Much has been written of the spiritual connections between hip-hop and jazz music over the years, and though hardly a household name even in the rap world, few could hope to embody this musical romance more effectively than Karriem Riggins. The drummer and producer has been playing jazz professionally since the age of 19, an undertaking that has not prevented him from getting involved in projects by hip-hop and nu-soul peddlers like the Roots and Erykah Badu, artists who often represent hip-hop’s blurry outlined relationship with other similar yet divergent musical styles.
His connection to performers such as these offers to the unfamiliar a convenient frame within which to place him, and on Riggins’ debut album Alone Together, it’s a connection that is hinted at overtly: an uncredited Common briefly stops by early on in the proceedings to introduce the artisan at the helm of the record, while the album’s final track is a reconstruction of a beat previously spat over by Q-Tip.
Sonically though, the smooth and soulful hip-hop conjured up by these guys isn’t actually the most obvious touchstone of Alone Together, (though it certainly does play a part): in that sense, the album more readily evokes the instrumental hip-hop auteurs that remain arguably the flagship artists of the label that the record is being released on, Stones Throw. The Q-Tip re-con is titled “J Dilla the Greatest”, and the feel of the record as a whole brings to mind nothing so much as the trippy beat odysseys habitually served up by Madlib. At 34 tracks long, it feels like something of an opus, the instrumental nuggets often possessing the same sort of stuttering rhythms, stunted running times and headphone friendly, almost psychedelic touches that characterize some of that other Stones Throw beatsmith’s finest work.
The mention of all these reference points will likely already be enough to have your average fan of left-of-center hip-hop salivating, but what really sets the record apart is the presence of that other previously mentioned element: the powerful anchor in jazz that exerts an ever present influence over the music here, making it all feel warmly organic, providing bonafide musical chops to marvel at in and amongst the heady hip-hop flavored brew. It’s best represented on tracks like the beautiful and hypnotic “Esperanza”, in which a classic sounding hip-hop beat rubs up against a sublime double bass riff and a scratchy flute line.
The album retains a quite remarkable level of quality given its 34 tracks and nearly hour-long running time, probably because the ideas are never focused on for too long, never allowed to grow stale. For something that could be quite a hard to sell to the wrong type of music fan, it’s a very inviting sound and style, one that at times manages to transcend its two pronged influences and become pretty much simply the sound of Karriem Riggins.