Just like superheroes, jazz musicians and rappers are fond of teaming up. Whether it’s Batman and Superman joining forces to defend the DC universe or Busta Rhymes dropping in for show-stealing cameo on someone else’s record, the individual histories often intertwine to intoxicating effect. But what happens when the distances that separate the individuals are greater than those between Metropolis and Gotham?
On the face of it, there’s an unbridgeable chasm separating the innovative jazz maven Sebastian Rochford and London-based, Portugal-born rapper Jyager Maktwist; but as anyone familiar with either artist’s work will appreciate, these are artists for whom categorisations have little meaning.
In the six years he’s been recording as leader of Polar Bear, Rochford has demonstrated an innate feel for creative collaboration, and records like (Mercury Prize-nominated) Held On The Tips Of Fingers show that he pays scant attention to attempts to place him in a musical pigeonhole. Polar Bear’s fourth album, Peepers, released in March 2010 to almost universal acclaim, has only consolidated his reputation as one of British music’s most diverse and in demand percussionists. Anyone who heard the mixtape he compiled earlier this year wouldn’t be surprised that he’s a longtime fan of hip-hop and grime.
Jyager moved to London in 1993, days before his seventh birthday, and immersed himself in the garage scene, pursuing hip-hop lyricism as garage gave way to grime. With the endorsement of Brit-rap heavyweight Jehst (Jyager’s Encrypted Scriptures debut was released on YNR, the label Jehst co-founded, in 1999) he set about establishing his formidable rep. Whether rapping in French and Portuguese or rhyming about fairytales over Al Green samples, he’s every inch Rochford’s equal as a genre-defying iconoclast.
Yet the pair still had to find some common ground: they arrived at it in this concise, 25-minute mini-album, where music almost entirely derived from samples of Peepers collides with Jyager’s intuitive word-pictures. All but two of the Common Ground project’s nine tracks are based on manipulations of a vinyl copy of the original album (the exceptions are the opening track, ‘Recording In Secret’, which is built out of an improvisation by Polar Bear member Leafcutter John, and ‘Dont Think I Wont’ [sic], which is based on an unreleased version of Peepers opener ‘Happy for You’), and it’s perhaps fitting that this unusually constructed collaborative collage resulted from a meeting in cyberspace.
“I found Jyager’s CD in Rough Trade”, Rochford explains. “I’d never heard of him before, but I had a good feeling about this CD. I was doing a remix, so I just Myspaced Jyager to ask if he would do a vocal, and it started from there”. For Jyager, it was a mouth-watering opportunity: “What I sit and listen to is completely different from what I do”, he says. “I loved working with Seb and the band – the music just put me in a whole different mindstate”.
The pair worked on the Common Ground tracks collaboratively but separately, Rochford pinging mp3s-in-progress from his home studio in Tottenham to Jyager, who then produced his vocal parts in a studio in Camberwell, barely 10 miles away. “We’ve met each other four or five times, and we’ve spoken on the phone”, Rochford says, “but I’d been touring quite a lot and was doing all this at night-time between gigs. So we did it all by email”.
As is so often the case, the project was the result of accident and happenstance. “I tried to remix some [Polar Bear] stuff, but there was too much spill on the mics”, Rochford explains, so instead of the original master tapes, he began, in true hip hop style, by working with vinyl copies of the original album. But whether the method was old-school or new, Common Ground wouldn’t have happened without the pair settling easily into alignment. “I’d never met any emcee that was so open to trying different stuff”, Rochford admits. “With Jyager it just seemed to flow. I gave him one idea, he got loads of ideas from it and when he sent his stuff back, then I got really inspired to do other things on it”.
Rochford’s new partner in rhyme found it a similarly energising experience. “The sound of a specific song will guide you into a certain focus”, Jyager suggests. “If the song sounds happy you write a pop, club, commercial song; if it sounds a bit dark you do something else. Here, the music was so different it actually gives me more space to write. I thought this would be a good opportunity to get a bit political with everyone, and to step up the whole performance side of it, because if you as a vocalist are not actually deliverin’ a good message, then what’s the point of makin’ music?”
The results surprised even its creators. “I didn’t realise until after we’d made the EP”, Rochford admits, “that quite a lot of the sounds are similar to what I hear outside my window. Where I live is on this very industrial road, with lots of factories and warehouses, and there’s so much traffic going past all the time, and people loading stuff. As I was listening to the EP, then these noises went past, and it was like, ‘Oh, wow, that sounds like the music I’m making.’ I think where I’m living has really influenced the sound”.
Common Ground takes on another dimension when Jyager performs live with Polar Bear at their two shows at November’s London Jazz Festival, in the unorthodox surroundings of the Westminster Reference Library. The LJF shows come at the end of an extensive UK tour – see all dates below.
Release Date: October 25th 2010
01. B1. Recording in Secret 3:15
02. A2. Never Giving Up 3:57
03. B2. New Love 3:04
04. A3. Dont Think I Wont 3:11
05. A4. Stay In Control 3:27
06. A5. The Role I Choose 3:02
07. B3. Flowerpot Remix 2:26
08. A6. Fire It Up 2:48
09. A1. Enterprize 1:06
Polar Bear's UK shows:
Sat 18 Sep 2010 Richmond Jazz Festival, Richmond, N. Yorks
Thu 30 Sep 2010 The Wardrobe, Leeds
Fri 1 Oct 2010 Band On The Wall, Manchester
Sat 2 Oct 2010 Colston Hall, Bristol
Sat 9 Oct 2010 E.M. Forster Theatre, Tonbridge
Sun 10 Oct 2010 Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry
Tue 12 Oct 2010 Komedia, Brighton
Fri 15 Oct 2010 Norwich Arts Centre, Norwich
Sat 16 Oct 2010 The Kazimier, Liverpool
Sun 17 Oct 2010 The Tunnels, Aberdeen
Mon 18 Oct 2010 The Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh
Sun 31 Oct 2010 Academy, Oxford
Sat 13 Nov 2010 With Jyager, London Jazz Festival, Westminster Reference Library, London
Sun 14 Nov 2010 With Jyager, London Jazz Festival, Westminster Reference Library, London