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All the Cooks in This "Mystic Brew": A Critical Analysis of Covers

Ben Gray
Contributing Writer
bengray417@gmail.com

Although Ronnie Foster’s name may not be brought up very often in straight-ahead jazz circles, he is well-known in sample-based music. His best-known album as leader is his debut from 1972, The Two Headed Freap, which contains his best-known song, “Mystic Brew”. While the opening bassline of this song is by far the best-known part of the tune, the whole song grooves along mightily, with a nice organ solo from Foster. Starting with the killer bassline of this tune, some mellow vibes and guitar join in, adding a few layers. Around 0:20, Foster’s organ doubles the melody with the guitar. The organ solo starts around 1:00 – perhaps not the most sophisticated playing, but perfect for the song’s mood. Foster’s organ sounds very horn-like to me until around 2:15 when he starts playing some faster runs – I could imagine hearing this same solo from a trumpet. The drums pick up the intensity around 2:45. I’ve always liked the ascending organ lines starting around 3:30 that continue almost until the end of the song as it fades.

This is not cerebral music, don’t overthink it – if you want “Giant Steps”, look elsewhere. Landing closer to "funk" on the jazz-funk spectrum, but plenty pleasant. Sounds like a summer drive around sunset. Twenty years after Ronnie Foster released this tune, that opening bassline was used for its most recognizable sample-based appearance on A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation”. I won’t break down the song too much here except to comment on the additional layers added to the Ronnie Foster bassline, taken from Ramsey Lewis’ “Dreams”. Simple perhaps, but that extra layer indelibly changes the feel of the bassline for future listeners.

In 2003, Madlib released Shades of Blue, a remix album using songs sourced from Blue Note Records’ back catalog. His interpretation of “Mystic Brew” on this album was re-titled “Mystic Bounce”. Madlib adds a new drum break behind the well-traveled bassline with some barely-heard vocals (“how you doing, baby?”), making the song sound like it was recorded in a crowded bar. Besides the straightforward bassline loop, a new (?) vibes solo starts around 0:30 and continues through around 1:15. Some bassline chops add a bit of variation to the basic groove. Around 2:15, the whole song breaks down to the funky drum break before the bassline comes back a few measures later. Nothing particularly fancy, but effective arranging like A Tribe Called Quest before him breathed new life into the “Mystic Brew” bassline, now 30 years after its first recording.

On their 2009 album Historicity, the Vijay Iyer Trio included their version of “Mystic Brew”. Iyer on piano is joined by Marcus Gilmore on drums and Stephan Crump on bass. Starting with the famous bassline on Iyer’s piano, the trio starts the tune with a relaxed groove. A crisp snare from Gilmore around 0:20 sets this off a bit. I can’t help but wonder if Iyer’s repeated piano notes (starting around 0:30, for example) were partially influenced by the Ramsey Lewis sample on “Electric Relaxation.” Around 1:15, there is a beautiful breakdown and this builds until around 1:45 as Iyer’s jittery piano plays with the tune’s melody. There is so much movement in this version of the tune… between 2:30 and 3:00 or so, no question in my mind that Iyer is playing with the Ramsey Lewis sample from “Electric Relaxation” as Stephan Crump takes a short bass solo underneath:

… the build-up around 3:20 is fantastic. Beautiful stuff, apparently based on the Fibonacci sequence, though I’m not thinking about that while listening to this. I don’t really know what else to say about this, the Vijay Iyer Trio works so well together as a unit and very much re-imagine the way this song is put together, clearly taking inspiration from both the original Ronnie Foster version as well as the sampled arrangement from A Tribe Called Quest.

BADBADNOTGOOD (Matt Tavares on keyboard, Chester Hansen on bass, and Alex Sowinski on drums) have also covered “Mystic Brew”, though they list this as a cover of “Electric Relaxation” (sorry, Ronnie Foster). This version starts with an unaccompanied drum break before the bass and keys join in. Hansen’s acoustic bass starts with the famous bassline before he takes a solo starting around 0:45 underneath the cushion of Tavares’ chords... pretty static until about 1:50 when the drums up the intensity just before a keyboard solo starting at about 2:15. Tavares' keyboard, a Korg SV-1, isn't a Fender Rhodes, but has a similar sound. They sound good in here, just a jam session... around 3:45, Sowinski starts using his 40 oz. as a cowbell... whatever. Hansen’s bass sounds good playing the “Mystic Brew” bassline. It’s a shame that they call this a cover of “Electric Relaxation” since this arrangement actually sticks closer to Ronnie Foster’s original than to ATCQ’s version. They sound fine here, a really good college band grooving out. Who will be the first producer to chop up and loop BBNG’s or Vijay Iyer’s version of “Mystic Brew” (bonus points for Q-Tip vocal samples)? Who is the next jazz artist to take on “Mystic Brew” and use it for their own purposes, taking it still further out?

Perhaps “Mystic Brew” is not the most “sophisticated” song to ever be written or recorded. That said-- (a) it sounds really good on a relaxed summer evening and (b) there must be something to it for its continued survival and evolution over forty years. Beyond “Mystic Brew,” there are many more links between the jazz and hip-hop worlds, a bond that has been gaining momentum and becoming more of a two-way street. Hip-hop, of course, has long been interested in sampling jazz tunes. I’ve noticed that more and more jazz artists are now taking inspiration from these sampled tracks and re-re-inventing these songs. Just a few (an incomplete list of course):

Is there really much difference between hip-hop producers obsessively collecting records because they might have an open drum break on them and jazz nerds obsessively collecting records because they have an obscure tune with Cecil McBee on the bass? Given that today’s jazz musicians have grown up not just with hip-hop in existence, but have grown up through the golden age of hip-hop based on jazz samples (were the members of BBNG alive when Q-Tip was looping up Ronnie Foster?), it’s not the least bit surprising that today’s jazz artists are bringing hip-hop to their playing (one more, I can’t resist: check out Kris Bowers and Christian Sands doing “Ain’t Misbehavin’”). There is a generation of jazz musicians coming up now whose first exposure to Ron Carter was more likely A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory album than the Miles Davis Quintet. Sample-based music is forced to move forward by looking backward; jazz music has been doing the same by updating its standards and bringing them new life. As “Mystic Brew”/”Electric Relaxation” shows, the two approaches aren’t exclusive. One last quote from this Tribe Called Quest-themed essay from “Excursions”: “...listening to hip-hop / my pops used to say it reminded him of be-bop / I said well daddy don’t you know that things go in cycles...” Keep listening.

Ben Gray is a listener with a lot of ideas about this music around in his head.