Nigeria’s Femi Kuti, son of the great Fela and firmly established as a guiding force in modern Afrobeat, storms a stage like few other entertainers in the world. A perf from the singer-saxophonist-keyboardist is a guaranteed swirl of frenetic energy, and on this triple bill, Kuti far outshone the openers. Mos Def’s blend of jazz and hip-hop, however, had its moments and, with a bit of rehearsal and fine-tuning, could be an intriguing musical breakthrough.
Kuti, on a West Coast tour supporting his DVD/CD “Live at the Shrine” (UMVD), came out full-bore, playing a brand of the African funk that his father pioneered and he has mastered without pushing it into a non-African direction. Kuti kept the 11 songs short in his 70-minute perf, allotting himself time to proffer some big-throated solos on the tenor sax and letting his preteen son flash some of the Kuti family soul on the alto sax.
Infectious as always, the night ultimately felt like more of a sampler platter than a full-on meal: This was Kuti in easily digestible bits, capable of leaving an audience sated but not stuffed to the brim.
Rapper-actor Mos Def, who has been nominated for a Grammy, an Emmy and a Golden Globe, has assembled a project titled Biggie: A Big Band/Hip-hop Experience. (Wouldn’t the Notorious B.I.G. Band be a more clever name?) He has brought in top-drawer jazz musicians such as trumpeter Wallace Roney, saxophonists Antoine Roney and Teodross Avery, trombonist-shell player Steve Turre and former Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun, and given the musicians some simmering funk and boogaloo to play.
The idea of blending jazz and rap — a tough combination that has often flopped — is less natural than it seems; early practitioners Us3 and Digable Planets seemingly have fallen off the earth, unable to capitalize on early success.
When Mos Def makes it work, he does so by taking the music down low to just the rhythm section and letting a rap blossom from a provocative chant, usually a reference to the unsolved murders of Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur and Jam Master Jay. The band then kicks in and gives the spoken message an added urgency.
Problems arise, however, when Mos Def tries to rap while the band is going full-bore (the sound system’s inability to present the rap with clarity didn’t help matters). He has a great framework, though, using the music to pay homage to Miles Davis, Gil-Scott Heron and Notorious B.I.G. while providing ample room for the Roney brothers to delve into invigorating solos. Turre blew into sea shells and created sounds never heard on a rap record, yet it mysteriously worked.
Daara J, a trio of rappers from Senegal, succeed when they slide into assorted reggae rhythms, but their hip-hop feels like too much of an American imitation. Much of their chanting concerns Africa. Now they need to bring more of their homeland to the music.
Mos Def will perform Aug. 20 at the rock and rap fest Amsterjam on Randalls Island in New York.