Is jazz dead? Ask Roy Ayers, Azymuth, Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad

Randall Roberts
Adrian Younge, left, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad (A Tribe Called Quest) at Younge's Linear Labs studio in Highland Park.  (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times)

Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad, 'Jazz Is Dead' (Linear Labs)

To access the Highland Park recording studio Linear Labs, you have to walk through a combination record store and hair salon and cross a hallway. Behind a heavy, soundproof door, you'll likely find producer, soundtrack composer and sharp-dressed businessman Adrian Younge, who oversaw "Jazz Is Dead," a collection of new music by a groove-oriented roster of intercontinental experts including Roy Ayers, Marcos Valle, Azymuth, Gary Bartz and Brian Jackson.

Alongside his longtime collaborator Ali Shaheed Muhammad (best known as a member of A Tribe Called Quest), Younge has built the analog recording studio of his dreams. The pair, who record and tour as the Midnight Hour, also promote and host a regular Jazz Is Dead live event at the Lodge Room, a second-floor club near the studio that has become one of the central draws of the bustling neighborhood. This symbiotic relationship has helped generate "Jazz Is Dead," which serves as an introduction to a forthcoming series of releases — even as it disproves the premise of its title.

Each of the eight tracks on this stellar compendium features a different legend working with Younge and Muhammad, and many of the pieces gelled before and after sets at the Lodge Room. Opening track "Hey Lover," for example, is a new work by the pair in collaboration with Los Angeles jazz-funk composer and vibraphone player Roy Ayers, who is best known for his Southern California classic, "Everybody Loves the Sunshine."

The second track, "Distant Mode," documents the two producers in the studio with the saxophonist Gary Bartz, who across a life in jazz has worked alongside hundreds of experts including Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner, Abbey Lincoln, Eric Dolphy and Art Blakey. Driven by drummer Greg Paul's clattering snare-and-stick rhythm and the Midnight Hour's synth and bass work, Bartz rebuts the jazz-is-dead notion with every saxophone-filtered breath.

During a 2018 visit with Younge and Muhammad at Linear Labs, Younge, best known for his searing score for "Luke Cage," described their approach to creation as “maintaining the compositional and sonic perspectives of yesterday, but pushing that forward with a new idiom.” The studio itself is a wonder of vintage analog gear, and the sound it generates vibrates with that spirit. Younge, in fact, cites a specific production period, from 1968 to 1973, as a model for the Linear Labs sound.

That richness is evident throughout, but for sheer intensity check out "Apocalíptico." Extending across nine minutes, the furious uptempo jam is propelled by the Brazilian jazz-funk band Azymuth, which issued its 1971 debut album during Younge's window of excellence. Among the instruments deployed for the frantic end-of-days workout: drums, fuzz guitar, bass, Fender Rhodes piano, monophonic synthesizer, clavinet and what feels like a warehouse full of drums, shakers and cymbals.

The whole thing, including Marcos Valle's keyboard driven "Não Saia Da Praça," is over in less than 30 minutes, but with every new listen a tangle of previously unnoticed ideas wend through the measures. Though hardly the most crucial cure we need right now, the promise of the forthcoming "Jazz Is Dead" series is evident throughout.