You've been in a pioneering hip-hop group, one that released five gold or platinum albums, for ten years. Then, after album number five, you and your crew decide to call it quits. Just like that, A Tribe Called Quest is no more. What's an MC to do? Start all over again, drop a solo joint, and hit the road, which is what five-foot freak Phife Dawg has done with West Side rappers Xzibit and Defari.
Touring in support of an as-yet-unreleased solo album, Phife took the stage with his new rhyme partner Johnny Quest, and although the crowd had love for the Dawg, it's not easy to feel music you've never heard before. The single "Essence" had a little head-nod quality to it, but the crowd flipped for the Tribe songs. A Medley of "Bonita Applebum," "Electric Relaxation," and "Oh My God" got everyone crazy. The new stuff, however, didn't go over nearly as well.
Xzibit came back onstage to rhyme with Phife on a track called "Bend Over," and the rest of the Likwit Crew and Defari came out for the freestyle session. Phife freestyled a rhyme while one kid beatboxed, and everybody got a piece of the mic. This was hip-hop as it was meant to be--back to the basics with two turntables and a mic, just rippin' it.
Classic Tribe songs like "Scenario," "Award Tour," and "Check the Rhyme" (with Quest filling in Q-Tip's vocals) teased the audience, but never gave it what it wanted: A Tribe Called Quest back together and onstage. Phife seemed optimistic about a future for his old band ("There is no beef between A Tribe Called Quest") while taking a shot at his former record label ("Jive sucks big elephant balls").
Defari had the hardcore heads bouncing, and when Xzibit rushed the stage, cats lost their minds. Backed by DJ Sir Jinx and drawing mostly from his sophomore album 40 Dayz and 40 Nightz, Xzibit rocked, no matter which coast you swear allegiance to.
All those years as a sideman with James Brown and George Clinton must have given Maceo Parker a huge appreciation for the supporting cast. He introduced the band so many times, the show easily could have been considered in two halves: introductions and encore. Parker went on to ask applause for just about everyone who pitched in for the concert (stagehands, bartenders, the guys who carry the organ) and even a musician who wasn't present (Ray Charles).
Pretty humble attitude for a guy who brings unassailable funk credentials. From the we-look-snappy-when-we-funk-it-up school, Parker wore an impossibly sharp dark suit and tie. He lorded over the stage like a funk preacher, arms spread, palms open, fingers flailing, head tilted forward, heavy brows casting eyes in darkness--but his mission was anything but overbearing. He and his band ripped through a nearly nonstop, three-hour funk marathon so engrossing that, when he and the band stepped offstage, it felt like a blast of air conditioning.
Less stutter-tongued than Brown, less histrionic than Clinton, Parker preferred a carpet of sound filled with held-out organ chords and a busy bassist. There were frequent nods to his former employers, but the night belonged to Parker and his band. A few ballads tested the audience's patience--they took quite literally an earlier statement of his, that "everything we do from now on will be funky." But for the most part, Parker delivered. The democratic Maceo gave plenty of solo space to everyone, including his son Corey, the backup singer, whose rap spots went off quite a bit better than his contributions to Dad's latest album, Funk Overload.
As expected, the encore was packed with songs by Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, and Brown--gestures that have made him famous on the touring circuit. After a rhythmic orgy like that, the saturated crowd could have asked for only one thing: a bit more of Parker's signature saxophone wail.
Tommy Smith Quartet
Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith last visited Cleveland as one of Gary Burton's young whiz kids. They were booked at the zoo. It's been ten years since he's been here.
In the interim, Smith has matured considerably, especially with his latest recording, The Sound of Love. And in the more jazz-conducive setting of the Diamondback Brewery, Smith opened his set with a melancholy, romantic mood commensurate with the vibe from that album. It was, after all, Duke Ellington's birthday, and Smith's album does devote itself entirely (save for one Mingus tune) to Duke and Billy Strayhorn. Strayhorn's "A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing" opened the woefully underattended concert, and scarcely a sixteenth note rushed Smith's magisterial playing. He tugged at the tempo and let his deep Coleman Hawkins tenor huff linger over the beat. His inflection and tone would shift from phrase to phrase, sounding like a saxophone one minute, then a trumpet, then a flute. Smith's command was so thorough that the trio almost faded into the back wall of the club.
Smith's measured sounds of love wouldn't last. A few garrulous types at the back of the room opted not to take their noisy conversation elsewhere, and it riled up the Scot, who was already testy at the disappointingly empty club. "This next song is full of irregular intervals. We should have some irregular intervals for the back of the room," Smith said, spitefully eyeing the noisemakers.
The rhythm section, already anxious to explode, took it as a blessing. Smith, in a fighting mood, was all over his horn and playing much faster than before. But now he had the rhythm section on his heels, pushing him every step of the way. Pianist Makoto Ozone, bluesy one minute, almost classical the next, started breaking up the beat with a furious, jabbing comp. Clarence Penn, at the kit, took the lead with his spikiest playing so far that night. In contrast to the romantic album Smith was using as a template for the evening, the Ellington/Strayhorn renditions that issued from the Diamondback hovered on the edge of madness.
The group settled down a bit for a second set that didn't quite rise to the energy level of the first. Nevertheless, there were plenty of breathtaking moments held over. Smith's subtle, masterfully inflected handling of the theme in the Far East Suite's "Isfahan" felt like a finger gently rubbed up the spine. On a solo "Solitude," Smith directed the bell of his horn into the piano, honking low-note runs against finger-thick wire.
An incredible, edgy set from Smith and the rest, and a pity that so few people showed. So long, Tommy. See you in another ten.