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Delbert Anderson fuses jazz, hip-hop, Native influences on new disc
Collaboration with Def-i takes local trio down new road
FARMINGTON — You can't please everybody. Navajo jazz band leader and trumpeter Delbert Anderson knows that axiom very well.
But the leader of the Delbert Anderson Trio didn't let that stop him from experimenting nearly two years ago when he began working on his group's new disc, "DDAT" which was released last week on iTunes. On the independent recording, his trio is joined by hip-hop artist and Shiprock native Def-I (Christopher Mike-Bidtah), taking Anderson's traditional jazz instrumental sound in a different direction. The DDAT moniker reflects the addition of Def-i to the Delbert Anderson Trio, the name under which the group performs.
The disc has attracted some new listeners for the band, but Anderson acknowledged it hasn't been met with open arms by everybody, especially the group's established jazz fan base, part of which balked at Anderson's decision to fuse the two genres.
"I'm not going to lie — there are people who prefer the trio over what we're doing now," he said on Friday during a telephone interview while preparing for a solo show in Albuquerque. "But there is a ton of new fans we've picked up. … I want everyone to know that DDAT is not the only thing we're doing now. We looked at (the new disc) as a project. It's one thing we're trying."
In other words, this foray into hip-hop doesn't represent a permanent shift for Anderson's trio, regardless of how well the disc does — and there are early indications it could help the group reach the next level. Anderson said he sent the recording to several record labels — he was less interested in attracting a recording contract offer than he was in simply hearing their feedback, he said — and he was gratified to receive responses from several professional producers who were intrigued with what they heard and expressed interest in working with the band.
But jazz remains Anderson's first love, the music that captured his imagination when he was growing up in San Juan County, even more so later when he went off to college at Eastern New Mexico University. Now an adjunct music faculty member at San Juan College and leader of a trio that has drawn national media attention while touring from coast to coast, Anderson understands he can't take the allegiance of all those fans for granted.
"All is good, all is still well," he said, laughing and trying to allay any fears that the Delbert Anderson Trio has evolved into something unrecognizable to jazz fans. "We're not putting the Delbert Anderson Trio (Anderson, Nicholas Lucero and Mike McCluhan) on hold. We still perform now and then by ourselves. It's just a collaboration we're going through right now. No one had any second thoughts about this, but we did go into it knowing some people would not like it too much."
It was a risk worth taking, Anderson said, and the results bear out the wisdom of his gambit. "DDAT" is a fully realized piece of work — a significant progression from the group's first recording, "Manitou," and a daring mix of not just jazz and hip-hop, but Native influences, as well.
"I'm all for trying to do something different," Anderson said of his approach to the disc. "Our trio's work from the beginning was already very different, and we've gained a lot by doing that."
Anderson noted he didn't just plunge head first into hip-hop music. As befits his meticulous nature, he researched the genre thoroughly first and said he was amazed to discover how close it is to funk, another musical style his trio has been known to explore.
Ultimately, he said, much more of an adjustment was required for this collaboration from Def-i than was necessary from the members of the Delbert Anderson Trio.
"We can play anything twice, and it wouldn't sound the same," Anderson said, describing the freedom jazz musicians typically have to improvise within a certain repeating framework. That freestyle approach is virtually impossible to duplicate with language, he explained, citing the necessity of adhering to a rhyming scheme.
"He really had to work a lot on not trying to repeat himself with the same word or rhyme," Anderson said.
Anderson and his bandmates laid down their tracks for the disc in a handful of sessions at Eagle Sound in Durango, Colorado, the base of operations for Doug Eagle, who served as the project's producer. Def-i recorded his material at a studio in Los Angeles, then Eagle added the samples and effects that are a hallmark of hip-hop. That relatively complicated approach contributed in large measure to the fact that it took nearly two years to complete the project. But Anderson relished the experience of working with Eagle, who was recommended to him by Farmington trumpet player Mick Hesse.
"He did a lot of things I don't think a lot of producers or engineers would do, nurturing us and fostering us," Anderson said of Eagle. "He went above and beyond for us, actually."
Eagle also helped the four musicians find a coherent sound that borrows from various distinct traditions — an approach that easily could have gone awry if not for his deft touch, given the fact that Anderson said he wasn't entirely sure what sound he was going for when work on the disc began.
"Everyone is saying they never heard a sound like this before, and it's very different. If it was just holding the beat down and trying to be a drum machine over samples, people would have just heard us as a hip-hop group. But the trio is playing Native American pentatonic scales," he said, explaining that much of the music on "DDAT" relies on chants and ceremonial material that reflects his Navajo heritage.
"We don't sound the same (as other hip-hop groups), and I think a lot of it has to do with Native American-inspired melodies," he said. "When someone starts to rap, usually you think, 'Oh, that's rap.' But this is rap over something they're not used to hearing. Putting those things together, I think it was a really good idea."
Anderson is still working on putting together a CD release party in the Farmington area, but DDAT will perform at 7:30 p.m. May 31 at the Sunflower Theatre, 8 E. Main St. in Cortez, Colorado. Tickets are $12 in advance and $15 at the door. Call 970-564-9727.
Mike Easterling is the night editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.