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MEDICINE IN THE APPLESAUCE: HOW DINNER PARTY GROOVES WITH THE TRUTH

 

When the supergroup Dinner Party began working on songs for their self-titled debut album in October of 2019, there was only one rule. “Don’t nobody want to hear long-ass solos,” says lead arranger Terrace Martin with a laugh.

Martin and his Dinner companions—fellow saxophonist Kamasi Washington, pianist Robert Glasper and producer Patrick “9thWonder” Douthit—make up one of the most accomplished, genre-flipping collectives in recent memory. “We are just four hella regular black men, so the ego is totally removed,” he insists. “When supergroups don’t work, 10 times out of 10 it’s because egos were involved.” 

There’s a lot going on here. Dinner Party is a legit jazz outfit, fueled by vintage ’90s hip-hop beats, with enough damn sense to get out of the way of an undeniable groove. Yet there’s also something quite subversive in the mix.

Initially, the troupe’s seven-track statement, released on Martin’s Sounds of Crenshaw/Empire label, comes off as an inviting collection of jams. That’s before you discover that it taps directly into the long-overdue reckoning over America’s racial inequality ignited by the tragic police slayings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor

“They told me put my hands up behind my head/I think they got the wrong one/I'm sick and tired of runnin’,” opens soulful Chicago vocalist and lyricist Phoelix on the somber anti-police brutality track “Freeze Tag.” “Then they told me if I move, they gon’ shoot me dead.” It’s like listening to AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted-era Ice Cube dropping straight-no-chaser Black Lives Matter testimony over a groove by the late George Duke

“We are putting medicine in applesauce,” 9thWonder expounds from his mom’s Winston-Salem, N.C., home. “You fool people into listening to something they probably wouldn’t want to take in because they think it would make them sad. But put it over a jam and you got a groove with a heavy topic.”

Even before the nation exploded in massive protests, the seeds of Dinner Party were being planted last fall during a London stop on Glasper’s R+R=NOW tour. Martin wanted to document his experiences growing up in turbulent South Central Los Angeles, where police violence was as omnipresent as low-riders sitting on Dayton rims. “When you are born black these topics are embedded in you at a young age,” Martin underscores. “My mother had the coronavirus. I got a homie that was killed by the cops. I’ve been to jail. I don’t care where you are from or who you are. These are real topics that continuously come up if you are black.” 

The members of Dinner Party are longtime friends who go as far back as middle school. Martin, 41, Glasper, 42, Washington, 39, and 9thWonder, 45, have all appeared on various projects together, most notably Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 landmark To Pimp A Butterflyand his Pulitzer Prize acclaimed 2017 follow-up Damn

The players’ solo resumes are just as impressive. Martin is a genre-hopping obsessive who has produced for everyone from Snoop Dogg and Lalah Hathaway to Stevie Wonder. Glasper, the Grammy-winning visionary behind the Black Radio music series, has an Emmy in his awards case for his soaring work on the 2016 Ava DuVernay documentary 13th.  

Washington is a prolific bandleader who dropped seven albums worth of material (2015’s The Epic and 2018’s Heaven and Earth) in a span of less than three years. And 9thWonder may just be hip-hop’s most intriguing beat man, having logged studio time with a wildly diverse roster that includes Jay-Z, Erykah Badu, 2 Chainz, Rapsody and Anderson .Paak and Destiny’s Child

Although his Dinner Party brothers are instrumentalists who came of age in the world of jazz, sharing the stage with icons like Herbie Hancock, Christian McBride, Terrence Blanchard, Gerald Wilson, Wayne Shorter, and Roy Hargrove, 9th wasn’t at all intimidated creating the album’s rhythmic sketches. On songs like the aptly titled “First Responders,” Martin and Washington are given ample space to lay down sax riffs that could easily be mistaken for loops. And Glasper’s piano work simply floats

"Terrace, Kamasi, and Robert, who are the genius leaders in jazz right now, are playing jazz over jazz samples," says 9thWonder. "That’s the circle of life when you think about it.”   

“What makes it easy for me is I’m a student of great minds like Q-Tip, Pete Rock, and DJ Premier,” says 9thWonder. “They were sampling jazz records by Ron Carter, Lionel Hampton, Ahmad Jamal, and all of these other people. I’m sampling a Chick Corea record and Terrace, Kamasi, and Robert, who are the genius leaders in jazz right now, are playing jazz over jazz samples. That’s the circle of life when you think about it.” 

 But who has time to be a genius when you’re trying to figure out the best way to bring Dinner Party’s music to the masses during a pandemic? In the ’80s-style animated video for the group’s hopeful latest ingle, “Sleepless Nights,” Dinner Party are intergalactic heroes traveling in a spaceship, giving uplifting free concerts to the people of earth. “We would only fly to the ghetto,” envisions Martin. “Our job is to save people from depression, from the police and from financial stress. Imagine that!”   

Pictured: Terrace Martin (above), 9thWonder

Cover art: Amani Washington

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Chicago-born journalist, author, editor, and television commentator Keith “Murph” Murphy has written extensively on music, film, literature and other cultural cornerstones for such publications and online outlets as EsquireThe New York Post, Billboard, VIBEESPN’s The Undefeated, and OZY

Over the past decade, Mr. Murphy has been a frequent guest on CNN, VH1, A&E Biography and Fox News, and has delivered commentary for the award-winning TV One music documentary series Unsung

You can catch Mr. Murphy at a random bar somewhere in Brooklyn, New York—sipping on a Brandy Alexander while debating why Kendrick Lamar is the second coming of Nas

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