The Harlem Experiment
The Harlem Experiment
First Appeared in The Music Box, November 2007, Volume 14, #11
Written by Douglas Heselgrave
Sun November 18, 2007, 09:00 AM CST
"No, this isn’t the Harlem of the past. This is the Harlem of the fast-arriving future — marked by new attitudes and ways of thinking — for we don’t have to remind ourselves of the struggles fought right outside our windows because we will never forget. The heart of Harlem is its creative spirit, and the revitalization of that creative spirit is only just begun." – DJ Mums
Unlike many albums of its kind, The Harlem Experiment is an unqualified success. Essentially a historical travelogue through the diverse pathways of Harlem’s musical landscape, the 15 tracks on this disc engage and excite the listener from beginning to end. Following the premise of taking musicians who share a hometown, but not necessarily a musical style, and having them create an album that reflects the spirit of their city, indie label Ropeadope has invited creative anarchy with the inception of their "Experiment" collections. Following in the footsteps of The Philadelphia Experiment and The Detroit Experiment, The Harlem Experiment not only is far more unified than its predecessors but it also is more musically challenging. Hosted by a loose collective, with producer Aaron Luis Levinson ostensibly at the helm, the musicians — led by David Bowie alumnus Carlos Alomar on guitar — play with a level of verve and intuition that suggests that they are part of a seasoned band rather than a group of artists who have been pulled together for a one-off recording.
The personnel assembled to bring The Harlem Experiment to fruition are a veritable "who’s who" from the New York music scene. Aside from Alomar, whose funky brand of rhythm guitar serves to anchor the collection, many musicians from the Apollo Theater’s heyday have been brought along for the ride. From keyboardist Eddy Martinez to drummer Steve Berrios to clarinetist Don Byron, these sidemen to James Brown, Tito Puente, and Max Roach add credibility to the affair. The musical lineage explored on the effort — which stretches from Louis Armstrong to Grandmaster Flash and beyond — is realized in a full-color sonic palette that must be heard to be believed.
The Harlem Experiment’s tracks are framed and presented as an imaginary radio show that is hosted by Harlem’s own DJ Mums. With Mums and DJ Arkive serving as guides, the richness of Harlem’s musical past and present are explored as Alomar and his band joyously weave their way through a series of original songs and timeless standards. The classic sounds of Harlem jazz, salsa, funk, and R&B phase in and out as Arkive orients the listener to the neighborhood, wistfully rapping as he accompanies his audience on a journey through the pathways, alleys, markets, and streets of this historical section of northern Manhattan. This merging of styles, with songs seamlessly running into each other, illustrates the cross-pollination of genres and the development of African-American music better than any Ph.D. thesis ever could. And, it’s a lot more fun.
From the swinging cha-cha version of Cab Calloway’s Reefer Man — which features a gloriously spot-on vocal performance from Taj Mahal — to the two takes on A Rose in Spanish Harlem, there isn’t a track on The Harlem Experiment that isn’t conceived and executed perfectly While many attempts at updating a particular sound miss the point or strive too hard to fit a square peg into a round hole, the unity of the musical vision on The Harlem Experiment makes for a thrilling listening experience. Doo wop, R&B, and Latin flourishes are put through the blender of hip-hop scratching, and they all contribute immensely to the experience and journey of the effort. Whatever one thinks of rap and modern urban music, the context established by The Harlem Experiment forces the audience to consider it seriously and honor it as a creative and logical extension of all of the groundbreaking styles that have arisen from this vibrant community.
One doesn’t need to be a musicologist to enjoy listening to The Harlem Experiment. Having such a requirement would defeat the purpose of the project. This is music that should be played loud and appreciated for the sheer, wild joy of its creation. It is a wonderful, stomping, howling carnival ride of a disc that will have listeners jumping and jiving for years to come.
The Harlem Experiment is available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box