Mos Def

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                                                   Mos Def: Definitely Fantastic


Saturday’s Carnegie Hall concert featuring three-time Grammy Award winning rapper Mos Def and his Amino Alkaline Orchestra ended this summer’s JVC Jazz festival with a bang, as Def deftly directed and orchestrated his big band through two riveting sets of musical magic delivered to a sellout crowd at the prestigious New York venue.


This summer’s JVC Jazz Festival, at Carnegie Hall, highlighted artists such as: Al Green, Diana Reeves, Jill Scott, Chris Botti, Sergio Mendes and Zap Mama, along with Herbie Hancock; 2008 Grammy winner for Best Album of the Year. The festival also included concerts at Zankel Hall with artists like: the Brad Mehldau Trio, Dick Hyman and Friends, the Tierney Sutton Band and Tangaria featuring Richard Galliano.


Saturday’s concert highlighted Def’s new band: the Amino Alkaline—Watermelon Syndicate, no pun intended, on our part at least, along with an all-female; nearly all Black string orchestra section. The result was an intoxicatingly entertaining evening. From the first note it was clear a special night was in store.


The Amino Alkaline Band fused an impressive mix of Jazz, Funk, Hip Hop, along with a big band classical sound that would have made the greats proud. Somewhere, James Brown and Miles Davis must have been smiling; as the embodiment of their spirit could be felt throughout the evening’s music.


The band sported an impressive horn section that alternated between soothing sounds and scorching brass arrangements that echoed of the old big bands, yet, with a fresh contemporary appeal. Carnegie Hall never sounded so good. In fact, a decade ago it would’ve seemed unthinkable for an artist known by many as a rapper to grace the Hall’s stage; which is synonymous with cultural elitism and highbrow entertainment.


Ironically, part of the power of the performance was not only Mos Def’s band’s amalgamation of varying styles of music but also a masterful fusion of “uptown” and “downtown” aesthetics. Def maintained his “street cred” as a Hip Hop artist while maintaining a level of sophistication with his band’s broad sound.


The night would’ve been special enough if nothing else happened. But, the evening’s most poignant moment occurred when the legendary poetic wordsmith Gil Scott-Heron appeared on stage to a rousing standing ovation. Before, launching into several duets with Def, Scott-Heron acknowledged his approval of the band’s dynamic sound.


That gesture brought tears to Def’s eyes, who wiped them away with a ubiquitous red, Black and green banner which he sported all night. It was a most memorable scene, for here was Scott-Heron the celebrated “godfather of rap” appreciating the musical rites of passage transpiring before his eyes thru the efforts of one of Hip Hop’s royal sons.


It was refreshing to see that Def honored a giant such as Scott-Heron. Far too often our community forgets those brothers and sisters who have laid a foundation for us to gain our freedom. Consequently, many die in obscurity and their contributions are frequently minimized.


For most rappers it would’ve seemed surprising that they would share the stage with Scott-Heron, especially since he has been plagued with drug problems and arrests and has periodically been a no-show at scheduled concert appearances, in recent years. But not for Def who hails from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section, of Brooklyn, and is known as one of the most progressive and politically conscious rap artists.


Mos Def who has won three Grammy Awards, for his music in 2005, 2006 and 2007 has always been grounded in activism. He often speaks out against racism, and did so during the criminal response of the government in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans and again during the Jena Six Case. He also supports railroaded Philadelphia journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal and has performed at benefits on Mumia’s behalf. Def has won approximately nine awards for his stellar acting, including an Emmy and a Golden Globe award for his portrayal of Black cardiac surgery pioneer, Vivien Thomas, in the 2004 HBO biopic “Something the Lord Made.”


After Scott-Heron’s exit, Mos Def closed out the show with a classic from his “Black on Both Sides” album: “Umi Says” which includes the lyrics “shine your light for the world to see.” A fitting end, as Mos Def’s star continues to shine.


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