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The Harlem Experiment

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Album Review

The third entry in a series that began in 2001 with The Philadelphia Experiment and followed with 2003's The Detroit Experiment doesn't attempt to distill the music of an entire city, but rather a neighborhood within one. But that neighborhood being Harlem, there is enough culture to draw upon to create a dozen volumes, and so producer Aaron Levinson and Ropeadope Records founder Andy Hurwitz had their hands full. Simply trying to decide how to sum up on one newly minted all-star session all of the music that has emanated from within this storied section of New York City must have been a most daunting task, but The Harlem Experiment succeeds in mashing jazz, R&B, funk, hip-hop, Latin, and even klezmer — Jews once comprised Harlem's largest ethnic group — seamlessly into one steaming, exciting creation. The musicians who form the core of The Harlem Experiment are in themselves a varied, theoretically disconnected bunch: guitarist Carlos Alomar is best known for his work with David Bowie; Steve Bernstein is a well-known N.Y.C.-based jazz trumpeter; and Don Byron is primarily a jazz clarinetist whose adventurousness has taken him to klezmer, Motown (he recorded a fine tribute album to saxophonist Junior Walker), and elsewhere. Rounding it out are keyboardist Eddie Martinez, bassist Ruben Rodriguez, and drummer Steve Berrios. In addition, the guest list includes multi-genre vocalist Queen Esther; the great bluesman Taj Mahal; vocalist/guitarist James Hunter; trumpeter Olu Dara; turntablist Larry Legend; and the poet Mums (best known for his long-term role on HBO's prison drama Oz), serving here as a DJ who ties the pieces together via interludes during a mock radio program. How all of these disparate elements come together without sounding disjointed or ersatz hip is something of a minor miracle, but it works: Mahal's scratchy vocal on the Cab Calloway vehicle "Reefer Man" gives way matter-of-factly to Bernstein's star turn on the easygoing "Harlem River Drive," which morphs into the old Andrews Sisters hit "Bei Mir Bist du Schön," spotlighting Byron. It never feels jarring or forced, just right. "A Rose in Spanish Harlem," sung by Hunter, is doo wop transported to the modern-day street corner, coming out of Alomar's salsa-fied "Mambo a la Savoy," which itself follows Legend's club-ready "It's Just Begun." One album, no matter how ambitious, cannot hope to represent the whole of Harlem's rich history, but The Harlem Experiment isn't only about pointing out the past — with its emphasis on fusing what these streets have given and continue to give, it's just as much about pointing toward the future.

The Harlem Experiment, The Harlem Experiment
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