Shabazz Palaces – Ishmael Butler plus Tendai Maraire plus two pairs of “grim-tilted-bounce-killing” sunglasses – start with ‘Youology’. It’s the furious fifth track on last year’s ‘Black Up’, an album that had all the fractures, the danger and density of sheet glass in heat. An appropriate beginning. The initial menace of the beat dissipates and, in its place, a question: “How fast do you want it?” Fast? Shabazz aren’t in the business of crowd-appeasement. Their set is dedicated to “the intensity of leisure time.”
Butler and Maraire stand side by side: mixer and mbira, digital and analog, future, past, West, East. Differences dance by themselves, as sharp and distinct as the movements of their songs. Same as a comedian refusing the easy punch line, Shabazz Palaces aren’t interested in mashing anything up (we’re not in Kanye any more) or serving to provide us a cheap release.
Butler is a funny, shadowy, virtuosic front man. He warms up; he spreads his wings, grinning. Maraire, on the other hand, is opaque – he could be working in a lab. They seem to work by touch. In ‘Gunbeat Falls’, the first track on their first EP, the piano sample and beat urge and bridle Butler. Then he drops them, leaving a space which Maraire’s quieter congas can live in, but not obliterate. At its simplest, Shabazz Palaces is two men who respect each other, which is pretty cool.
At XOYO, we miss Thee Satisfaction, who appeared with the band last autumn at the Jazz Cafe. Without them, Shabazz sound unforgivingly cool. Still, it’s thrilling to hear them occupy and change silence. The nearest comparison is John Coltrane’s ‘Alabama’. It’s a piece that addresses the Klan’s murder of four schoolgirls in 1963. Coltrane’s first, mourning bars shadow Martin Luther King’s eulogy. Then a note is held and, in the silence before what you think’s the next note, Elvin Jones comes in with a groove that throws the tragedy bodily to one side.
Shabazz work in that moment. They live to change. XOYO isn’t as enthusiastic as the Jazz Cafe; with a cold crowd in a cold room, the gig never bops hard, but it still tantalizes. Old songs wear new flourishes: matador horns on free press and curl, an almost R’n’B lope to the old school caps and vanished ships of ‘Are You…Can You…Were You?’. Heavy, sinuous, wary, magnetic, light-bright – this is music that doesn’t need a crowd, and doesn’t suffer for such an independence.
In ‘Youology’, Butler (the ex-Digable Planets man) raises a toast to when “thugging went mainstream.” If jazz was an historical moment, then what and where is hip hop? That’s what Shabazz Palaces seem to ask. So they remix the ‘Last Poets’. They resist patterns. They ask “who do you think you are?” They proclaim: “I’m free.”
Words by Freddy Syborn
Photo by Olivia Ford