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Ruby Yacht House Band Looks to Make Good on the Promise of Jazz and Hip-Hop

Mar. 28, 2017
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Hip-hop’s flirtations with jazz in the early ’90s gave way to a very one-sided relationship. Rap acts mined incredible inspiration from the genre—which inspired many of the genre’s best albums of that era, including works from A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, De La Soul, Black Moon and Gang Starr—but rap in turn proved to be a far less creative windfall for jazz. As anybody who blew 14 bucks at Sam Goody for a copy of one of Branford Marsalis’ Buckshot LeFonque albums knows, jazz’s early attempts to incorporate hip-hop were usually pretty clumsy.

It’s only really been within the last five years or 10 years, long after the initial novelty of fusing jazz with hip-hop had faded, that jazz artists began getting it right. These days the relationship between the two genres seems a lot more reciprocal. While rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Anderson .Paak are looking to some of jazz’s top players for new sounds, acts like Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington and BADBADNOTGOOD are taking away just as much inspiration in return. The conversation between jazz and hip-hop has never been louder or more exciting to eavesdrop on than it is today, and that’s been a boon for jazz scenes all of the country which have been revitalized by the surge of new ideas and interest, including here in Milwaukee.

Led by trombonist Chris Misch-Bloxdorf, the city’s Ruby Yacht House Band is just the latest combo predicated on the fusion of jazz and hip-hop. They’ve played together under different names and in different permutations, but their current moniker spells out their origins: They came together as the house band for the local hip-hop collective Ruby Yacht’s Touch & Agree events at Landmark Lanes.

As house bands go, they’re an extraordinarily qualified one. Misch-Bloxdorf splits his time between New York and the Midwest and this year won a Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award for his composition “A Shared Office with Superman.” He’s joined in the group by drummer Devin Drobka, bassist Calvin Turner, guitarists Silas Short and Max Bowen, and trumpeter Mark McKee. Their chemistry was strong enough that now they’re looking beyond the Ruby Yacht event that gave them their name. They’ll be backing some local rappers live in the coming months, and play a show of their own at The Local, 807 S. Fifth St., on Friday, April 14 at 8 p.m.

“It’s evolved into something else,” Misch-Bloxdorf says. “It’s its own entity. That whole project is like a modern Wayne Shorter Quartet meets ’90s hip-hop. It’s got that element of a lot of free playing, but with loose constructs. That was something the Wayne Shorter Quartet is known for—they play sketches of tunes, but how they get in and out of a tune is completely different. They might be playing for a half hour and maybe they’ll do five tunes, but it will feel like one piece. It leaves so much room for improvisation.”

They’ve never played the same set twice, nor for that matter performed with the exact lineup twice (Misch-Bloxdorf estimates they’ve had at least one guest sit in at every show they done). But the general format is the same: The players alternate between original compositions and familiar hip-hop loops, something Misch-Bloxdorf says are second nature to many young jazz artists these days.

“Now people literally have a thing in the jazz world where they’ll talk to a drummer and say, ‘Play that Dilla thing.’ That’s become a common descriptor for young drummers. Dilla did a lot of boom bap beats, but he made them sloppy. He made them swing. So a lot of drummers try to figure that out, to capture that same swing.”

Since jazz and hip-hop evolved in similar ways, Misch-Bloxdorf says, it’s not a stretch for today’s players to treat songs like “So What” and “Stakes is High” as equally valid touchstones.

“Jazz started with artists navigating basic showtune changes and simply playing over them, then they learned to bebop over that, and then it kept evolving to the point where you had this split of fusion and free jazz,” he says. “And it’s the same thing with hip-hop. The music draws from its past in similar ways. They both came from the same place.”

The Ruby Yacht House Band plays The Local on Friday, April 14 at 8 p.m. with Safari Al.


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