A Madison thing we're listening to: Wilder Deitz Group's summer mixtape

The elusive release blends jazz, gospel, spoken word, and hip-hop.

Wilder Deitz (left) and guitarist Mitch Deitz. Photo by Bruce Kasprzyk.

Wilder Deitz (left) and guitarist Mitch Deitz. Photo by Bruce Kasprzyk.

The Wilder Deitz Group is a frequently shifting entity—first it was a trio, then a quartet with guest players coming and going, and then came its current eight-piece lineup. Multi-instrumentalist Deitz and his bandmates take that fluidity a step further on a recent release simply called Summer Mixtape 2017. Not only does the release incorporate several guest singers and MCs  in addition to in-band vocalists Deja Mason and Nikeya Bramlett, it also takes several different approaches to the intersection of jazz, hip-hop, funk, and gospel.

On "L'Ouverture/Melody for Toussaint," that means bright piano chords and a festive synth melody combining over half-breakbeat, half-New Orleans rhythms. On "Wilmington '98," titled after the Wilmington, North Carolina insurrection of 1898, that means vocal jazz that swings between mournful and defiant. On "Long Island City," produced and composed by synth player Alex Charland, it means an atmospheric instrumental that draws as much on trip-hop as it does on jazz.

"We were already sort of headed in this direction, and I thought it would be an excellent chance to start incorporating some new techniques like sampling," says Deitz, who plays piano, synth, bass, and guitar on the record. The group funded the project with a grant from the Greater Madison Jazz Consortium, and because the grant was aimed at exposing new audiences to jazz, the group decided to make some tracks that would appeal to people who'd listened to a lot of jazz but not much hip-hop, and some tracks that would appeal to the reverse.

One track aimed squarely at the hip-hop-deprived jazz listener is "Father Bean," which rides on a silky jazz-vocal hook, an old-school hip-hop rhythm, and exuberantly meandering piano leads. Madison rapper Protege The Pro turns in probably the album's most charming verse here, with wordplay that jumps around as much as the piano: "Believe that we can fly, just be yourself but then the eagle version / they know I'm doing good, chillin' like an evil person."

Social-justice themes are dotted throughout the mixtape. "Ella's March On Madison" features Deitz's sister Ella Deitz performing a poem at this January's Women's March on Madison. (They're a creative family; Wilder's father, Ritt Deitz, has performed for years as a singer-songwriter, and his brother Mitch Deitz, who plays guitar in the Wilder Deitz group, also plays in the band Post Social.) By turns funny and dead earnest, the poem considers the ways in which society values and devalues women: "I am a $30 T-shirt-telling-everyone-I'm-a-feminist feminist / and yet, I wonder if my name would be pretty on a bathroom wall...am I still a woman if I write this poem in statements, not questions?" Ella Deitz muses on the recording.

Nikeya Bramlett. Photo by Bruce Kasprzyk.

Nikeya Bramlett. Photo by Bruce Kasprzyk.

"Song For A Slave Mother" is a powerful vocal showcase for both Mason and Bramlett, over a tense minor-key piano foundation. Deitz's inspiration for the song came in part from an aunt who researches the underground railroad. "The challenge with both of those is that they both tell a story about black America," says Deitz, a white composer/bandleader heading an ethnically heterogenous group.

Sometimes these themes sneak up on the listener. Guest MC Joey D starts out "Cinnaminson" with a goofy-sounding verse about the value of breakfast—"You already know I perfected the radio / Froot Loops, Grape Nuts, Honey Nut Cheerios"—but works his way into rapping about the Black Panthers' free breakfast programs. On "State Street Freestyle," First Wave alums Rich Robbins and CRASHprez trade rhymes about hanging out in downtown Madison, but that includes getting hassled by cops and feeling outnumbered as black people on an overwhelmingly white campus.

That track actually represents an effort to work in something more lighthearted, and there are a few others in that vein. The short "Learning To Deal" is a tribute to legendary bassist and UW-Madison professor Richard Davis. Several of the Wilder Deitz group's members studied under Davis in his Black Music Ensemble, and Deitz currently teaches a program at East High School that's modeled on that experience.

"We wanted to do a song that was just a little shout-out to him, nothing huge, maybe for a later project," Deitz says. "We decided to make it that one because the song is built off a drum sample that our drummer recorded in late high school and then over the top of that we put down the bass line for a track that Richard wrote in the late '70s called 'Dealin.'"

While the release was hardly a tossed-off effort—the band even recorded it to analog tape in hopes of getting a fat, warm sound—Deitz decided to make it hard to get. It's not available online, though he gave permission for us to stream a couple of tracks with this story. The band's recent performance on Wisconsin Public Television's 30 Minute Music Hour also features some songs from the mixtape. Deitz had about 500 CD copies printed, and listeners have to come to a show to get one. Their next performance will be on September 15 at the Prism Music and Arts Festival.

"Once we distribute the last copy, I'm not going to be giving it out anymore," Deitz says. "We'll be moving on to new music." That will include a planned winter mixtape, approached in a similar style but with a new slate of guest performers.