Igmar Thomas & The Cypher
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Igmar Thomas & The Cypher

Band Jazz Hip Hop


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"The new future"

I heard the future here and now -- let's call it the present! -- in the form of trumpeter Igmar Thomas & The Cypher with MC Raydar Ellis the other night at a public party produced by Revive Da Live, which promotes the jazz-hip/hop mashup in realtime performances, and I was surprised -- not bad at all, in fact it was a lot of fun.
The gig was at Crash Mansion, an underground joint on Manhattan's newly chic Bowery. The crowd was young, 20-somethings dressed for leisure more like students and the nascent working class than bond traders. The Cypher opened for better known rappers Guru of Jazzmatazz and Superproducer Solar, with assists from star trumpeter Roy Hargrove. The music was all made by humans in the moment, no samples or loops far as I could tell, but both acts were steeped in rap and hip-hop, the inescapable pop vernacular so many jazzbos feel ideologically compelled to embrace yet just can't. I know whereof I speak, as I've been among them. Do I now see (hear?) the light?

The problems rap & hip-hop pose for those who privilege jazz styles from Jelly Roll and Pops through Duke, Count, swing and standards to bebop, modal jazz and 21st century global improvisation include the preponderance of mechanized sound, spoken word over melodic content, static harmony and unbending rhythms. Though rap & hip-hop emerge from the same multi-culti, helter-skelter cityscapes that have given rise to great black music since New Orleans circa 1917, rappers and hip-hop or acid jazz bands -- according to many a "serious" jazz critic -- abjure the advances jazz musicians over the decades have discovered and asserted in pursuit of transcendent glory, restricting their own efforts to tuneless chants over leaden beats that seldom go anywhere. And I'm characterizing the music here, not sending up the diverse poses and affectations rap and hip-hop artists aim at their hardcore audiences rather than produce for the comfortable consumption of mainstream types or even boomer hipsters.

Such considerations fell away when goofy, gangly (don't be deceived: also smart and articulate) Raydar Ellis grabbed the mike a little after 10 pm on a Monday night to introduce the evening in the guise of "Walter Ego", then retreated into the musical ensemble, joining rather than fronting it. He spent the set slipping around the instrumentalists, freestyling funny, self-consciously theatrical and frequenlty insightful metrical rhymed commentary. Meanwhile Igmar Thomas, a small fellow whose face was obscured by his trumpet and billed baseball cap, eked out slippery, decadent lines in sync with tenor saxophonist James Casey, who boasted a strong, urgent but unworried tone. Both hornmen stretched out in persuasive solos, employing good chops in the service of connecting and advancing the music rather than merely showing off or embellishing a riff.

Electric bassist Nate Jones provided bouncy, grooving ostinatos a la Michael Henderson with mid '70s Miles Davis. Keyboardist Yuki Hirano was willing to be simple, supportive, and wait for the right break in which to dazzle, Drummer Justin Brown -- who has been working with ex-Miles alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett -- pushed time aggressively, splintering the beat to avoid repeat patterns, hitting hard to prod the solos and keep the motor running. What made it work was that these individuals all flashed their idiosyncracies but played well together, same as in any good jazz band. They were also self-deprecating, rather than outright boastful, though Raydar rightfully noted, with different shades of attitude each time, "New York is in the house!"

Guru, long ago of Gang Starr and since 1993 the power behind the early jazz-meets-hip-hop recordings Jazzmatazz, was not so modest heralding his new mixtape Back to the Future as "in stores now!" -- this information became a running ad through the rap-heavy stand. Though keyboardist Marc Cary, often an enlivening presence, was at the center of the rockin' rhythm section, and Hargrove stepped out of the wings frequently to shoot hot brass arrows through the thick mix, the overall effect was less appealing to me. Too exhortatory, not as playful as Thomas and The Cypher, Hargrove's intensity hardly made a dent on the cheer-leading-like surface of the action and no, this music didn't move deftly or groove compellingly -- more like it trudged in place.

Any such perceived failure might fairly be accounted for by inherent biases of my personal taste, and related to defensible, self-determined distinctions between two groups that are both trying to revive da live -- redesign music that was initially concocted virtually as collages by deejays with turntables and samplers so that it pulses with the deep breath and coursing blood of people interacting with each other through their instruments.

That format may be old school, but it's still good school, leading who knows where? Not only back to the past. Admittedly, it's not your daddy's jazz or mine (Robert E. Mandel was more of a Frank Loesser guy, actually), and maybe not as far out as is presumed of jazz-beyond-jazz, but the sound was fresh and something my teenage daughter might relate to, which is, you know, how it oughta be. - Arts Journal

"Berklee Steps out at CMJ"

By Danielle Dreilinger
Berklee.edu Correspondent
November 27, 2007

Igmar Thomas and the Cypher started the day off with easygoing jazz/hip-hop, including some shout-outs to Berklee. Trumpeter Thomas '06, a first-time CMJer, appreciated the opportunity to perform for a wider audience. "I got some exposure," he said. During the conference he also played at the Cutting Room, owned by Steve Walter '78. Now, Thomas said, "I pretty much have an open door there with my band."

"We get to play the showcase for new friends, and it's great," said bassist David Lizmi '05 of Via Audio. The band's dreamy, multilayered music was praised by Death Cab for Cutie in Under the Radar magazine; Jim Eno of Spoon produced their 2006 album.

The showcase doubled as an alumni event; Fox estimated that 25 attended. Kid:Nap:Kin singer/guitarist Daniel Ellis '06 said from the stage, "This is like a Berklee reunion, and we love it." - berklee.edu

"Howard Mandel: At the 2008 Jazz Awards"

Copyright © 2008 Howard Mandel

June 20, 2008 — The Jazz Awards, the 12th annual such celebration of excellence in music and music journalism produced in New York City by the Jazz Journalists Association, went off last Wednesday afternoon with plenty of highlights and nary a hitch. Hank Jones — voted Pianist of the Year — engaged in three bebop-referencing improvisations with big-toned tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, there was cool quartet music to start by The Miller Quartet (graduates of the New School and CUNY’s jazz program), an upbeat version of “I Love You Madly” sung by Roseanna Vitro, accompanied by pianist Mark Soskin, and a tear-up end set by trumpeter Igmar Thomas & the Cipher. But beyond the music itself, the event was star-studded — with appearances by Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts Dana Gioia, 83-year-hip drummer Roy Haynes, NEA Jazz Masters including Candido Camero (awarded as Percussionist of the Year), Frank Wess, George Wein, Dan Morgenstern — and especially Maria Schneider, who won Awards as composer, arranger, leader of the large band and principal of Sky Blue, the Record of the Year. - Jazzhouse


Still working on that hot first release.



If you are not an avid Jazz listener or someone that pays heed to the live Hip Hop realm, then you may not be familiar with an evolution that is taking place amongst the fused world of Jazz and Hip Hop.

You could see it from a mile away. A player rooted equally and authentically in Hip Hop and Jazz Herbie started the fusion with Grandmaster DXT on Rockit, and over time groups like The Roots exposed it in a modern, recognizable form. But in 2008, this evolution has added another champion to its cause. Igmar Thomas & The Cypher.

Trumpeter, composer, arranger, bandleader IGMAR THOMAS has developed his craft since the age of 12, picking up appendages to his style from playing with legends such as Lionel Hampton, Clark Terry, Roy Hargrove, Ralph Peterson, and Terri Lynne Carrington. He graduated from Berklee College of Music in 2006 where he studied on a full scholarship, and met many of the players that would soon make up his sextet, The Cypher.

THE CYPHER combines the sophistication of Jazz with the culture of the new Hip Hop generation. What sets THE CYPHER apart from other bands is their emphasis on improvisation, a common feature of both Jazz and Hip Hop. Though the songs are arranged to follow a certain form, Igmar encourages the musicians to bring their own inflections and independence to each piece. "We have an unapologetic approach to improvising to [our] greatest ability every time over fused Jazz and Hip Hop grooves." These ingredients, structure and freestyle, represent the tug-of-war between the known and unknown, education and instinct. This is the basis for their art and the original basis for music that hasn't been seen years in a seemingly mass-produced industry. "We want to carry on the legacy of Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Fela Kuti, 2pac, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Biggie."

Featuring only musicians of the highest caliber, THE CYPHER will undoubtedly attain longevity in an ever-changing musical scene. Its core players are Raydar Ellis (emcee), Justin Brown (drums), Luques Curtis (bass), and James Casey (tenor sax), featuring rotating keys players. IGMAR has recently shared the stage with some of the best in Jazz (Esperanza Spalding, Aaron Parks, Marcus Strickland) as a part of an all star line up of musicians backing up Hip Hop Legend JERU the DAMAJA. His group has recently opened up for MOS DEF at his official Carnegie Hall After Party in June 2008, also Roy Hargrove & GURU and has been featured in the 2008 WinterJazz Fest and the 2007 CMJ Festival in NYC.

So� if your not an avid Jazz listener or have never really listened to live Hip Hop, then consider Igmar Thomas & The Cypher your chance to promptly play catch up. ;}