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KASE fuse jazz and turntables on 'Seasons'

The relationship between jazz and rap has always been lopsided. In the '90s, hip-hop hit new creative heights by mining jazz, and jazz influences are all over some of the greatest albums of rap's golden age, from A Tribe Called Quest to De La Soul to Digable Planets to Nas -- the list goes on and on.

But rap never really repaid the favor. Jazz artists that drew from rap met with decidedly mixed returns. In the mid-'90s there was a belief in some corners of jazz that hip-hop, and particularly turntables, could be the future of the genre. Most prominently Branford Marsalis tried wedding the two styles with his side project Buckshot LeFonque, which recorded a pair of albums, both of which are pretty rough. The beats are too stiff, the fusion too forced. It just didn't work. DJs like DJ Cam and DJ Spooky similarly experimented with folding jazz into turntablism, and they periodically stumbled upon some cool ideas. But ultimately there wasn't enough there to sustain a whole movement. Jazz entered the new century ready to move on.

KASE | Courtesy photo

The Milwaukee trio KASE is one of the few contemporary jazz acts that suggests there's still something to the old notion that jazz and hip-hop can thrive together. Founded by prolific trumpeter Jamie Breiwick, one of the great organizing forces of the Milwaukee-area jazz scene, and bassist John Christensen, the trio features turntablist Jordan Lee, who also happens to be Radio Milwaukee's Station Director and my co-worker. He's probably the truest DJ I've ever known (and I've known a lot of them), so deeply committed to the craft of turntablism that hearing him talk about the craft is like listening to an interlude on an X-Ecutioners album. These three musicians are all true believers; if anybody could revive the forgotten promise of jazz and hip-hop, it's them.

And they have been. For much of this year the trio has had a residency at Saint Kate hotel in downtown Milwaukee, playing improvised sets the first Saturday of each month. Their new album " Seasons" documents those improvisions, which they liken to "ComedySportz with jazz" on one track, during a rare bit of banter on what otherwise doesn't play much at all like a traditional live album. Lee's mixing and mastering gives the record the sheik finish of a studio album; every pluck of Christensen's acoustic bass is so crisp you'd think it was recorded in a sound room.

KASE's fusions work where so many '90s jazz/rap acts failed because their improvisations are fluid; they never feel chained down by their beats. Lee's turntables leave Breiwick and Christensen plenty of room to roam, and to explore the softer, more nuanced corners of these unscripted compositions. Only once on the album does he go completely beat crazy, and it's a trip: the 14-minute "Mystery Amit/Beatrice" goes full acid jazz, nodding to posh, early '90s jazz-funk ideal of Us3's "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)."

I could happily listen to a whole album in that lane, but KASE never let the album stay rooted in one style for too long. By its final tracks, "Soundboy" and "You Never Told Me Your Dream," the three have moved on to druggy, exploratory dub music. That's what's exciting about a project like this: These three have given themselves the freedom to direct this music wherever they want, and they take full advantage.

You can stream " Seasons" below.