IsWhat?!: Not to be Defined...
“ Improvisation is so much a part of what we do. To mix it up with the scratch artists and the DJs is as complex a form of improvisation as is playing with other instruments. ”
Hyena Records, the newest baby of producer extraordinaire Joel Dorn, is quite obviously one of the most eclectic labels in music. Reissues of Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Thelonious Monk catalog grab your attention at first, but any label that features records by both Bobby Darin and James "Blood Ulmer in the same catalogue is clearly open to a variety of possibilities. This same kind of free-range eclecticism within the label carries over to the eclecticism inherent to one of its latest signings, IsWhat?!
IsWhat?!no, we're not asking a question, and it's not an Abbott and Costello routine either. IsWhat?! is rathera mantra that speaks to the group's refusal to be pinned down to any particular genre or style, and to create music that is for "the people but which does not simply pander to what people are comfortable in hearing. IsWhat?! in fact, is an amalgamation of influences and music-making techniques that reflects the different cultural and musical backgrounds its three members bring to the fore. Consistent with the whole ethos, the first record for the label is called You Figure it Out.
Now while there are some clear foundations in both jazz and hip-hop, and while "jazz hip-hop is clearly the tag some will attempt to apply, this is by no means "jazz hip-hop e.g. Russell Gunn or Roy Hargrove. When your bassist comes from a punk background and your emcee is a free jazz nut who is as likely to check out an Ayler record as a Sugar Hill Gang side, it stands to reason this wouldn't be a predictable sort of "fusion. And irrespective of trying to define its sound, the band itself is a unique confluence of "sounds , featuring saxophonist/flutist Jack Walker, bassist Matt Anderson, and the wild card that throws off any possibility of this being just like your grandfather's jazz- emcee and human drum machine Napoleon Maddox.
While they have been busy touring in support of their debut record on Hyena, I was recently able to catch the members of IsWhat?! on a break in between tours. I had the opportunity therefore to sit down and get some perspective from the horse's mouth in my own efforts to try and "figure it out.
All About Jazz: So how did IsWhat?! come into being in the first place?
Jack Walker: Well, we had played in one group or another together, and we found over time we had a lot of the same interests in music... we were pretty much "out there by ourselves in fact.
Matt Anderson: It started in a group called Healing System, which was based on a lot of Anthony Braxton ideas and that type of free playing. Of course Jack had already been playing this music (free music) here in Cincinnati in the 70s. Another thing though was that me, coming from punk- I had begun to present some free/avant-garde bands like that Jack was involved with at the different punk clubs around town. The punk audience was actually very receptive to this music because of the energy of it and kind of a similar hardcore-type aesthetic. As far as how Napoleon came in, I started to hear Napoleon a lot at some of the regional black music festivals. He also had a band called the Social Committee and Watussi which I would check out. At this time we were all involved with some of the same social and political causes and groups as well. We were all associated with left-wing activism down here. That has always been an important part of our music too, something which has always informed what we do and why we do it.
Napoleon Maddox: The whole evolution of it would take place though as we'd sit in together more and more. There was a cat here in Cincinnati- Chester T, who was a catalyst for a lot of what was going on at that time... but we would develop some real connections on the bandstand. All of this led to the point that Matt and I had some conversations in which we decided basically to try and develop things past just the format of "the jam.
MA: As much as we were aware of all the different influences that we were bringing to the table though, we didn't consciously set out to become a certain kind of band. For us, it wasn't an abstraction.
NM: Yeah, we didn't base getting together around conversations of a "what if? nature in terms of combining the different backgrounds and influences that were coming into play. It was always about building off the connections that we had already established.
AAJ: So IsWhat?!, though it can well be perceived as a fusion of music forms, was never a hypothetical "project ?
MA: Definitely not. The thing is too, we were going to be kept honest because the people we were working with weren't source by-products. They were "the source.
AAJ: For as much as I dig the new record, whenever I've had the chance to catch you guys live I've found myself thinking "this is the way to properly experience IsWhat?!." So, any plans for a live record?