Modern Jazz and the Butterfly Effect

David Bowie’s producer Tony Visconti said that, while recording Bowie’s last album, Blackstar (read our review here), they were listening to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly frequently, and were inspired by it. To Pimp a Butterfly topped many critics’ lists in 2015, was nominated for Grammy awards, and went Platinum.

What struck me most about To Pimp a Butterfly was how incredibly jazz-influenced it was. Hip-hop and jazz have been combined before, but not this well, and not for such a mainstream record or audience.

I also noticed some names on the record that surprised me — in particular, the artist Flying Lotus, who has stood head and shoulders above the majority of electronic artists currently producing music, along with his frequent collaborator, Thundercat, a phenomenal bassist who I also knew via electronic music.

There’s a jazz undercurrent going on in music right now that’s really interesting, and jazz is being welded to everything from electronica to hip-hop, and things even further abroad, and a lot of it has to do with these key players (Nels Cline in Wilco is another example, but that’s a topic for another time).

Flying Lotus is the grandnephew of Alice Coltrane (an incredible jazz composer in her own right) and her husband John Coltrane, of Giant Steps and A Love Supreme fame. He’s also a cousin of Ravi Coltrane, a respected post-bop sax player. On his most recent album, You’re Dead!, legendary jazz keyboardist Herbie Hancock makes an appearance.

Flying Lotus has collaborated frequently with Thundercat, a bassist who got his start playing in a boy band in Germany, then moved on to play with the influential thrash-metal band Suicidal Tendencies (check out the song “Institutionalized” if you don’t know it already, your ears will thank you later). Shortly thereafter, he collaborated with Erykah Badu and Taylor McFerrin (son of iconic jazz vocalist Bobby McFerrin, of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” fame) before releasing his solo electronic album, The Golden Age of Apocalypse, which has a lot more in common with jazz bassists like Stanley Clarke than it does with Daft Punk.

Thundercat also played on the 2015 album The Epic, a 3-disc set by tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington, who studied music, has played with a virtual who’s who of jazz legends, played on the last Flying Lotus album, and contributed to To Pimp a Butterfly. Washington also recently did a Daytrotter session in Iowa while on tour (check out our list of 10 great Daytrotter sessions from Iowa artists here).

At the 2015 Grammy Awards, Flying Lotus received two nominations, one for his production work on To Pimp a Butterfly, and another for one of his dance tracks.

Jazz has slowly been morphing and altering some of its DNA, and has gone from being something cerebral, or even stodgy at times, to being part of some of the most cutting edge music currently being made, which is really where it’s belonged the whole time. These three artists seem like people to follow who will be trailblazing some interesting music now and in the future, keeping the “modern” in modern jazz.

Bryon Dudley
Bryon Dudley is a writer and musician from Ames. He has written about music and other topics for a number of local publications and blogs. When not playing music and putting out albums with groups such as Strong Like Bear, Liana, and Rockets of Desire, he is helping other Iowa artists record their music at his studio, The Spacement, and releasing it on the Iowa label he co-founded, Nova Labs. He has a tattoo of an aardvark and is adjusting to bifocals.