Abstract Orchestra have been together for about half a decade. Their first release Dilla – an album of Big Band covers of the legendary beatmaker J Dilla – established their niche earlier this year with an insightful retrospective on hip hop’s history. I sat down with the orchestra’s conductor Rob at Camden’s Jazz Café, where preparations for their second rendition of MF Doom/Madlib cult album “Madvillainy” were well underway. “A little bit like sheepherding really,” is how he describes it. “But it’s worth it when it comes together.”
The set-up certainly looks hectic. With around 14 men and all their instruments filling the stage, the guest rappers are currently playing limbo with mic-stands get anywhere. I am admittedly unfamiliar with orchestral communication, but it looks like Rob has his own sign language to keep his crew in check. If so, it works: each crescendo or breakdown is crisp, powerful.
It might sound novel today, but Rob sees their sound as building on a well-established legacy. “To be honest, this sort of music has been around for decades. When it started it seemed like a headache, but then we kept selling and pretty soon it escalated. People are amazed that you can have instrumental hip-hop with so many people and make such an impact. Seeing that music performed live without any decks or turntables (I am using a sampler tonight, but it’s not necessarily the fabric of the music) is definitely a spectacle. We don’t think of hip hop as being instrumentally performed, but from the get go Sugarhill Gang played with a band. It’s definitely not been at the forefront, but it’s always been there.”
Dilla and Madvillainy are big names to take on. How do Abstract choose who to cover? “At the start, I was thinking of people who have influenced me the most over the last five years and Dilla was at the forefront. I am from a jazz background, so that might be a surprise, my placing Dilla up there along with Bill Evans, John Coltrane or Herbie Hancock, but what he has given to music is on a par with those greats. He reaches people on the same level.” The recording process for the Dilla album was so on point that a lot of the rehearsal session made the cut – most of the recordings on it are first and final takes.
For live shows there’s a core group of brass players, but if some members can’t make a gig there are always people keen to step in – “there’s a lot of chair swapping”. The one exception is the drummer Joost, who’s also the drummer for global collective Kefaya. “He is irreplaceable really. We don’t take a gig if he can’t do it.”
Trading between instrumentals and covers with rappers, Abstract occasionally break off into a more classic jazz solo format, which is a little jolting until they really get into it. The mimicry is truly uncanny on their straight up covers, every note on point, right down to the minute flute trills and beat patterns. Considering how hard the beats are, the Jazz Café crowd’s pretty stationary (aside from the coked-up, topless, sweaty man next to me, who fortunately leaves quite promptly), but I put that down to it being a Monday night in Camden. NB: ‘Abstract Orchestra’ is also unfortunately not good material for a crowd participation call and response – we are all simpletons and cannot handle multiple syllables.”
They’re still in the last third of their winter tour, but Abstract are already looking to their upcoming projects.. “There is one I can’t divulge details about, but we will be working with the artist that we are covering – which is a way we really want to take it because I am concerned of becoming stuck in a rut. Performing karaoke renditions is not what we are about. One artist we’re working with is J Dilla’s brother, Illa J, who’s already recorded a couple tracks with us that sound pretty sick.”
This is genuinely exciting. To have something to ground themselves in more of a solid repertoire would really bring some much-needed cohesion to their set up. Don’t get me wrong, all the instrumentalists were phenomenal – particularly Joost, he does seem to be able to drop into any situation without batting an eyelid or breaking a sweat – but overall the show lacked a little context. I can’t wait to see what they can achieve with a more solid independent direction.
Check out their music here
Words by Nick Hann