Ubiquity Records: Keepin' It Real After Ten Years
The Ubiquity Records family celebrates their tenth anniversary this year. In those ten years, Ubiquity has established a unique reputation as an "underground label" that is enormously popular, too. Even cooler, the Ubiquity label (an umbrella that also encompasses the Luv N' Haight and CuBop imprints) seems equally beloved by both dance-club revelers and buttoned-down critics.
How did Ubiquity do it? The label seems to have established their modern version of the reputations earned by Riverside, Blue Note and other classic jazz labels in the '50s and '60s by releasing consistently great music that simultaneously challenges and appeals to their audiences. It's an easy answer that sounds like a bunch of kiss-assbut it's an easy answer because it's true. Sooner or later, people just start believing, "Hey, if it's on this label, from this time period, it's got to be funky."
No disrespect intended, but the beginning of the Ubiquity Records story could almost read, "In the beginning was the word ? and the word was funky. The word was from the funk. The word was with the funk. And the word was funky from the very beginning."
In the beginning, newlyweds (and DJs) Michael and Jody McFadin visited San Francisco on their honeymoon. They liked the city so much that they moved there in 1989 and opened their dream record store, the Groove Merchant. "Groove" was the key word, as their shop became a haven for DJs and other collectors of cool, hard-to-find jams from the 1960s and '70s. It was a soul, funk, jazz, Latin groove sensation.
The McFadins formed Luv N'Haight Records the following year, and began making their own records. They did it the old fashioned way: Instead of simply reselling prepackaged compilations and bootlegs from which (the McFadins quickly learned) the artists rarely if ever received anything, they tracked down the artists and licensed the rights to release their music. The artists were happy. The collectors were happy. And the label was happy.
In many ways, Luv N'Haight heralded the birth of that multi-headed groove monster known as "acid jazz" with a catalog that includes reissues of lost jazz and funk, plus original music from new artists such as Vibes Alive. Then, about 1993, the McFadins either got lucky or smart or both. A music was emerging from San Francisco's clubsa jazzy mixture of written music, improvised music, sampled music, all with a funky beat. Soulful jazz, jazz you could dance to. The McFadins formed Ubiquity Records and began recording and distributing music by local artists and those of similar musicality.
Upon the release of the compilations Home Cookin', Mo' Cookin' and Still Cookin'and especially Greyboy's acclaimed Freestylin' in 1994Ubiquity became the mothership that acid jazz sailed right into the mainstream. Ubiquity has subsequently specialized in music even more mercurial and unbounded by categorya vague yet colorful nebula of spacey trip-hop, futuristic funk-jazz, thick electronic dub, and dance club music.
Their Latin imprint CuBop has been a consistent presence in the recent Latin music resurgence, releasing two live albums by trombonist Papo Vazquez and new music from stalwarts Pucho & His Latin Soul Brothers, along with the reissue of Pucho's 70s soul-funk Latin classic Super Freak.
What's Happening Now?
Earlier this year, the label released Best of Cookin', a two CD set with 20 tracks from the out-of-print Cookin' series. The theme does seem to be "cookin,'" and mixing and matching styles. As Greyboy featuring Karl Denson invite you to "Unwind Your Mind," it's easy to imagine you're listening instead to King Curtis honking out a tenor solo with The Roots as rhythm. The same thing with "The Spoken Word" (remix) by Vibes Alive, except with hip-hopper Guru DJ-scratching and looping a Rahsaan Roland Kirk record (a great idea, by the way, in case no one's already thought of it). It gets even deeper with "Suzanne's Jam" by The Rhythm Section featuring Jacko Peake, where Peake tears off like Maceo Parker (James Brown's main sax man) bumpin' and thumpin' in the Crescent City night with the soulful, struttin' Meters. It ain't what they say, which is straight-ahead, swinging funkit's the way that they say it.
"Bebop Props" from Ping Pong featuring Kelly Huff uses scat vocals to tell the story of modern jazz from Charlie Parker onward, running through rhymed lists of great pianists, trumpet players, bandleaders, male and female vocalists, and keyboard players. It's cleverly executed, and includes taped excerpts of Dizzy riffing on Bird: "Charlie Parker created the style?the moment I heard him, I said, 'That's how music should sound. Deep. Very, very deep.'"
No Categories 3 is the third and most recent edition of the annual cross-label compilation from the Ubiquity family. The two CD set presents a range of styles that truly defies description. Luv N' Haight contributes two earnest slices of 70s soul"Operation Feed Yourself" from the Sons and Daughters, and The Turner Bros.' "Cause I Love You"plus a wicked slice of saxophone funk from Byard Lancaster that makes great use of the hook from "Licking Stick-Licking Stick," previously available only as a French import.
Unlike the re-mining of classic soul, funk and jazz licks on Cookin', most of No Categories blasts into the modern inner / outer space of hip-hop, trip-hop and trance. Dark Leaf's "Citizens" brings the strongest hip-hop. Puracane's trippy "Things You Should Leave Alone" chills with the icy cool, "no exit" feeling of Portishead. Electronic and ambient trancewaves rule "Green Means" by Nobody and the spacey "Emoto" from Future Life, as well as the previously unreleased "Crossing (Evacuation of Form)" by P'taah, a project directed by Atlanta composer/DJ Chris Brann. P'taah's remix of "Take The High Road" by Longineu Parsons sounds mightily like a saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders orchestrating a 21st century jungle music jam.
Each disc of 3 ends with a spicy dash of CuBop, the first disc with a track from trombonist Vazquez and the second from conguero Francisco Aguabella, a member of the pioneering '70s Latin group Malo. 3 also includes the first CD release of British DJ / conguero / composer Snowboy's '99 club hit "Casa Forte."
Snowboy springs from the heart and mind of Mark Cotgrove. Cotgrove can rock the house hard and fiercehe owns the Hi-Hat Club in North London, where his incendiary DJ sets have become legendary among Latin Jazz fans who love to freestyle dance. He also performs and records with The Latin Section, his bandmates on his June 6 release, Afro-Cuban Jazz, Snowboy's second release for CuBop and ninth album overall. (For DJs, Afro-Cuban Jazz is also available on a limited two-record vinyl set.)
Afro-Cuban Jazz is the most recent addition to the long list of quality Latin music released this year. "Where me and my band are at, at the moment," Snowboy writes in the liner notes, "is trying to continue with the kind of fertile experimentation that was achieved in Afro-Latin music in the early 1970s. Utilizing electronic keyboards (organ, Fender Rhodes), undiluted rhythms, folkloric songs, HEAVY reverb, echo, jazz solos alongside the Son."
It's hard to imagine an Afro-Cuban album with a more authentic sound or feel. In "Straight From The Gate," the band struts in unison to a saucy rhythm as the horn section resurrects the sound of classic Havana ?50s dance orchestras. Neil Angilley's keyboards contribute mightily to the "sound of the 70s" in "Descarga Angixi" and "El Campeon Del Mambo," a free-wheeling Latin exploration. Trumpet player Sid Gauld crafts a beautiful introduction and blistering solo to "Aguacero," which climaxes in a percussion jazz jam as explosive as any Fourth of July fireworks celebration!