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Kassa Overall - Shades of Flu: Healthy Remixes For an Ill Moment Music Album Reviews

With a daring assortment of reverential and playful remixes, the drummer and producer carves a niche for himself in the world of contemporary jazz.

When Madlib was granted access to Blue Note’s sacred archives, history inspired the Beat Konducta to create a textbook of sample-led jazz rap destined to be studied by hip-hop producers forevermore. Seventeen years after Shades of Blue: Madlib Invades Blue Note, drummer and producer Kassa Overall seizes upon the same concept, but the circumstances that inspired the making of his “remixtape” are radically different. Shades of Flu: Healthy Remixes For an Ill Moment was assembled as Kassa observed coronavirus quarantine measures in Seattle. The final product is more gonzo in spirit than Madlib’s sanctified opus, but just like his hero, Kassa takes listeners by the hand and walks them through why hip-hop is, and has always been, a continuum of jazz.
If you’re looking for other precursors, Shades of Flu has as much in common with Danger Mouse’s once heavily discussed mash-up record The Grey Album as it does with Madlib’s thesis: It’s similarly raw, underground, and chaotic. Kassa takes apart songs (mostly recorded by friends and collaborators), peers at the components inside, and finds bold new ways to put them back together. Sometimes he’ll fixate on one small snippet of the original—a piano plink, a vocal section—and loop it again and again, like a person hypnotized by a snow globe. His drums frequently drop out of the mix or veer off into wild freakouts. Madlib created smooth music you can easily picture coming out of both antique radios and modern turntables; Kassa’s experiments find a pocket somewhere in between.

Consider his new remix of pianist Sullivan Fortner’s take on John Coltrane and Duke Ellington’s “In a Sentimental Mood.” Taken from his 2018 album Moments Preserved, Fortner’s cover retained the dimly lit film noir vibes of the Duke Ellington composition. Now, here comes Kassa, who flips the track into an electro-jazz mash-up with a thumping beat. Meanwhile, the new mix of Makaya McCraven’s “Tall Tales” sees each instrument fray into the next, amalgamating into a blurry collage that feels equally inspired by the Beatles’ proggy productions and Aphex Twin’s jittering electronica.

That’s not to say Kassa can’t smooth things out when he’s in the mood. He adds a comfortingly familiar boom-bap beat to Jon Batiste’s very delicate cover of “What a Wonderful World,” while retaining Batiste’s doomed chord changes and dark mood. Cécile McLorin Salvant’s version of Steve Wonder’s “Visions” was prototypical lounge jazz—just the piano, the singer’s voice, and nothing else—but Kassa speeds her vocals up to form a lean slice of chipmunk soul that harks back to The College Dropout.

The most fascinating cut might be the reimagining of Miles Davis’ “Freedom Jazz Dance.” Kassa mixes the peppy horn riff with the distinct drum loop and vocals from Busta Rhymes’ “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See,” emerging with an alt-hip-hop number heavily reminiscent of his collaborations with A Tribe Called Quest. It feels like a lost Busta remix, summoned from an era when serving up alternate versions of rap singles was the norm.

Of greatest personal consequence to Kassa must be his remix of Geri Allen’s “Unconditional Love.” The pianist and professor, a personal mentor, died in 2017, and Kassa handles her memory with great love by keeping the original’s swirling piano play and matching it with a hip-hop-style drum break. It’s the closest Kassa gets to adhering to Madlib’s Shades of Blue. Because as it turns out, Shades of Flu isn’t really about Kassa emulating one of his influences, but laying out a pamphlet of his own daring ideas. By illuminating old cuts in new light, Kassa asserts his position as one of modern jazz music’s most audacious futurists.

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