When big band instrumentation steps away from jazz, it typically goes in one of three directions: jazz-rock fusion groups like Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears, rockabilly swing revivalists like Brian Setzer and Royal Crown Revue, or novelty acts like Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox, who perform swing versions of hits by the likes of Lady Gaga, Lana del Rey and The Cure.
Urban Renewal Project explores a fourth path, one that combines hip-hop, swing and soul. The upstart L.A.-based big band — big as in 14 musicians in a 15-seat van, with a trailer hauling their instruments and toothbrushes — is on tour to promote its new album, “21st Century Ghost,” to be released Sept. 15, on Resonance Records’ new Fastrac imprint. Brooklyn’s Muslim rap duo Camp Lo, who are among the album’s guest vocalists, are along for the ride.
Urban Renewal Project and Camp Lo will perform at 9 p.m. Friday, Aug. 10, at Howiee’s on Front, 16 N. Front St., Medford. There is no cover for the show.
“21st Century Ghost” is Urban Renewal’s third album, and the first not to include pop-jazz singer Aubrey Logan among its featured vocalists. Logan parted ways with the group in 2015 to join the aforementioned Postmodern Jukebox.
The band quickly compensated for the departure by enlisting Moonchild singer Amber Navran as well as Gavin Turek, who one L.A. critic declared “The Disco Queen of the Moment.” The new collection features no fewer than nine vocalists, including rapper Elmer Demond — who’s been with the band since the start — and bassist and singer Dustin Morgan, whose pairing with Demond on the soulfully moody “Hide” is among the album’s clear standouts.
Along with their catchy songwriting and instrumental proficiency, The Urban Renewal Project’s other major virtue is a musical restraint that most contemporary big bands wouldn’t even consider.
“It’s easy to let a large band and horn section get away from you, and to maybe write too much or have too much coverage going on,” says bandleader R.W. Enoch in a phone interview. “And that can fight against what your singers and emcees are doing. So sometimes we go with more of a call-and-response approach, or we have the horns and the full band do their thing for a little bit, and then take it way down so that the emcee or the vocalist can come in and have their own moment musically.”
Enoch, who also handles tenor saxophone duties, hails from Richmond, Virginia, the same city that gave us Gwar and D’Angelo. He recalls hearing former Stray Cat Setzer’s hit remake of Louis Prima’s “Jump, Jive an’ Wail” back when his high school’s band and orchestra programs were just starting up.
“The Brian Setzer Orchestra was very instrumental, no pun intended, in getting me involved with saxophone as a kid,” he says. “I think we played that song at the first jazz band concert I ever did.”
But it wasn’t until years later that Enoch became cognizant of hip-hop, the genre that would ultimately set the Urban Renewal Project apart from other big-band stylists.
“I was a bit of a music snob up until I was probably 17 or 18 years old,” he admits. “You know, I was this jazz-nerd guy who practiced saxophone five hours a day in high school, and majored in music, and all that. I didn’t listen to any pop music at all until maybe my last year of high school, when I was finally old enough to realize there was music outside of the Top 40 stations. Prior to that I thought you either had to listen to Britney Spears or jazz, like there wasn’t a lot of in-between.”
That changed when Enoch began making friends who were “into weird stuff,” including independent music. “And then, you know, that Outkast double album, ‘Speakerboxxx’ and ‘The Love Below,’ came out.”
The idea that any group would include samples of John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” and Geto Boys’ “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” on the same album was enough to convince the high-school musician that there might be common ground between jazz and hip-hop. After moving to Los Angeles and hooking up with Demond, he was sure of it.
In fact, he’s surprised that more musicians haven’t followed the same path.
“You’ve got your Snarky Puppies and groups like that, but none of them are really attempting to incorporate hip-hop directly, at least not the lyrical part of hip-hop,” Enoch says. “I’m not sure why other people have stayed away from that. To me, it’s such a natural combination. They both have improvisational elements and just go together so well. I have often wondered why more people aren’t doing this, but I’m happy to be one of the few that’s trying to do it currently.”
And while Urban Renewal Project remains devoted to its original music, the musicians do throw an occasional cover into the mix. Not long ago, they had taken to performing Estelle and Kanye’s “American Boy” onstage, while past recordings have included covers of The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” and Gorillaz’s “Feel Good Inc.”
“Those are our two most popular tracks on Spotify,” Enoch says, with a hint of resignation. So does the bandleader ever feel a tinge of jealousy when it comes to the commercial success that Postmodern Jukebox has enjoyed?
“No, not really,” he says. “I think if we had committed ourselves to doing covers five years ago, we would be doing that now. But that’s not really where our heart is. You know, they do a good job and people love them, but I think they’re basically like a tribute act, in a sense. And as the person who has to write all the emails and make all the travel arrangements, I really wouldn’t enjoy that. I couldn’t get excited about booking 12 nights of hotel rooms, for 15 people to go on tour, if we were just playing other people’s music.”