Cisco Swank Puts His Spin on Jazz-Rap on ‘More Better’

At a recent Sunday afternoon performance in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood, the pianist Francisco Haye sat behind a piano at Emmanuel Baptist Church, leading his quintet through a number of recognizable jazz standards. Yet they weren’t straight-ahead: Songs like “All the Things You Are,” “Little Sunflower” and “My Favorite Things” each had wrinkles — a bouncy backbeat or a near-frenetic breakdown — that made them feel fresh.

It was the kind of set that might rankle those who prefer to hear Ella Fitzgerald, Freddie Hubbard and John Coltrane without frills, yet these listeners — made up of elders who have known Haye since he was a child growing up in the congregation there — seemed to embrace what he was trying to do.

The goal, he told them, was to take “cliché jazz tunes and not make them boring.”

Haye’s artistry is informed by artists like Robert Glasper and Roy Hargrove, both classically trained jazz musicians who have blended the genre with hip-hop, R&B and rock, aligning the music with alternative rap and the neo-soul movement that emerged in the late 1990s. Haye, performing under the name Cisco Swank, plays melodic piano chords over lush soul and trap-inspired drums and raps in a manner that recalls the weary lethargy of Mike and Earl Sweatshirt, but with the polish of a Village Vanguard headliner.

Jazz-rap hybrids aren’t new, of course, but Haye, 23, without pandering to any audience, is tapping into a subset who dig lo-fi underground rap.

“He’s sitting right in the center of a lot of points,” said the noted trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire in a telephone interview. “And it doesn’t seem like he’s trying to. It’s just who he is. He is Black music. All of it. It’s in every note.”

Haye runs through the tapestry of jazz, R&B and rap on his recently released debut album, “More Better,” which at times ruminates on the pandemic but without wallowing in despair.

“Teary-eyed still thinkin’ ’bout 2020/Quarantined, bro, the streets eerie,” he raps on “If You’re Out There.” “City full of dreams, concrete, but I see it when I look in the sky.” On “What Came From Above,” over a melancholic piano loop and stuttering electronic drums, Haye admits he is “renewed” back at home with his family. (He returned to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, from the Berklee College of Music, where he studied piano performance and contemporary writing and production when the pandemic took hold.) On “Over Now,” he laments the end of a romantic relationship with keen self-awareness. “I try to smile through it,” Haye raps with an exhausted tone. “I don’t really like fast moving/I try not to commit, bro, I’m last to it.” Even the LP’s title — thought of randomly during a rehearsal — is meant to convey perseverance in dark times.

Haye, tall and skinny with long dreads and a boyish charm, peppers his conversation with affirmations like “facts” and “fire,” and speaks easily and expertly about a wide range of musicians — Beethoven and Bach, Kirk Franklin and Richard Smallwood. While growing up in Flatbush, he was exposed to all of this music by his mother, Adriane, who directed the youth choir at Emmanuel, and his father, Frank, who was the director of music there.

Haye’s earliest musical memories involve playing drums and piano at the church, when he was only 3 or 4 years old. Seeing his father in action in front of large congregations sparked a real interest in music. “I feel like it played an important role in how I see people present music and how you interact with people,” he said during a lunch interview. “The whole idea of just music being more than just notes and harmony. It’s serving a bigger purpose, whether it’s bringing someone out of a wack week or bringing them closer to God.”

At home, he said, there were “mad musical instruments everywhere,” which made being an artist seem like the coolest job ever. He absorbed Baroque music, Stevie Wonder and other Motown soul, as well as old-school rap. (His mother grew up in the Bronx at the beginning of hip-hop culture and used to rhyme under the name Micki Dee.)

Haye started thinking about blending genres during his freshman year at LaGuardia High School: His favorite rapper, Kendrick Lamar, merged rap and psychedelic jazz on his 2015 album “To Pimp a Butterfly,” and Glasper’s song “Portrait of an Angel” doubled as his alarm clock. “That really was the point where I was like, ‘I’m trying to do something very much like this,’” Haye said.

He formed a jazz fusion band and started playing around the city. He began rapping as a student at Berklee, tinkering with the conversational cadences heard on “More Better” while releasing music on SoundCloud. “I was like, ‘Oh, maybe we should just play this song with the band but put a trap groove over it,’” Haye recalled. “Slowly, it just started merging into what it is today.”

He met the Chicago-based multi-instrumentalist Luke Titus over social media at the start of lockdown in 2020 and started sharing audio files with him, which led to the collaborative album “Some Things Take Time,” released two years later. “The narrative was definitely about being patient during a time with so much uncertainty,” Titus said over the phone. “It was about not forcing things and allowing things to come when they come.” Those themes are also relayed on “More Better” in Haye’s singular voice.

“He draws from so much influence of being from New York,” Titus added, pointing to the city’s renowned jazz and rap scenes. “He might have all these jazz chops, but he’ll pick the simple melody and play what needs to be there in a very lyrical way.” He added, “He’s one of those rare guys who doesn’t overthink things too much.”

Haye noted that while his album was born of the pandemic, it’s rooted in a sense of uplift rather than resignation. “It’s just like seeing the clouds in the distance, like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “It’s being able to say, ‘Oh, I can make it as long as I have faith.’ Even if it’s not a spiritual faith, if it’s just faith that things will get better, it will work out.”

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