Kassa Overall’s New Wave of Black Improvised Music Playlist

With his new LP Animals out now via Warp Records, the rapper and percussionist shares his favorite tracks by artists on the cutting edge of the jazz tradition.

Kassa Overall’s New Wave of Black Improvised Music Playlist

With his new LP Animals out now via Warp Records, the rapper and percussionist shares his favorite tracks by artists on the cutting edge of the jazz tradition.

Words: Mike LeSuer

Photo: Patrick O'Brien Smith

May 30, 2023

While there’s plenty about Kassa Overall’s new album Animals to root it firmly within the tradition of 21st century hip-hop (guest verses from Danny Brown, Shabazz Palaces, Lil B, and Wiki, for example), the NYC-based rapper and percussionist’s background in jazz is really what shines on this collection. Horn arrangements by Theo Croker, piano parts played by composer Vijay Iyer, and sax accompaniment from Tomoki Sanders are among the contributions adding considerably more depth to Animals than your typical rap LP can boast in its production while, yeah, the beats on here tend to go pretty hard too.

But Animal only scratches the surface of a brewing renaissance in modern jazz dutifully bringing the genre’s tradition up to the present day, seamlessly integrating it into the increasingly hard to classify music of today. To take us a little deeper into the scene, Overall crafted a playlist outlining the major players in the new wave of Black improvised music, from collaborators like Croker to staples of the movement like Makaya McCraven and Melanie Charles. “The playlist of new or new-ish Black improvised sounds is inspired by the African word ‘Sankofa,’ which means to fetch what is at risk of being left behind,” he explains. “Each person on this list represents what’s cutting edge in the so-called ‘jazz’ tradition, but is doing the work to make sure that the ancestors are represented in the conversation.”

Check out Animals here if you haven’t already, and tune in to Overall’s playlist below.

Cécile McLorin Salvant, “Est‐ce ainsi que les hommes vivent?”
This song is off of Cécile’s new album, Melusine. Cécile is an artist who, although she uses a lot of traditional sounds, is pushing herself album by album toward uncharted territory. Every album is unique, and even her style of improvisation is unique. It’s hard to imagine where she’ll end up. She also works with the best pianist, Sullivan Fortner.

Makaya McCraven, “Inner Flight”
Makaya McCraven is one of the few musicians in this conversation who’s cracked the code of how to weave live textures into production. Everything he makes sounds like him. It’s one thing to be a good musician, it’s another thing to make a great album. Makaya makes great albums.

Kassa Overall, “Ready to Ball”
I made this track over the course of four years, beginning in 2018 with a piano improvisation by Sullivan Fortner, a virtuoso pianist from New Orleans who—in my opinion and in the opinion of many others—is the greatest jazz pianist of our time. He’s a good friend and one of my favorite collaborators. We went to college together at Oberlin, and Sullivan also played with Roy Hargrove for years and now is perhaps best known for his GRAMMY-winning partnership with Cecile McLorin Salvant. I slowly cooked the production throughout the pandemic. 

Kassa Overall feat. Nick Hakim and Theo Croker, “Make My Way Back Home”
Nick Hakim is a great friend and artistic inspiration. We’ve been meaning to do something official for years, and I’m honored that this is the song. Nick and I worked together at his home studio in Brooklyn one day, where he recorded vocals with the window open, capturing the lively sounds in the streets while he whispered in the mic. The song also features horn arrangements by Theo Croker, a friend since college and someone I regularly collaborate with. More on him later in the playlist.

Brandee Younger, “Running Game”
I’ve known Brandee for many years, and she’s really coming into her own as a voice and leader. Her new album, which pays homage to the work of Dorothy Ashby, has her voice out front, which isn’t easy to do as a harpist.

Meshell Ndegeocello, Brandee Younger, and Julius Rodriguez, “Virgo”
Meshell has been tapping into the young jazz community, featuring cats like Julius Rodriguez, Brandee, and Kojo Roney. She’s as relevant and fresh as anybody on the scene right now, and she knows exactly who to work with. 

Theo Croker feat. Ego Ella May, “Good Day”
Theo has always been a great trumpet player, but he doesn’t limit himself to just that role. He’s inspired me to pursue my own vision as a songwriter and producer. On this most recent EP with Ego Ella May, he really found a sweet spot between great musicianship, creativity, and something you can listen to while driving down the street on a sunny day. 

Cisco Swank and Yoshi T, “No Funny”
Julius Rodriguez first introduced me to Cisco’s music years ago. It may not sound like it, but cats like Cisco and Yoshi are connected to the NYC jazz scene. They point to the future of a non-genre-specific artist—someone who isn’t hung up about what category a song belongs in.

Melanie Charlies, “All Africa (The Beat)”
Melanie is the hardest working woman in Brooklyn. If you haven’t heard of her, you’re about five years behind the times. 

Isaiah Collier and Michael Shekwoaga Ode, “Confessions of the Heart”
I love this duo project because it’s a counterpoint to the “New Jazz” concept. They’re drawing on the language of the past, but it still feels fresh and like it’s the next thing. Isaiah has that unique revolutionary Chicago musical fire that just always feels like its own thing, and Michael has the potential to be one of the greatest drummers of his generation, and anyone who’s been paying attention knows that his growth has been exponential over the past few years. We both had the same teacher, Billy Hart, and I consider him to be a brother.

Kassa Overall feat. Theo Croker, “The Lava Is Calm”
The composition of this song offers the listener both simplicity and complexity, something simple and clear you can grab onto and understand—and also an infinite number of details and textures, from horn lines by Theo to string arrangements by Jherek Bischoff.

Samora Pinderhughes and Marcus Gilmore, “Rise Up”
Samora creates cinematic landscapes with his music, laying the perfect canvas for one of my favorite drummers, Marcus Gilmore.

Joel Ross, “Prayer” 
Joel is like the prophet of the jazz scene in NYC. I’ve never seen him angry or talking shit, and whenever he plays, you feel the honesty and the humility.