While it's not that unusual for a novelist to use a city or neighborhood as his main character (think of Richard Price writing about the Bronx, or John Steinbeck on the Salinas Valley), the idea of structuring an album that way seems, well, odd. But Ropeadope has managed to pull it off three times with its "experiment" series, which began in 2001 with The Philadelphia Experiment and continued with 2003's take on Detroit. This year's installment, The Harlem Experiment, blends klezmer, jazz, funk, and hip-hop influences to represent the panoply that is Harlem. As with most concept-driven albums, the idea is compelling, but the execution is hard.
Harlem Experiment brings together such heavyweights as vocalist Queen Esther, guitarist Carlos Alomar, and Hammond player Eddie Martinez, who apparently recorded the whole thing in a single session. Moored by its sociological underpinnings, the album still brims with "aha" moments. Consider Bronx-raised jazz clarinetist Don Byron playing the Yiddish tune "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen," or James Hunter's denuded guitar version of the pop tune "A Rose in Spanish Harlem," which far outpaces Ben E. King's radio hit. Best of all is Taj Mahal's cover of the Cab Calloway number "Reefer Man." The original has Calloway bopping goofily to a big-band arrangement, but Mahal turns it into a winking Latin funk tune, complete with growly lyrics and sucking sounds.
Harlem Experiment takes great risks by combining Cotton Club jazz with mambo, Apollo soul, archival Malcolm X soundbites, and sermonic backpacker rap. At times, the multicultural thrust gets tiresome, and granted, not all tracks have the same replay value (whoever gave the green light on DJ Arkive's tedious synth number, "It's Just Begun," was tripping). Still, the album succeeds overall, mostly on the talents of its personnel. After all, when you put Eddie Martinez and Taj Mahal in a room together and tell them to reimagine the old barrio, you're going to get something interesting.
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