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The New Cool: Hiatus Kaiyote bubbles up from down under

Abe Beeson
Another choice slab of wax for Abe's record collection, coming to The New Cool this weekend.

In another example of a group that doesn't quite satisfy strict definitions of jazz, the Australian band Hiatus Kaiyote is making their own kind of music. Their blend of modern soul, electronica, popfunk and — yes — modern jazz is a big influence on how this music evolves in the new century.

Formed in Melbourne in 2011 after singer/guitarist Nai Palm (Naomi Saalfield) and bassist Paul Bender began their first collaborations, Bender soon brought in Simon Maven to play keys and multi-instrumentalist Perrin Moss on drums, and Hiatus Koiyote was born.

Their self-released 2012 debut Tawk Tomahawk was a big hit, with London-based modern jazz impressario Gilles Peterson naming them Breakthrough Artist of 2013. Pop stars such as Prince, Erykah Badu, Beyonce and Q Tip expressed their love of the band, with Q Tip's remix of "Nakamarra" finding a place on re-issues of their debut album.

Over the past couple years, I've heard the band referenced as a major influence by local modern jazz groups such as SmackTalk, High Pulp and other soul and funk-loving jazz musicians around town. SmackTalk, in particular, emulates the laid back soul flavor of "Nakamarra" in their recent single "Beams" featuring singer Emma Horton.

Hiatus Kaiyote's well-received second album Choose Your Weapon followed in 2015, but the band suffered a serious setback recently. Singer Nai Palm was diagnosed with breast cancer a little over a year ago, just as they'd begun working on material for a third album. Happily, surgery went well and treatment seems to be working. The band has performed in New York and Los Angeles in recent weeks and all reports are of a singer and band in fine form, bursting with energy and confidence.

As we look forward to their third album release, I decided to start at the beginning and pick up a copy of their first album. It's a very cool affair, with drums only joining the proceedings after a couple minutes of trippy keyboards, guitars and vocals. There are opportunities for the band to display their chops, and they're a talented crew, but the focus is on the sound of the band.

If you sent this album back in time to the early 90s, me and my college friends would have heard a new frontier in what we called "trip hop." It's full of psychedelic vibes, repetetive grooves, and a few sub-2-minute fragments or soundscapes reminiscent of that era's hip-hop album interludes.

Their hit single "Nakamarra" is the natural modern jazz touchstone. Palm's vocals carry the feel of Eryka Badu-style soul, but dance along with the band's tricky turns and stops with graceful fluidity. Maybe it's not improvised, but the performance has the spirit of intra-band communication and interplay jazz depends on. Leave genre judgements behind and let the music take you this Saturday afternoon on The New Cool.

Until then, enjoy this video of hipster Aussies in their natural habitat.

The New Cool airs Saturdays from 3 to 5 p.m., hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle, Wash.

Abe grew up in Western Washington, a third generation Seattle/Tacoma kid. It was as a student at Pacific Lutheran University that Abe landed his first job at KNKX, editing and producing audio for news stories. It was a Christmas Day shift no one else wanted that gave Abe his first on-air experience which led to overnights, then Saturday afternoons, and started hosting Evening Jazz in 1998.