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Russell Gunn aims outside the boundaries of jazz convention

Wednesday, Jan 9 2002
Trumpeter Russell Gunn has the prodigy back-story that armchair critics love: He grew up in East St. Louis just like Miles Davis, got discovered at a 4 a.m. jam at the Blue Note by a scout for Wynton Marsalis, toured with Marsalis' acclaimed jazz opera Blood on the Fields, crossed over to Branford Marsalis' acid-jazz act Buckshot LeFonque, and received a Grammy nomination in 2000 for Ethnomusicology, Volume 1. After spending nearly a year on tour with soul stirrer D'Angelo, Gunn now returns with Ethnomusicology, Volume 2, on which he and his octet spread the gospel that jazz, R&B, funk, and hip hop are inseparable ingredients of the same sonic stew.

Like Oliver Lake, the avant-gardist who first brought Gunn to New York, Gunn dedicates himself to the world of black music, not any particular definition of jazz. But unlike the historical avant-garde, Gunn locates his sound in the great stream of black popular music rather than in the outer reaches of screaming phonics. While comparisons between Gunn's ethnomusicology and Miles Davis' fusion period are hyperbolic -- the young Gunn's formal experiments haven't had the same cultural effect as the Man With the Horn's -- Gunn is equally willing to locate himself outside the boundaries of jazz convention.

For Volume 2, Gunn went solo in the producer's booth, and the result is fatter bottom-end rhythms and leaner song arrangements. Where 1 sought its kicks in lush, horn-hooked riffs, 2 prefers motorbooty propulsion, with space cleared out on top for the leader to solo. Featuring occasional helium-headed vocals by Gunn and otherworldly sonic flavors by DJ Apollo, the songs land squarely in the camp of George Clinton­esque funk. (Apollo is replaced by Neil Armstrong on tour.)

To balance his originals, Gunn reworks classics by Thelonious Monk ("Epistrophy") and Duke Ellington ("Caravan" and "It Don't Mean a Thing," now rendered as "Go-Go Swing"). While the results are ear-opening, the songs remain static on record. Flexed live, however, they should be different beasts, seen through Gunn's vision of 21st-century classical music.

About The Author

Aaron Shuman


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