The debut album from Bakersfield, California-born keyboardist Jamael Dean, 2019's Black Space Tapes, is an expansive production that finds Dean mixing all of his various jazz, hip-hop, and avant-garde influences into a dreamlike stew. Prior to recording this album, Dean (who was 20 years old at the time of recording and a student at the New School in New York) had garnered attention while attending the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. The grandson of noted jazz drummer Donald Dean, the younger Dean had performed often around Los Angeles, including tours with bassist/singer Thundercat and saxophonist Kamasi Washington. Washington also featured Dean on his acclaimed 2018 album Heaven and Earth. Dean brings all of this experience to bear on Black Space Tapes, which he recorded in various locales from California to New York with Carlos Niño. A gifted producer, percussionist and arranger, Niño has worked on similarly far-reaching projects by Build an Ark's Gaby Hernandez, drummer Makaya McCraven, and string specialist Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, who appears throughout Black Space Tapes playing five-string viola. Also contributing are members of Dean's Afronauts ensemble, a rotating cast of equally adept musicians including at various times here bassists Chris Palmer and Lawrence Shaw, saxophonist Devin Daniels, drummer Tim Angulo, vocalist Sharada Shashidhar, flautist Aaron Shaw, trombonist Zekkeraya El-Megharbel, and rapper Jasik. The opening "Akamara" is a cloudlike piece that begins with Shashidhar's wordless vocals and flows through several transmutations, shifting from shimmering flute and sax harmonies to a swinging Herbie Hancock-esque piano section, finally dissipating into a spectral group improv. Dean charts a similarly esoteric course throughout the rest of Black Space Tapes, offering tracks that present more as musical collages than concrete songs. Cuts like "Adawa" and "Kronos" are fluid soundscapes colored by Dean's rich harmonic keyboard textures and his band's mutable, often organically funky pulse. It's a sound that brings to mind the avant-garde work of his '70s predecessors like Phil Ranelin's work with Detroit's Tribe collective. Elsewhere, Dean illuminates his more contemporary influences, offering what sound to be more studio-reworked creations. He mixes woozily refracted horn lines with acidic keyboard hits over a loping hip-hop groove on "Olokun." Similarly, "Emi" is a kaleidoscopic tapestry of captured sounds, from an angular saxophone solo to a shimmering piano motif to a deep godlike space laugh, all intercut with a stream-of-consciousness rap from Jasik. While the album's waking-dream-state aesthetic is impressive, it can sometimes leave you feeling untethered. Dean is an impressive player and often hits upon moments of deep compositional sophistication, but the abstract nature of the recording can leave you grasping for a more concrete sense of his abilities. Nonetheless, as a debut, Black Space Tapes never feels burdened by outside expectations, and hints at a growing universe of musical possibilities.
AllMusic Review by Matt Collar