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Jazzanova

Of All the Things

(Verve; US: 21 Oct 2008; UK: 27 Oct 2008)

Of all the things Jazzanova could have done for a sophomore effort in the seven interminable years since their electro-jazz landmark In Between, they’ve recorded a soul record. How about that. Granted, these six German producers have been cutting their teeth on soul music and its offshoots with a baker’s dozen of tasteful mixes, so the direction they’ve taken on their newest batch of own-productions isn’t completely surprising. And yet, Of All the Things doesn’t seem at first blush like the whiz-bang showstopper that people were prepared for. That’s because In Between was borderline-perfect, a cosmic trip through some of the classiest electronic jazz ever committed to disc, and likeminded musicians followed in Jazzanova’s footsteps as if they were the pied piper. But it’s also because—and this is the key distinction between the two records—In Between pointed the way to the future of electronic listening music, while Of All the Things concerns itself almost solely with the past. Jazzanova are, in fact, in love with the past, and as we well know, love can shoot people’s attention and commitment up to stratospheric levels. And it’s this commitment to both their craft and doing right by their forebears that sneakily makes this record their second resounding success in a row….


Of all the eras in the history of soul music they could have catapulted us into—‘60s Motown, early-‘80s garage, ‘70s quiet storm R&B—they’ve chosen all of them. Jazzanova play kickball with decade-divided genres as though the lines between them simply didn’t exist, seamlessly moving from hip-hop to funk to quiet storm to MOR urban jazz, all going back in a direct line to Sam Cooke and the Isley Brothers. If Of All the Things is the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s rolled into one, the production positively effulges with the vitality of the 21st century. What could have been a dusty old time capsule is instead a celebration of the music that has guided us to where we find ourselves now.


Of all the elements they could have squelched this time around, they’ve decided to downplay the beatwork. It’s a risky move, considering that complex rhythms were their debut’s featured attraction, and one listen to the drums on “L.O.V.E. and You & I”, “Soon” and “Another New Day” from In Between is enough to cause temporary paralysis. But if Jazzanova had to 86 the maddening beatwork in order to give the more melodic components the floor, so be it. Of All the Things is a rich, bafflingly mellifluous listen, the lines of instrumentation mixed so perfectly that you’ll wonder if there’s an electronic producer’s hall of fame that Jazzanova could be inducted into somewhere. To use “What Do You Want?” as an exemplar, pay attention to how a slippery, Ndegeocello-esque bass underpins the song and tilts it onto a slant, and how the least cheesy violins in the history of nu-jazz provide beautifully conceived accents and counterpoints to singer Joe Dukie’s primary melody. There are about 15 different things going on in “What Do You Want?”, and every single one of them complements something else and contributes to the success of the final product. So, sorry; there just isn’t any room for In Between‘s beat bonanza around these parts.


Of all the singers and collaborators they could have chosen to work with, they’ve selected those who align with the songs based on feel alone, regardless of star power or even artistic merit. No will.i.ams, Kanye Wests or Beyoncés; instead, Jazzanova have mined a wealth of diverse, largely underground musicians to bring their concept to fruition. Phonte of the Foreign Exchange lends his pipes to both “Look What You’re Doin’ to Me” (as a singer) and “So Far from Home” (as a rapper); he’s not the most acrobatic of vocalists, but he understands what the songs require of him and fits inside the music like a hand into a glove. Thief’s Sascha Gottschalk, with his earthy tenor, couldn’t have been a better choice for the jaunty violin piece “Lie” that plays—at least instrumentally—like an alternate version of “Eleanor Rigby”. Newcomer Paul Randolph takes the prize with the two best cuts here, lending his dexterous, rangy croon to the feel-good funk party “Let Me Show Ya” and the exploded elevator bossa of “Lucky Girl”. And while “Rockin’ You Eternally”, featuring Dwele and vintage Motown singer Leon Ware, isn’t the most stunning moment on the disc, it’s possibly the sweetest: Ware and Dwele perform a call-and-response duet over the music that one pioneered and the other salvaged—old and new, past and present, walking side-by-side.


Of all the ideals Jazzanova could have striven for on their first album since the Paleozoic era (2001), they aimed and shot at…economy. Hardly the hour-plus opus that In Between was, Of All the Things packs a mind-boggling array of ideas into its 12 brief, wholly digestible songs. Not since Stereolab’s Emperor Tomato Ketchup in 1996 has a pop record thrown so much at the wall while sounding so divinely simple. How strange that Jazzanova’s latest appears so underwhelming on paper: a retro soul album of modest length, without complicated rhythms, big stars, or signposts that point to where electronica is ultimately headed. But the highlights (and there are many) don’t lie: this is an excellent record, one that’s beaten the odds and flipped our expectations, and it sounds—of all things—absolutely triumphant.

Rating:

Mike has been a staff writer at PopMatters since 2009. He began writing music reviews for his college paper in 2005, where he cut his teeth as an arts editor and weekly columnist. He graduated from Vassar in 2008 and is pursuing a doctoral degree in clinical psychology. He is currently writing his dissertation on the role of rejection sensitivity in online infidelity, and lives with his incredible girlfriend in a wonderful shoebox apartment in Washington, DC.


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