Shaolin Jazz, a creation of Gerald Watson and DJ 2-Tone Jones, introduces the rhymes of the Wu-Tang Clan to the world of jazz. Having previously explored this conceit with the work of Gil Scott-Heron, Shaolin Jazz’s latest, Byrd Over Staten, mixes the Killa Bees with the catalog of legendary bop trumpeter Donald Byrd.
Rather than culling verses from the most popular Wu-Tang albums, Byrd Over Staten mines the fertile earth of deeper Wu solo efforts and projects. “Curious Morning” offers a fine example of the chemistry you’ll find on this EP: A verse from “Curious,” off Raekwon’s 2006 Heroin Only mixtape gives way to Tekitha’s hook from Ghostface Killah’s “All That I Got Is You,” crossed with Method Man’s “All I Need”; all mixed over the funky Fender Rhodes and bass of Donald Byrd’s bouncy 1981 track “Morning.”
To long-time fans of the Wu-Tang Clan, this pairing may produce a strangely pleasurable cognitive dissonance: Gone are the gunshot snares and spare, ominous production of RZA, DJ Muggs, and the customary Wu-affiliated producers. They’ve been replaced by Byrd’s warmly organic arrangements of acid jazz, lush strings, and wah-wah guitar funk. Byrd’s samples recontextualize the rhymes of the Clan, massaging their raw, gritty bravado into something more triumphant.
The Byrd material employed here stretches from the jazz and hard bop of his sixties-era Blue Note days to the post-disco touches of his work with the 125th Street band. But the touchstone is the 1975 Places and Spaces album, Byrd’s landmark amalgam of Philly soul, neo-funk, and disco. On “My Imagination [R.E.C.’d],” orchestral breaks from Byrd’s “Just My Imagination (Running Away with Me)” meet Inspectah Deck’s “R.E.C. Room,” to stunning effect. And the Stevie Wonder-flavored clavinet of “Third Hustle” revitalizes long-lost GZA verses sourced from DJ Muggs’ Soul Assassins project and Beneath the Surface.
Given the electricity spawned by this combination, it’s a shame that Byrd Over Staten’s eight tracks only seem to scratch the surface. The richness of source material—in both the steady Yin of Byrd and the raging Yang of the Wu—loudly demands a full-length release.