On his latest CD, Ethnomusicology, Vol. 2, Russell Gunn thanks the Justin Time label "for letting me make the record I wanted to make." Given that expression of gratitude, what are we to make of the CD's cover, which depicts Gunn in blackface, strung up like a minstrel-era puppet in front of an American flag? Is Gunn voicing a cryptic complaint about his previous record companies? Is he making a larger political statement? Or is Gunn, a dedicated rap fan, just following in the hip-hop tradition of controversial, in-your-face cover art?
It all comes down to perception, and that's also the case with the material on Ethnomusicology, Vol. 2. If you view jazz and rap as distinct, incompatible musical styles, Gunn's Mixmaster blend of hip-hop beats and hard-bop horn solos will most likely leave you cold. Straight-ahead jazz partisans are likely to dismiss Gunn's funky reworking of Duke Ellington's "Caravan" as bordering on sacrilegious. Rap purists might regard the trombone, sax and horn work on Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy" as extraneous riffs getting in the way of DJ Apollo's scratch track.
Listeners with more eclectic ears and fewer preconceptions will enjoy Ethnomusicology, Vol. 2 for what it is: a cutting-edge fusion. "Epistrophy" begins with Marc Cary laying down a hypnotic bass riff on keyboards, Carl Burnett adding some reverb guitar and DJ Apollo weaving turntable grooves over the top. Then Gunn kicks in on trumpet, stating Monk's angular theme with assured power and purpose and pulling these seemingly disparate musical elements into focus. Gunn's take on Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)," is also a winner. Gunn, sax players Kebbi Williams and Sherman Irby, and trombonist Andre Heyward swing hard backing up Cary's stride piano, all over a go-go-fueled percussive beat. Not every track uses turntables or other devices associated with hip-hop; on "I Wish," Gunn fronts a basic piano/bass/drums lineup, proving he still knows his way around a ballad. But no matter what instrumentation Gunn uses on Ethnomusicology, Vol. 2, his sense of musical adventure never falters.