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The Philadelphia Experiment

It’s quite possibly that Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson‘s set to see of 2017 won’t be the one he played at the The Roots’ annual summer kick-off party, the Roots Picnic — awesome as that show was.

It’s not one The Roots will play in their hometown of Philadelphia, or on their nationally televised nightly gig on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. No, it’s looking like 2017’s performance-to-see for fans of The Roots and their drummer/leader takes place in a week and a half on the quiet coast of Rhode Island, at the annual Newport Jazz Festival.

The Roots are the festival’s headliners on Sunday, August 6th. Unlike their recent Philly gigs — at the Picnic, or back when they were on the Welcome America festival — they don’t have a featured guest to incorporate into their performance. Don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing that they do that; their excitement backing Erykah Badu, Snoop Dogg or Lauryn Hill is contagious, solidifying their identity as music fans as much as music makers.

But this year’s headlining appearance at the Picnic was more of a Pharrell set than a Roots set. (Which was fine, dude has like a billion hits.) By comparison, this appearance at Newport is, as of right now, purely a Roots show — a chance for them to dig deep on their own catalogue, something they don’t get to do when they’re putting on the multifaceted production of the Picnic. It’s also the band’s 30th anniversary year, meaning additional possibility for deep dives. And then there’s another wrinkle, and that’s called The Philadelphia Experiment.

The rare (but streamable on YouTube) 2001 album was a collaboration between three Philly-rooted musicians: Quest on the drums, joined by his CAPA classmate Christian McBride, an acclaimed jazz bassist who went on to host NPR’s Jazz Night In America, and versatile keys player Uri Caine, who has spent most of his career based in New York but was born in Philly. The band only performed live four times; once at the TLA on South Street, and once at the Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan, both in December of 2001. Later, they played Bonnaroo in 2007 and Monterey Jazz Festival in 2014. But with The Roots on the Newport lineup as well as the Christian McBride Big Band and the Uri Caine Trio — and McBride stepping in as artistic director of the festival last year — the stage is perfectly set for the fifth-ever Philadelphia Experiment show, set to take place on Sunday, August 6th.

The record, which you can stream below, is suave, funky and dynamic; McBride’s plucked upright gives the set a classic bebop feel, and the band doubly nods to Grover Washington, Jr. — both in their original “Grover,” the second song on the record, and a bonus track cover of Washington’s “Just The Two of Us,” which happens a minute after the piano-driven closer “Mister Magic” finishes ringing out. Other Philadelphia references abound, from the stirring and contemplative “(Re)Moved” — a frenzied rumination on the 1985 MOVE bombings — to an cover of Sir Elton’s “Philadelphia Freedom,” with string arrangements by Philly studio legend Larry Gold. Quest’s beats are rooted in hip-hop, but he stretches beyond his comfort zone into freer rhythms as the record progresses. Elsewhere, Philly cats pop up, like Pat Martino on guitar and Jon Swana on trumpet, and the simmering centerpiece is “Ife Ife,” which blends each contributor’s unique style into an immersive whole.

Tickets are still available for the Newport Jazz Festival, more information can be found via its website. And hey, check that lineup: other Philly rooted people on the bill, from Mt. Airy native George Burton to Orrin Evans. And the top-biled performances by Andra DaySnarky PuppyBela Fleck and Maceo Parker are sure to be throwdowns as well.

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