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self-titled – The Philadelphia Experiment

Ropeadope Records 93042-2
The Philadelphia Experiment’s eponymous debut does not deviate too much from
a musical tradition to accumulate an all-star lineup and subsequently record
the group’s esoteric deviations within jazz. Whether Chick Corea or John
Medeski, Charlie Hunter or DJ Logic, the trend began nearly fifty years ago
(Monk and Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, Konitz and Mehldau,
etc.) and will certainly continue in the years to come, as a means to
satisfy the music industry and supply an opportunity for the musicians to
explore/(re)new musical phrasings. Such attempts often yield mixed results
as each band member’s respective talents are usurped by a collective democratic
production. In part this also holds true for the Philadelphia Experiment.
Beyond cavil, the three performers – Ahmir Thompson, Christian McBride and Uri Caine – are
world class musicians. Caine, in particular, has spent the last three years
reinterpreting Mahler, Schumann and Bach in a modern jazz context, which has
not lead to increased attention by the listening audience but has garnered
serious conversation within the pages of various jazz publications. Both
Thompson and McBride need little introduction, as McBride has been
considered the only bassist who doesn’t "bullshit you" when he plays, while
his rhythmic counterpart Thompson co-founded The Roots and has appropriately
placed the rimshots for jazz/soul/R&B diva Erykah Badu. Within their own
musical worlds, they are essential creators of superlative conversations;
together the groups garrulousness equals a derived soul jazz, even a
cringe-inducing smooth jazz sound.
In this context, however, despite his credentials, Uri Caine, sounds
rather trite on a high-pitched electric piano. Unquestionably retro, even
reminiscent of Chick Corea’s keyboard sound circa 1970, the sound never
carries weight. A track like Ain’t It the Truth, which contains a
plethora of rhythmic changes and musical lyricism, instead sounds like
elevator material, in large part because of Caine’s keyboards. One wonders
about the potential increase in intensity of songs like Ain’t It the
Truth or Grover if Caine had employed his Steinway, which would
have created a rhythmic, acoustic, Ellington swing to the band context. The
potential results are audible on (Re)Moved and Philadelphia
Magic, which sonically lambast the album’s previous forty minutes of
While Caine can be criticized, Thompson’s hip-hop credibility appears
dubiously absent on "The Philadelphia Experiment". His snare and toms sound
either electric or extremely tight, which results in no decent bottom end.
He plays somewhere between a jazz shuffle and a hip-hop groove throughout
the album, but his chosen kit does not adequately translate the style.
Eventually, Thompson’s heroics are too dry to add credibility to
the musics groove. Cymbal flourishes and snare fills abound Ile
Ife(which has no remote similarity to Miles Davis Ife), but the
band sounds overtly whimsical, and with no puissance for the changes. The
lack of vitality can only be explained by the chosen sounds either in
production or in conceptually discussing the album, as Thompsons and Caines
past work all expose a sonic potency.
At the end of the Philadelphia Experiment’s smooth jazz
(analogous to Charlie Hunters Pound for Pound), one feels sorry for
Christian McBride, who actually added some decent bass and funk to the
music. If the other musicians had listened to the results of the three
closing acoustic tracks, and continued the ascent into funk/hip-hop in such
a direction, where each instrumentalist could have better showcased their
talents, "The Philadelphia Experiment" would have been one of the finer jazz
releases of the year. By ending the album via acoustic numbers, instead, the
band leaves too many questions unanswered, resulting in a rewording of the
banal clich"what kind of music could they have really constructed?"

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