Wednesday 8 March 2017

The Graduating Class of 'To Pimp a Butterfly'

There was clearly something in the water when it came to the recording sessions for Kendrick Lamar’s third studio album, ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, released 15th March 2015 on Interscope Records...  The Platinum-selling, Grammy-winning and genre-defying (and defining) album marked a decided take on socially-conscious and politically-charged hip-hop.  Musically, the themes were rooted in jazz and the avant-garde, and brought to life by a swathe of incredibly talented musicians many of which have gone on to huge successes in their own right.  So while the album has rightfully propelled Kendrick’s star into the stratosphere, we thought we’d showcase the rest of the graduates from To Pimp a Butterfly University, see what they got up to next and highlight an exciting movement in West Coast Jazz.

Terrace Martin (saxophone, production)
Terrace’s contribution to TPAB can’t be overstated.  Having had a hand in almost every track, aside from producing ‘For Free’ and ‘These Walls’, Martin also produced two tracks under the moniker LoveDragon with trumpeter Josef Leimberg (see below).  Whether it was writing, production or instrumental work, Martin’s stamp is all over this project and he was able to successfully build on its success with his follow-up project, ‘Velvet Portraits’.  Released through Ropeadope Records, ‘Velvet Portraits’ has been described as an extension of ‘TPAB’, even as far as having brought many of its musicians along for the ride: bassist Thundercat and Robert Glasper appear on ‘Curly Martin’, saxophonist Kamasi Washington appears on the album highlight ‘Think of You’ (which also features a superb vocal from Rose Gold) and the album culminates in 12-minute rendition of Kendrick’s ‘Mortal Man’.  In many ways, like ‘TPAB’, ‘Velvet Portraits’ is very much a love letter to the West Coast, and his affection really permeates through the music: ‘Turkey Taco’ is an obvious song to cite with its G-Funk-inspired groove as is the vocoder work on ‘With You’ and Lalah Hathaway’s ode to ‘Oakland’.

Josef Leimberg (trumpet, production)
Moving on to the other half of LoveDragon, we visit the excellent album by trumpeter Josef Leimberg, ‘Astral Progressions’ – the sleeper hit on World Galaxy Records that generated a huge buzz amidst contemporary jazz fans.  Although Leimberg appears on several songs throughout TPAB, his credentials extend much further than Kendrick as he can boast having chalked up collaborations with Erykah Badu, Dr Dre, Funkadelic, Robin Thicke, Terrace Martin and Shafiq Husayn.  It’s a diverse mix of collaborations that have all gone on to shape the sound of ‘Astral Progressions’ making it a masterfully-created and exquisite piece of work. 

Robert Glasper (piano)
Arguably the musician here who needs the least introduction.  Pianist and band-leader Robert Glasper successfully crossed over in 2011 bringing his jazz-fusion band, The Robert Glasper Experiment, with him.  A few Grammies later, Robert Glasper is one of the most prominent names in contemporary jazz, soul and R&B and brought his talents along to several of the songs on TPAB.  Securing Glasper must surely have proved to be a huge coup for the project as finding any free time in his schedule must be near impossible: since the release of TPAB, Glasper has gone on to release three albums (‘Covered’, ‘ArtScience’ and ‘Everything’s Beautiful’), contribute to the soundtrack of Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis biopic ‘Miles Ahead’, appear on numerous other projects for artists and continue touring extensively. 

Thundercat (bass)
Bassist Stephen Bruner’s star has progressively risen since his contributions to TPAB.  Already able to boast an extensive resume prior to his award-winning collaborations with Kendrick, Thundercat has continued to steadily put out work with artists including Flying Lotus and Kamasi Washington since that time.  The release of his critically-acclaimed third studio album in 2017 however, ‘Drunk’, seems to have made him a household name aided in part by inspired contributions from Pharrell Williams, Flying Lotus, Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins and Kendrick Lamar.

Kamasi Washington (saxophone)
Kamasi Washington has gone on to incredible success following his sax work on Kendrick’s ‘u’.  The three-disc magnum opus, ‘The Epic’, was released on Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder label just two months after TPAB and established this LA-based composer and bandleader as a frontrunner within the realms of cosmic jazz.  ‘The Epic’ boasts a ten piece orchestra, a choir and did we mention this is a debut comprising of three discs?!?  It’s as bold an introduction as you can get and a gamble that paid off royally.  Kamasi Washington has since gone on to appear on several other projects including the aforementioned ‘Velvet Portraits’ and ‘Astral Progressions’.

Ronald Bruner Jr (drums)
Brother of Thundercat, Stephen, Ronald Bruner Jr – who played drums on Kendrick’s ‘The Blacker The Berry’ – sees the release of his debut album ‘Triumph’ in 2017 through World Galaxy Records.  Having previously chalked up collaborations with undeniable legends including Prince, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan and Q-Tip, this debut release – which showcases Bruner as lead vocalist as well as drummer – genuinely shines as one of the most exciting projects to emerge this year.  The album is a unique fusion of jazz, soul and R&B and backed by contributions from Thundercat, Mac Miller and George Duke – frankly, it’s unmissable!

Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet)
Although Ambrose Akinmusire has yet to follow his work on TPAB with an album of his own, his last effort released on Blue Note Records, ‘The Imagined Savior is far Easier to Paint’, held many highlights so warranted a mention in this article as well.  Trumpeter Akinmusire only appears on one song on TPAB – sharing trumpet duties with Leimberg on ‘Mortal Man’ – but the song acts as such a strong focal point for the whole album that again, it’s a contribution worthy of mention.  Akinmusire’s at times understated playing works beautifully in the aforementioned ‘Savior...’ album, a style captured most elegantly with vocalist Becca Stevens in the beautiful collaboration, ‘Our Basement (Ed)’.

Robert ‘Sput’ Searight (drums)
Drummer for the fantastic Texan jazz-fusion band, Snarky Puppy, Robert Searight contributes drumming work on Kendrick’s ‘For Free’ and ‘Hood Politics’.  While Snarky Puppy have steadily built on their burgeoning reputation with two album releases last year (‘Family Dinner, Vol.2’ and ‘Culcha Vulcha’), Searight still found time to hook up with Terrace Martin and release ‘King’s List’ through Ropeadope Records in February 2016.  ‘King’s List’ acts as a poignant and inspiring tribute to the life and message of Dr Martin Luther King Jr and is backed by contributions from Corey Henry, Terrance Blanchard and Kim Burrell.

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