and shout outs all the parties that contributed to the album. Short and sweet.
Loungin’ – This was the first single released from Jazzmatazz . Jazz legend Donald Byrd puts in work on the trumpet and piano over hard drums and a dope bass line. Guru’s rhymes are kind of all over the place, but the instrumental work is sick. This one still knocks today.
When You’re Near – Guru invites Brand New Heavies’ vocalist N’Dea Davenport to join him on this very tastefully done hip-hop/r&b love duet. N’Dea contributes most of the vocalist, with Guru weaving in and out dropping a line or two, here and there. The production is credited to Simon Law (formerly of Soul II Soul) on the keyboards, which is cool, but the nasty bass guitar licks is what gives this song a soul.
Transit Ride – With Branford Marsalis on alto and soprano sax, and Zachary Breaux on guitar, Guru attempts to verbally paint the visual of a train ride through Brooklyn. The end results are decent.
No Time To Play – This was the final single released from Jazzmatazz . Guru stresses the importance of planning and hard work in order to be successful, while Ronny Jordan adds some nice guitar licks to Guru’s drum beat. DC Lee (who sounds a lot like N’Dea Davenport) and Group Home alum, Big Shug add some pretty solid vocals to complete this successful experimentation.
Down The Backstreets – Guru invites jazz pianist Lonnie Liston Smith to help create a dark sonic atmosphere, as he sends warnings, advice and threats to his rivals. I don’t know if Guru’s rhymes were that effective (or focused), but the instrumental is dope.
Respectful Dedications – Guru starts off the second half of Jazzmatazz (or side two if you’re listening on cassette) giving his dedications over what I’m pretty sure is Roy Ayers on vibes.
Take A Look (At Yourself) – Speaking of Roy Ayers, he is definitely present on this one. He lays down some dope vibes, as Guru gives constructive criticism to the “suckas always complaining about their situation”. This one is nasty. Definitely one of the strongest songs on Jazzmatazz .
Trust Me – I believe this was the second single released from Jazzmatazz . On this one Guru is trying to convenience his weary woman to stay with him. N’Dea Davenport makes her second appearance of the evening, and provides some dope vocals over the beautiful jazzy/bluesy Guru produced backdrop. After all these years, this one still sounds fresh.
Slicker Than Most – Guru gets into some emcee shit on this one, spitting battle bars over Gary Barnacle’s sax and flute, and an uncredited guitar bass line. Well done, Guru.
Le Bien, Le Mal – This was the third single (I think) released from Jazzmatazz . French emcee MC Solaar joins Guru on this duet, as they discuss “the good and the bad” (at least Guru does…Solaar spits his rhymes in French, so hopefully he stuck to the script) over a slick backdrop.
Sights In The City – Guru wraps Jazzmatazz with this somber number that has him recalling some of the sad events that take place in the inner city. Courtney Pine plays alto sax, soprano sax and the flute, Simon Law is on keys and Carleen Anderson sings the borderline annoying hook. The song isn’t terrible, but if there is one song that could have been leave off of Jazzmatazz it would be this one.
Jazzmatazz Vol. 1 proves that live jazz fused with hip-hop can be pleasurable to the earlobes. Guru does a great job of staying true to hip-hop on Jazzmatazz , while allowing all his guests to shine and showcase their talents as well. Guru’s lyrics aren’t terrible on Jazzmatazz , but they definitely take a backseat to the music. All in all, the experiment was a success.