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Ethnomusicology: Volume 3 by Russell Gunn

Some observers have noted that hip-hop contains the same level of energy and the same codified meaning the bebop offered its rather narrow society of listeners in the 1940’s. With allusions that escape the larger public, both genres express the shared experiences of a subculture with wit and sometimes outrageousness. Well, Russell Gunn’s latest CD, Ethnomusicology: Volume 3 is so, if not outrageous, then so controversial that it contains a "Parental Advisory: Explicit Content" on the front of the liner notes.

Still, Gunn, even though he is mixing hip-hop with jazz and catalyzing his own result, wrote lyrics that aren’t remotely as offensive as those of hip-hop CD’s that celebrate violence. Gunn’s offenses arise solely from his beliefs.... beliefs that have gotten him in trouble in the past, particularly with record companies. But this is tame stuff. The "explicit content" is merely, and dangerously, the expression of free thought that runs counter to the conventional wisdom of the recording industry.

With words like these:

"So you can get your pen, go and write your review/But know real artists don’t give a [expletive deleted] about you.... "

"I make music for minds, not music for pens."

Dare I write a review of Ethnomusicology: Volume 3 and risk an artist’s wrath.... or his apathy? And come to think of it, I can’t think of the last time I wrote a review with a pen (which, of course, Gunn means to be synecdoche, rather than literal fact).

Nonetheless, Russell Gunn’s Ethnomusicology: Volume 3 has expanded upon his earlier work, conveniently named Ethnomusicology: Volume 1 and Ethnomusicology: Volume 2, all three of which are opinionated and in your face and creative and, in the end, entertaining. Who could miss the point of the cover of Volume 2 showing Gunn in blackface as a puppet whose hands are suspended by strings in front of an American flag (although now it’s reminiscent of the puppet scene in the movie Chicago, which depicted another cynical view of American celebrity).

With a tribute to his hometown of East St. Louis, Gunn has taken a different tack from the one that Greg Osby had recent taken on his St. Louis Shoes CD. Gunn captures the contemporary spirit of the city with its anger, humor, grittiness and pulse through the mixing of his electric trumpet, synthesizers, turntable scratch, Stefon Harris’ vibes, Kebbi William’s electric tenor sax and Jody Merriday’s vocals. Osby paid tribute to the St. Louis tradition of jazz. Osby looked back and reharmonized the past’s music; Gunn looks out on the street and captures its sounds.

With appeal to a broader audience than jazz purists, Gunn’s intent is to make an honest statement of his beliefs and to snare listeners who normally wouldn’t listen to jazz. The one look back on Ethnomusicology: Volume 3 is the inclusion of Billie Holiday’s classic "Strange Fruit." Singing with passion, enunciating clearly as she wrings meaning from each vowel, Merriday takes the anger of "Strange Fruit," implied through metaphor and imagery, a step further. For Gunn updates the song’s theme with an even more explicit description in "Stranger Fruit": "Plop to the ground, lifeless they lay/Those damn white people began to dance as if the finest fruit/had been harvested. Oh they were strange/.... Now let this be a lesson to all of you, COULD BE YOU NEXT!"

Lest the reader think that Ethnomusicology: Volume 3 consists entirely of Gunn’s beliefs stated musically, he plays in an understated sort of way "Yesterdays," the percussion pushing with its backbeat as Gunn works in a quote to "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho." Backed up by James Hurt on synth, Gunn shows his ability to craft a solo, logically and engagingly and humorously.

Even though Russell Gunn has been visible, and audible, on the New York jazz scene for less than 10 years, he has pursued his own path of musical development. Ethnomusicology: Volume 3 builds upon Gunn’s past recordings, both in the blending of genres and in the creative expression of his beliefs--beliefs that other artists support but which they suppress as they strive to further their careers.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Russell Gunn
  • CD Title: Ethnomusicology: Volume 3
  • Genre: Soul / Funk Jazz
  • Year Released: 2003
  • Record Label: Justin Time
  • Tracks: Celebrity Room Intro, No Separation, The Critic’s Song, Variations (on a Conspiracy Theory), East St. Louis, John Wicks, Yesterdays, Strange Fruit, Stranger Fruit
  • Musicians: Russell Gunn (trumpet, electric trumpet, flugelhorn, keyboards, programming); Kebbi Williams (tenor saxophone, electric tenor saxophone); Carl Burnett (electric & acoustic guitars); Nick Rolfe (piano, Fender Rhodes, Korg Triton synthesizer); Stefon Harris (vibraphone); Carlos Henderson (electric & acoustic bass); Dana Murray, Rocky Bryant (drums); Kahlil Kwame Bell (percussion); D.J. Neil Armstrong (turntables); Dave Darlington (Neve, Pro tools) Special Guests: Duane Eubanks (trumpet); Antoine Drye (flugelhorn, trumpet); Vincent Chancey (French horn); Oliver Lake (alto saxophone); Gregory Tardy (bass clarinet); Marc Cary (piano); James Hurt (synthesizer); Jody Merriday, Gunn Fu (vocals, spoken word); Todd Britt, Kenny “Blue” Campbell, Dagmar Vontress, J.W. Sanford, Gary Noble, Nevida Taylor, Montez Coleman (voices)
  • Rating: Three Stars
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