How IsWhat?! Spent Its 2010

If you’ve looked back on your 2010 and decided you are satisfied with the year you had, a rundown of the accomplishments of locally-based Jazz/Hip Hop group IsWhat?! might have you reexamining your reexamination. What, you say? You haven’t heard a peep from the group in ages? That’s probably because IsWhat?! has been so busy overseas, touring the globe in support of its stunning latest release, Big Appetite, local appearances by the band (outside frontman Napoleon Maddox's occasional collaborative shows with other musicians) have been scarce. But the long-running ensemble (and Maddox, especially) probably had its best year — creatively and professionally — so far. —-

In a necessarily extensive 2010 recap sent out to fans, Maddox recounted his and the band’s busy year and showed things won’t slow down any time soon, thanks to several shows and projects already in his dayplanner. Maddox kicks off the note with what he says is the biggest lesson he learned in 2010: “Don’t be afraid to try. In fact, don’t try … just set your goal and achieve it.” It’s a directive Maddox followed over and over again last year, with great results.

In January, Maddox was featured on the latest album by Jazz drummer (and frequent IsWhat?! collaborator) Hamid Drake, under the “band” banner Bindu, which also features noted musicians like Jeff Albert and Jeff Parker. Reggaeology fused Jazz with another musical style, Reggae, and was recorded in Chicago with Tortoise multi-instrumentalist and acclaimed engineer/producer John McEntire. The group toured France, Italy and Switzerland in January and Februrary to support the album.

Maddox also appeared on the latest release by French Hip Hop/Electro group Lilea Narrative, as well as at the release party in Paris in early February. Also in February, IsWhat?! toured Spain for the first time, supporting Indie Rock band The Fiery Furnaces. In March, Maddox teamed up with Roy Nathanson’s Sotto Voce (a longtime project Maddox has been involved with) for a tour of Austria, Germany and France. Maddox then rejoined his IsWhat?! bandmates for several dates in Germany and Belgium, playing with artists like Arrested Development and Femi Kuti.

Maddox made his first venture to Africa in May to participate in the Festival Mawazine in Morocco, performing as part of a an international collaboration headed up by Cuban musician Omar Sosa and Moroccan MC/producer Don Bigg. Between more IsWhat?! dates in France, Maddox did some workshops at Festival Montreuil Jazz Pulsations, where he also performed with noted Jazz saxman Archie Shepp.

In June and July, IsWhat?! did more European dates, including shows in Italy and France. The band also shot a video for its song “Trouble.”

(Maddox got a dose of bad news on July 4 when he found out that Chris Walker, onetime bassist for the band, had passed away. “Friends Chris made while on tour with IsWhat?! got together for a moment to honor him,” Maddox writes.)

July brought Maddox back to Cincinnati for a “break” that included beginning work on IsWhat?!’s next album and a few live appearances around town. By the end of August, Maddox was back in Europe for more shows with Sotto Voce and Drake and a stop in the London to plan the U.K. release of Big Appetite in the coming fall.

In September, Maddox found time to debut yet another new project, A Riot Called Nina, featuring French singer Sophia Domancich, London-based, all-female A Capella Jazz/Hip Hop group The Boxettes and others. (Get a taste of the project here.) The group made its first live appearance at the Jazz a La Villette fest in Paris. IsWhat?! ended September at another festival, Festival Marsatac in Marseilles, which was broadcast all over France and featured acts like Talib Kweli, Anti-Pop Consortium and Sage Francis.

Maddox jetted back to New York City for Sotto Voce’s concert at a little venue called the Lincoln Center before returning to wrap up IsWhat?! dates in Germany, England and Switzerland. Then, he rejoined Sotto Voce for dates in Germany and Austria, followed by dates with Drake and Bindu in Finland, Italy, Austria, Belgium and England.

Maddox writes that he took Demember "off," but his vision of a hiatus doesn’t include shutting off the creative side of his brain, apparently. He continued working on the next IsWhat?! album (which he told me later wouldn’t be ready until next year, though some single and EP releases will come out later this year) and also began putting together podcasts, which include some archival recordings of interviews he did in the ’90s for a radio show on local community radio station WAIF. One especially tasty and historically valuable interview is a 1995 sit-down with none other than Jay Z, who sounds amazingly focused and mature, especially considering it was recorded when he’d only released a track or two and was just getting his footing in the Hip Hop world he would eventually dominate. Give the interview and Maddox’s other podcasts (including some amazing mix shows) a listen here.

Maddox is already planning on heading back to France at the end of the month for workshops with Shepp and he has European dates scheduled through March with his various projects.

Now, what did you do last year, again?

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