The intersection of jazz and hip-hop is well-trod musical territory, but not many albums can match the genre bona fides of August Greene's self-titled debut. A cross-genre supergroup, the trio consists of Common, his long-time drummer and producer, Karriem Riggins, and pianist Robert Glasper, whose two Black Radio albums provide the template for August Greene's laidback grooves and casual intermingling of sounds and styles.
The main difference between August Greene and Glasper's albums is a matter of tone: While Black Radio and Black Radio 2 aim for warmth and accessibility, this 11-song set is often insular and experimental, as though the group made it only for themselves. With a couple of exceptions—the fleet, disco-tinged banger “No Apologies” and a swinging cover of Sounds of Blackness's “Optimistic” featuring Brandy—the group downplays the kineticism and pop hooks in favor of moody soundscapes and introspective lyricism.
Sometimes this approach works well, as on “Black Kennedy,” where Common casually asserts black excellence (“Had our first black prez, I'ma be the sequel”) and Riggins's off-kilter groove brings to mind the slurred rhythms of the late J Dilla. Elsewhere, however, August Greene's ponderousness congeals into self-parody. “Piano Interlude” finds Glasper plunking notes like he's the background accompanist at a stuffy cocktail party, and Common solemnly intones such philosophical musings as “If a tree falls in the forest/And no one hears the sound/Did it really ever happen at all?” “Let Go (Nirvana)” and “Aya” work as mood music, but they also feel surprisingly restrained coming from three artists with such expressive and varied pedigrees.
Which isn't to say that August Greene's album never gets weird. “Fly Away” is an oddball highlight that finds Common rapping over a dirge-like flute melody and jingling hand percussion—production choices that don't seem like they belong to hip-hop or jazz. It's one of the best examples here of August Greene delving into textures and sonic ideas that feel like fresh discoveries for all three of its members. Even more unpredictable is the closing, multi-part epic, “Swishier Suite,” which opens with a swinging hi-hat cadence and freestyling trumpet—the closest the album ever gets to straight-ahead bop. The 13-minute piece is shape-shifting and improvisational, resembling a loose jam session, and for its middle section, synth effects and indistinct spoken-word vocals vamp over another punch-drunk beat from Riggins.
A handful of songs like that really see the group letting loose, but the bulk of August Greene primarily operates in a pensive, minor-key mode. There's something to be said for three talented performers coming together to make something so uncompromising, yet it's hard not to wish that they took more opportunities to pick up the tempo, perhaps crack a joke or two, or just jam. The album is admirable and at times rewarding for its sense of experimentation, but only for those willing to meet it on its own terms.