Optometry is hardly the first album to mingle jazz, hip-hop and DJ culture. Indeed, it's not even the first platter to do so on Thirsty Ear. In June 2001, Spring Heel Jack, a London duo that's rightly viewed as an innovator in the drum 'n' bass subgenre, unleashed its own entry in Thirsty Ear's fascinating Blue Series. Titled Masses, it pitted electronic elements against contributions from outside jazz players such as pianist Matthew Shipp, who figures prominently on this CD as well. But the latest from Paul Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky, is certainly as accomplished and satisfying an entry in this growing field as any made to date. It even may win over those jazz purists who've dismissed previous efforts as commercial gimmicks.
Why? In the past, performers who hail from the hip-hop side of the continuum have generally used jazz as seasoning to give their grooves a fresh taste, but they've stopped short of making it the primary ingredient on their aural menu. But on Optometry, Spooky goes further, subtly shaping music made by a gifted cadre of instrumentalists with avant-garde leanings principally Shipp, bassist William Parker, saxophonist-trumpeter Joe McPhee and drummer Guillermo E. Brown instead of chopping previously recorded jazz into bits so fine that only a hint of the original flavor remains. As a result, the integrity of the performances becomes the foundation of the project rather than a casualty of the process. In other words, the songs still sound like jazz an especially striking and audacious sort of jazz, at that.
Spooky's comparatively light touch here may come as a surprise to those familiar with his previous work. His 1996 debut, Songs of a Dead Dreamer, is filled with densely layered soundscapes marked by rap rhythms, dub production and ambient textures; 1998's Riddim Warfare, his best-known platter, places contributions from musicians as disparate as Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore and MC Killah Priest into a premillennial blender set on "purée." In contrast, Optometry sports a much cleaner, less cluttered approach exemplified by "Ibid, desmarches, ibid," which kicks off the proceedings. The track rides in on a low rumble that sounds like traffic noise recorded from a great distance before giving way to a finger-popping Brown drum pattern, an irresistible walking bass line courtesy of Parker, some sinuous saxophone by McPhee, and Shipp's rich, expressive chording. Evidence of studio slicing and dicing is evident on occasion, but the majority of the edits are all but seamless, guaranteeing that the pure pleasure of the ditty isn't diluted on its way to the listener.
Granted, some of the other numbers have more fingerprints on them. But even "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad World" which is marked by space burbles, several overt tape loops and a generous selection of conversational non sequiturs (at one point, a voice asks, "You're a disc jockey? What's that?") leaves well enough alone when it comes to the McPhee tenor solo at its center. Likewise, the title cut's studio tinkering leaves plenty of room for the atmospheric playing of guest violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain and "beats" credited to Billy Martin of Medeski, Martin & Wood, a combo that often uses DJs in its own ventures. And the two-part opus not so succinctly called "Variation Cybernétique: Rhythmic Pataphysic" is built upon drone-heavy structures that feel wholly organic even if they're not.
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Obviously Spooky, who also plays kalimba and bass on the LP, isn't interested in telegraphing his techniques: His self-penned liner notes begin with the telling questions, "Is it live? Or is it a sample?" Neither does he wish to wholly alienate his hip-hop following, hence the inclusion of "Parachutes," in which rapper Napoleon precedes his spiel with the comment, "This is for all my dogs," and "Asphalt (Tome II)," a showcase for modern griot Carl Hancock Rux. But when Rux intones, "I got two turntables and Coltrane," he's speaking to everyone, not just members of specific constituencies. The same can be said of Optometry, an album with a vision of a most intriguing future.