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Wednesday, Aug 19 1998
Jermaine Dupri
Life in 1472
(So So Def)

Life in 1472, the debut recording as a frontman of hit producer Jermaine Dupri, is one of the most pointless releases of the year, and it sounds like many of the participants knew it from the start. The record boasts an impressive guest list -- Mariah Carey, Nas, Snoop Dogg, Usher, Slick Rick, DMX, Jay-Z, Da Brat, Mase, and Lil' Kim among others -- which undoubtedly helped it sell well over 300,000 units in its first three weeks of release. But the guest contributions are lackadaisical; if anyone broke a sweat, it was in hurrying back to the limo after the session.

In many ways, this record was a disaster waiting to happen. Although Dupri is one of the leading producers in contemporary R&B and hip hop, his success owes more to casting and marketing than the creation of innovative music. Dupri first hit with kid-die rappers Kris Kross, acting as their Svengali and helping them tap into the youth market for hip hop. The group's hits -- "Jump," "Warm It Up" -- were novelty songs that captured pre-pubescent boys rapping and wearing their clothes backward. At the same time, Dupri's base of operations, Atlanta, was becoming a hot spot for R&B and hip hop, and the market for hip-hop-inflected R&B was just beginning to grow. So Dupri went a long way on very few ideas.

Nothing's changed since then. His remix of Dru Hill's "Sleeping in My Bed" merely pumps up the beats and allows the group's vocals a bit more gospel flavor. His work with Carey, especially the remix of her recent "My All," does the same thing to the rhythm track and gives her melismas more contrasting space. Dupri is often criticized for a lack of originality, but he'll never be accused of overproducing.

You'd think he'd have more flair. When Dupri was growing up, his father, Michael Mauldin, now president of Columbia's black music division (So So Def's parent label), was the road manager for the '70s funk band Brick, and Dupri learned the drum parts for most of their songs as a kid. So why is there so little sense of '70s funk or its musicality in his productions? The backing tracks on Life in 1472 are generic and occasionally derivative. On "Don't Hate on Me," he uses the cluttered rhythms found in Timbaland's productions. "Jazzy Hoes" features the spare beats found in much of the Trackmasters' work. When Dupri tries his hand at MC-ing, the results are abysmal. On "Fresh" he claims, "I'm so delicious like shit out of cookbooks/ Even make Salvation Army clothes look good."

In case you're wondering about the title, let me explain. J is the 10th letter of the alphabet, D is the fourth; Jermaine Dupri was born in 1972. That little conceit typifies the lack of originality and musical value on this disc. It's a vanity project that lacks any sense of pride.

-- Martin Johnson

Oscar Peterson
Live at the Salle Pleyel

Oscar Peterson, it should be noted, has little snob appeal. Everyone seems to understand the pianist. His fans always have, ever since he began his career in the '40s in Montreal. He came up at a time when jazz was in ferment, if not in turmoil. It didn't seem to affect him. Peterson ignored the divine clatter of Thelonious Monk, evaded the rattling, off-balance runs of Bud Powell, and instead drew his inspiration from pre-bop players like Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, and the suave Nat Cole. He surely absorbed something from the sly phrasing and bluesy repertoire of Count Basie, but he's much less patient than Basie, and less given to leaving spaces.

Peterson tends to fill every corner of the canvas. He may start a solo with single-note runs, but he thickens the textures with every ensuing chorus, ending in passages of big, two-handed chords, locked-hand phrases alternating with shouting responses or expansive trills that taken together sound like a big band condensed. He can be as compulsive a pianist as Buddy Rich was a drummer, and listening to him wind up a solo with one of his extended crescendos can be like finding yourself on the pitiless, inevitable downward run of a roller coaster.

He's been popular in this country since 1953, when in imitation of Nat King Cole he formed a drummerless trio with bassist Ray Brown and guitarist Herb Ellis. He's made hundreds of records, and classics (We Get Requests) and live sessions (The London House Sessions) alike are as well-known among casual listeners as among hard-core jazz fans. Peterson is in his 70s now; yet even after struggling with illness, including arthritis, he seems as consistent as ever. Live at the Salle Pleyel, a two-disc set, finds his style intact and only incidentally reminds us that there has been little development in this style since the '50s. The session is notable for its nine Peterson originals, including his "Kelly Blues," the seductive "Nighttime," the bossa nova "Tranquille," and the gorgeous "Love Ballade." I have always preferred Peterson in a modest, lyrical mood, playing the melody of this "Ballade" over a left-hand pattern that could come out of the 18th century, or in the early choruses of a blues such as the catchy "Smudge" on the first disc. There are plenty such choruses here, as well as the thumping endings that so energize his fans. He is accompanied by bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pederson, drummer Martin Drew, and guitarist Lorne Lofsky. His duets with Lofsky on "Sweet Georgia Brown" and elsewhere are highlights of this live set.

The Oscar Peterson Quartet performs Friday through Sunday at Yoshi's in Oakland.

-- Michael Ullman


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