Under the umbrella

Karriem Riggins expands jazz and informs hip-hop

Understanding music through the kaleidoscopic lens of jazz is daunting. But it's a challenge made for virtuoso drummer, multiinstrumentalist, rapper, and arranger Karriem Riggins.

Riggins allows jazz's free-flowing aesthetic to guide his quest to study genres, explore amorphous coagulations of sound, and synthesize diverse sonic influences and life experiences. His muse opens an expansive universe of musical possibilities. "I feel like I'm one with music," he says, during a recent phone interview. "But I want to reach the point where it's so effortless to do anything I want to do. Any genre — I want to do everything." Whether playing drums for powerhouses like Ray Brown and Herbie Hancock or producing and rhyming with Madlib, Riggins shows a rare adeptness at either transcending or crossing skillfully between musical traditions.

As a youngster in Detroit, 17-year-old Riggins got his big break when singer Betty Carter invited him to perform with her band as part of the esteemed Jazz Ahead program in New York. He found himself awestruck by the city's explosive music talent. "I stayed there, I didn't want to go home," he says. "There were more people my age playing incredible [music]." After a two-week stint grooving with Carter, Riggins found work playing drums for pianist Steven Scott and jumped on opportunities to hold down percussion for Roy Hargrove and Benny Green, steadily absorbing their mastery through musical osmosis.

But Riggins also aspired to refine his other passion, hip-hop. After returning to Detroit, he honed production and lyricist techniques with Common and No I.D. while they were producing One Day It'll All Make Sense (Relativity, 1997), even flipping a track of his own for the record. Since then, Riggins has laced textured beats for the Roots as well as soul conjurer Erykah Badu and finished the production on J Dilla's brilliant posthumous project The Shining (Bbe, 2006). Riggins' raw formula balances live instrumentation and samples, keeping the creative process free while allowing the final vision to cohere within a holistic jazz sensibility. "I feel like hip-hop and a lot of other genres are under the umbrella of jazz," he insists. "Jazz is really the core of the music." He nonetheless notes at least one fundamental distinction between jazz and hip-hop. While hip-hop's flavor requires simplicity, jazz demands colorful and rhythmic experimentation, a complexity that would detract from hip-hop's minimal solidity. The singular manner in which Riggins' negotiates this tension is what makes his multifaceted sound so damn compelling.

In the upcoming Virtuoso Experience Tour, where Riggins plans to introduce his new quintet with pianist Mulgrew Miller, either Pete Rock or DJ Dummy will collaborate on the turntables. "There are very few musicians who are revolutionary musicians, who take the music into their own world and develop something really innovative," Riggins says, noting luminaries like Miles Davis and Gary Bartz. "That's the type of artist that I want to be."


With Mulgrew Miller, Pete Rock (Wed/24) and DJ Dummy (Thurs/25)

Wed/24–Thurs/25, 8 and 10 p.m., $20


510 Embarcadero West, Oakl.

(510) 238-9200

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