I always find it interesting when a jazz musician steps into the spotlight for their own project. At just twenty-one years of age, guitarist Mansur Brown has already made a name for himself within London's bustling jazz revival. Fans of the scene will recognise his aggressive yet dynamic playing from Yussef Kamaal’s seminal Black Focus album.
On that project, Mansur showcased incredible technical range, moving from Hendrix-like soloing to laying down ghostly ambience without breaking a sweat. His ability to balance fiery aggression with a delicate sense of melody helped establish a unique voice for Brown within an over-saturated landscape of guitar players. (dont get me started)
It's this duality which defines Shiroi, Mansur's debut released on Black Focus Records. However, unlike the funk jams we've heard Brown on before, Shiroi is as much an instrumental hip-hop album as it is a jazz one. Most tracks struggle to reach the four-minute mark, boasting atmosphere and rhythms not unlike a Knxwledge beat tape.
Flip Up and Me Up highlight the record's funkier side, Mansur plucks rapid ostinatos over cyclical basslines until his torrential outpour consumes the track whole. On a different note, God Willing starts out understated but is completely transformed by Brown's effect-laden string flourishes. For a record composed entirely of moody beats, Mansur makes a good effort to avoid sounding monotonous.
Saying that, things aren't always as varied as I'd like, mostly due to Shiroi's lack of live instrumentation. Other than Mansur's guitar, most tracks feature only a repetitive bassline and drum machine pairing, with some atmospheric chord changes thrown in for good measure. Unfortunately this ends up suffocating creativity across the whole project.
While Brown's playing here is undeniably excellent, he has no-one to interact with, no-one to push his soloing to another level. It's really a shame as albums like Black Focus were defined by moments of incredible group improvisation, as well as a powerful and dynamic rhythm section. When those are replaced by simple loops, any improv feels like it's being stifled within a vacuum.
All in all, Shiroi wasn't at all what I was expecting, yet I can't help but be impressed by Mansur's unique vision. London's jazz scene continues to produce albums which blur the boundaries between genres in interesting ways, and that's exactly what's happening here. It’s easy to feel that Mansur’s technical skill is frequently wasted on these subdued instrumentals, but if you're a fan of BadBadNotGood, or hip-hop in any form, what Brown's doing here is practically made for you.
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