Listen to this: Donnie Trumpet becomes Nico Segal, plays traditional jazz
You probably heard of Nico Segal before. At least, you likely have if you’ve been following what’s going on in the Chicago hip-hop scene.
Before late 2016, Segal went by a stage name, calling himself Donnie Trumpet, a pun on the name of the businessman-and-not-yet-president Donald Trump and Segal’s instrument of choice. Segal performed with his group, The Social Experiment, frequently collaborating with Chicago hip-hop artists like Chance the Rapper and Noname.
After the election, Segal began performing under his given name so as to distance himself from President Trump, and he’s now part of a new group, called The JuJu. That group just released its first record, “Exchange,” and it might be jazzier than you’re expecting if you’re familiar with Segal’s past work.
And by “jazzier,” I truly mean “Exchange” is a fairly traditional jazz record.
Don’t go into this record expecting the normal bag of tricks from the former Donnie Trumpet. Chance the Rapper won’t be yelping over the tracks, and the only one of Segal’s usual collaborators who makes an appearance is Jamila Woods, who delivers a sweetly subtle vocal performance on the track “We Good.”
Other than that track, The JuJu focuses exclusively on instrumental tracks. In many ways, The JuJu buck a trend in modern jazz: many contemporary jazz artists, led by giants in the scene like Kamasi Washington, seem infatuated with the bombastic, “spiritual” sound best associated with John Coltrane.
But there isn’t an ounce of “Trane” on “Exchange.” Less focused on creating a big sound, The JuJu highlight the fact that they are a quartet. The first two tracks, “Morning Of” and “The Exchange,” center around jaunty, improvised piano parts, frequently recalling the work of pianist Vince Guaraldi.
After those two tracks, “Exchange” moves in a different direction, shifting into a more spacey, electronic form of jazz that fans of Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” or even Flying Lotus’ “You’re Dead!” would be familiar with.
Unfortunately, these few songs feel like a more “by-the-numbers” approach than the first two tracks. Musically, the group sounds fine. They’re clearly all very talented performers. But what they aren’t really bringing to the table is compelling ideas. There are numerous moments that just feel too familiar to other things.
On the album’s final track, “Patients,” the group abandons the more electronic sounds, returning to a simpler style of jazz. The piano is once again subtle, and it’s accompanied by a classic, brushed snare drum. It’s all very pretty, but all very similar to what’s been done in jazz for decades now.
But it’s worth once again noting that, despite being fairly similar to numerous other jazz records, “Exchange” is still very good. It shows off a group of four musicians being incredibly technically proficient. The JuJu have a great deal of unity, the level of which is sometimes difficult for jazz groups to acquire. And for the group’s first record together, that’s impressive.
Hopefully, The JuJu continue to grow together, and release a follow-up to “Exchange” with more original, compelling jazz. Nico Segal might have killed off his Donnie Trumpet persona, but it seems that things from here are going to be “huge.”
Artist: The JuJu
Best Track: “The Exchange”