[9 February 2009]
After years of being outdone by an Anglophone hegemony on repackaging black music and selling it back to America, the interpretive stock of the Eurozone has ascended almost as fast as its currency. Rather than reconfiguring blues, the French, the Germans, and the Scandinavians have cornered the market in refracting the urban jazz of post-war New York through the electro gauze of Chicago and Detroit (not that surprising when you consider that jazz was always taken more seriously in continental Europe than it was in Britain). And Drum Lesson, Vol.1 is quite possibly the pinnacle of that legacy, the freshest, wittiest, and most creative reply yet to the 21st century dancefloor’s debt to jazz.
As a nu-jazz pioneer with Trüby Trio, and a mainstay of Munich-based lynchpin, Sonar Kollektiv, producer/arranger Christian Prommer has been putting the swing into the silicon chip for years. Here, though, armed with the immensely talented quartet of pianist Roberto Di Gioia, bassist Dietr Ilg, percussionist/film composer Ernst Ströer and veteran drummer Wolfgang Haffner, he unplugs wholeheartedly for what, on paper, initially appears as outlandish as it does inspired: acoustic jazz treatments of house and techno touchstones, from Kraftwerk to Mr Fingers, Josh Wink via Louie Vega. In reality, it’s not all that ridiculous; the tribal throb of Africa cuts as deeply into jazz as it does into an acid-house era milestone like Can You Feel It , and the genius of this project is in simply making that link more or less obvious.
The Mr Fingers classic is actually one of the less recognizable covers but also one of the most stylish and insidious, more drawing room than warehouse; in place of the original’s synthethic whomp is mahogany-lustre bass and coal-glow shuffle, the chiselled dynamics of right hand and left hand piano beautifully understated and the shifting sonorities of it all as clear as a bell. Could you actually dance to it? Absolutely. Could you flap around to it like you’d just ingested something illegal? Probably not. Yet Prommer and his band—in the warmth and propulsion of the sound—manage to capture both the positivity and sense of possibility of the early house scene, and at the same time the fluidity and excitement of vintage acoustic jazz. And yes, if you’re wondering, “Trans Europa Express” is a blast, more North Sea Jazz than Bronx-sci-fi, but brilliantly done, full of warmth, humour and Teutonic savvy, and it shares plenty with Afrika Bambaataa—in the thrilling, hypnotic-hairpin rattle of its bongos, if not its well manicured piano, carrying all the strangeness of a melody you’ve so often heard looming out of a primitive sampler.
“Higher State of Consciousness” is at the opposite end of the spectrum; like the original, it peaks and troughs, driven by an evil-sounding bass piano, plucking out the melody with a spiky, flattened, impish glee on. Jay Dee’s “Plastic Dreams” is all tiptoes and tension, a wiry showcase for the talents at Prommer’s fingertips. Easier, presumably, to envisage, are jazz treatments of Derrick May’s “Strings of Life” and NuYorican Soul’s “Nervous Track”. Both offer themselves up freely. May’s holy grail of Detroit Techno, starting point for the whole project and already a huge club hit in its Prommer reincarnation, is a joy, a homage too agile and ecstatic to be slavish. You can almost imagine that May conceived it knowing that one day there would be a jazz cover. Louie Vega’s Latin-jazz mascot, by contrast, works itself up into a veritable El Niño of cross-currents.
As for the original material, the various permutations of the title track are proof that Prommer’s vision isn’t confined to reinventing the past, and “Claire” (compiled on last year’s Sonar Kollektiv concept, Beats, Bites & Öxle) especially, proffers fathoms-deep dancefloor jazz charted on cello and viola. What’s perhaps most remarkable about Drum Lesson, Vol.1, is how elegantly, unwaveringly pristine it sounds without ever being clinical, for once a genuine triumph of DJ booth precision applied to the studio, and maybe just a little bit of Vorsprung Durch Technik. More than that, it offers provocative pointers for the supposedly moribund genre of acoustic jazz, from less than likely quarters—another example of music going back to go forwards. Even if you’re the kind of person whose eyes glaze over at the mere mention of the words “nu”, “jazz”, and especially “DJ”, be assured that this is one lesson well worth turning up for.