At a time when "performer" has come to mean the guy who bobs his headphones hardest, JB hit the stage at last Friday's Urbanexperimentalist event with the punchy abandon of another mad soul scientist with those initials. Channeling the energies of the godfather's generation, Jjason Blackwell proved that the much-hyped neo-soul movement of late is perhaps less neo than it is just soul -- a word whose definition has never really changed.
Jjason Blackwell's stripped-down instrumental approach consisted only of an acoustic guitar and drum kit.
Angelic vocalists Azure and Angie began the performance, wailing a thick, harmonized spin on "Purple Haze" that rang with the delicious dissonance of the original. Male vocalists Javon and Lionel hit the stage with the kinetic nerves of a newborn emerging from the womb -- all painful expressions and flailing limbs.
Despite its consistent high energy, JB's set was an exercise in shifting dynamics, ranging from soulful spoken word reflections to mad four-way choral throwdowns. "Paranoid" offered spot-on female harmonies from Azure and Angie in a slow, thoughtful and disarmingly beautiful melody. "My Sun Doesn't Shine Like It Used To" found drummer Spartacus trading rhythms with the vocal beatboxing of Javon.
Javon's non-lyrical vocal skills would be on display all night, as in the charismatic insanity of "Planet Earth," a song that flipped from determined storytelling to structured chaos several times over. Javon's "live or Memorex?" vocal scratches on the tune had the audience looking for a set of turntables hidden in the wings.
While each member of the group had such distinguished moments, there was never really a featured performer or "frontman" to be found. Perhaps this was the key to the group's wicked chemistry. At times, the four vocalists supported one another. Other times, they played off one another. But they always locked into something live and very real.
Lionel created huge musical frameworks for the vocalists on his classical and acoustic guitars. The drums of Spartacus had that ?uestlovian "competing with the machine and winning" quality -- turning on a dime from downtempo drum 'n' bass to uptempo bounce as if his limbs were sequenced by some divine producer.
Indeed, the whole performance was a reminder of how energizing great live music can be. Jjason Blackwell's charm came in the fact that its six members wholeheartedly believed in what they were doing, and made no indication otherwise. From the looks of things, the audience believed in them as well. It will be interesting to see how large the congregation of the church of Jjason Blackwell might grow.
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