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Self-titled and appropriately hued, Bay Blue is 35 year old sample artist Matt Chang’s attempt to reconcile his hip-hop provenance with a much more encompassing grasp of 20th century American music. From his ancient ASR-10 springs jazz quartets, uptown blues duos, and New Orleans big bands, among other ensembles. What emerges is a landscape of bright tones and quick cuts, a triumph of sampling both painstaking and humanizing.
“I wanted to compose songs rather than just make beats,” he says, “so in straining for a substitute for the emcee, it felt natural to study jazz musicians and the way instruments can become vocalizations. As a part of that process, many of these songs in a very organic way took on the form of jazz numbers, with frequent tempo changes (sometimes obvious and sometimes barely noticeable), subtle and shifting drums, minimal effects, and something like the thrill of improvisation.”
This jazz-inflected sense of improv coexists with a closely-composed and tightly-themed sensibility, especially on display in a song like “Only a Sin if You Lose.” The title is lifted from a joke his grandmother’s Catholic priest told at her funeral; it is what he told her when she had asked if gambling was a sin. Its theme is constructed through a collage of bluesy complaints and a series of voicemails from his father lamenting his reliable lack of luck, and implicitly, his own.
The album’s centerpiece, though, is the hot-tempered hard bop tune “Take it Back Time,” so named after a call by Boots Riley (of The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club) as Occupy Oakland successfully re-occupied Oscar Grant Plaza just days before the city’s historic general strike of November 2nd, 2011. The video for the song likewise highlights the radical traditions of Oakland, as it follows turf dance crew Turfin’ 24/7 through the streets of West Oakland and in and around the Occupy encampment. (Chang met the dancers in the course of his wife Karna Kurata’s well-received photographic series on the city’s scraper bike culture.)
The play of voice and instrument in the concluding piece,“(Hey Hey) Fried Fish, Birds Blue” means to evoke the breadth of the East Bay, from the barbershop-like sociality of the Louisiana-style fish fry in West Oakland (named Dirty South Joe’s after a Ludacris lyric) where Chang worked from 2004 to 2007, to the lo-fi dictaphone bits he recorded at the protest outside San Quentin’s death chamber where Stanley “Tookie” Williams was being executed in late 2005, to the blur of police helicopters (the “birds blue” of the title) and live African drumming that close the song.
Bay Blue is a record that could only have been brought to life on Matt Chang’s sampler, but it’s also a modest manifesto on the machine’s compositional possibilities, and the longer sense of time that it might encompass. And, of course, it is a full-throated ode to the extraordinary locale it glories in repping so hard.