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Corey Wilkes: Freeing Urban Jazz

Outside of his Chicago base, Corey Wilkes has been broadcast to the greater jazz community as an avant-gardist. He bravely took over trumpet duties in the Art Ensemble of Chicago, a post held for decades by the late free-jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie. In footage of another Chicago institution, Kahil El'Zabar's rhythm-obsessed Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, Wilkes recasts Rahsaan Roland Kirk's multi-saxophone acrobatics with brass instruments. And he's performed and recorded under Rob Mazurek in the exceedingly original Exploding Star Orchestra, a who's-who of Windy City post-rock musicians and jazz postmodernists.

By comparison, the music Wilkes composed for Drop It sounds surprisingly conservative. Much of the album falls in line with the tradition of young trumpeters, well-versed in the classic Blue Note lexicon, who maintain blues-rooted harmonies but replace four-on-the-floor swing with hip-hop steps and neo-soul saunters. Believe it or not, this once stoked serious controversy; now, it seems more like a compulsory phase. Wilkes does it well, and this studio rendition of the title track (a fun but inessential live version appears later on the album) is beautifully in the pocket: Listen for Miles Davis alum Robert Irving III's unobtrusive electric piano, a woozy frontline melody that peps up to evoke old-school hard-bop, and rhythmically savvy solos that take few harmonic chances, to satisfying effect. (Wilkes electronically alters the trumpet's timbre, though the effects don't seriously transform his phrasing.)

The history of this urban-jazz strain is long and checkered, from Miles Davis' forced and regrettable Doo-Bop to Roy Hargrove's RH Factor, the style's pinnacle. It's telling that this is the music Wilkes chooses to release under his own name: He understands that part of working in free-jazz is to be "free" enough to play whatever you like, however familiar.

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Evan Haga