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Hidden Beach Recordings Presents: Unwrapped, Vol. 1

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Album Review

There is a long tradition in jazz (not much in evidence in the early 2000s, it's true) of taking familiar pop songs as the basis of jazz improvisation. And there is a long tradition in middle-of-the-road pop (also not much followed these days) of recording albums of the hits of the day in easy listening style. The Hidden Beach recording company attempts to restore these traditions with its Unwrapped series, now reaching its third volume. The twist here is that the company has smooth jazz artists record instrumental treatments of recent rap hits. The problem, of course, is that rap hits place such an emphasis on the raps themselves, with the musical underpinning often little more than a steady beat plus a sampled excerpt from some familiar song, so that when you strip off the rap, what you have left is very little music, and that's usually borrowed. Producers Darryl Ross and Tony Joseph are not disturbed by this, however. After all, the steady rhythm tracks are often not all that different from those constructed in smooth jazz. So, why not, for example, have violinist Karen Briggs and electric guitarist Peter Black improvise over the instrumental bed for Eminem's "Lose Yourself"? Or let keyboardist Jeff Lorber and guitarist Dennis Nelson loose on the underlying rhythm of 50 Cent's "P.I.M.P."? In his liner notes,Hidden Beach executive Steve McKeever defensively claims that "the whole purpose of these CDs is not to 'water down' hip-hop, but to pay homage to it." Of course, this is just semantics. The Unwrapped series remains a collection of recordings for people forced to listen to rap in their daily lives who wish those rappers would just shut up and maybe be replaced by a saxophone solo, just as some people in the 1960s preferred listening to Ray Conniff play orchestral treatments of the Top 40 than the actual hit recordings. If the intention is not to "water down" hip-hop, it certainly is to make it more palatable, which is just about the same thing. (The CD is enhanced, containing a music video full of vintage black-and-white footage of jazz greats and a portion of the St. Lucia Jazz Festival featuring the Unwrapped All-Stars.)

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