Shades of Blue: Madlib Invades Blue Note
oes anyone remember St. Germain’s Tourist? Around here, at least, it was a huge coffee table success, students and professors alike stroking their chins thoughtfully to its housy jazz. I can’t say it was a disappointment to me, as I didn’t expect much from it; “Rose Rouge” sounded, as a single, like the only inspired moment in the midst of nothing special, and the album bore that theory out.
But Blue Note did make a respectable amount of money off of Ludovic Navarre, and so they signed Norah Jones, and everyone knows how that turned out. Now they’re edging out into another market, allowing famed underground rapper and producer Madlib not only to record for the label but to actually tinker with recordings from the archives.
The first thing you hear on Shades of Blue, after a brief introduction, is “Slim’s Return”. One of the few times on the album when you can really feel why Madlib was eager to do this project, it’s a concise, funky, jazzy slice of heaven, string, scratching and vibraphone colliding to good effect. If the rest of Shades of Blue was up to its standard, it would easily be one of the best albums of the year.
Instead much of the album provides pleasant, proficient reworkings of good jazz, hard to dislike but not very compelling either. “Funky Blue Note”, with Madlib playing all of the instruments, is another high point, but it boasts enough high spirits, as does “Slim’s Return”, to suggest that Madlib only really engages with the music when he shifts into high gear. “Montara” offers convincing proof otherwise, but is followed by three lengthy tracks that don’t do much more than drift agreeably.
The high point of Shades of Blue is “Stepping Into Tomorrow”, the longest track by a significant margin. An old, originally instrumental Donald Byrd song, Madlib discovered a track unused on the original that boasted a female vocal. Weaving it seamlessly into his version, Madlib marries it with a wicked groove and eventually merges it with clear, high strings leaving you unsure, the first time, which instrument is producing it.
Those high points make Shades of Blue a much more frustrating listen than Tourist ever was, as Madlib’s talent is undeniable and even the worst moments here are mildly enjoyable. Guilty of aspiring more to worthiness than actual pleasure, in the end you leave Shades of Blue convinced of Madlib’s skill, but strangely unsatisfied.