Phonography, compiled and mixed by DJ Smash, is a laid-back party mix for lazy afternoons and the quiet calm of late nights and early mornings. It consists of 14 remixes of songs from Blue Note artists, each done by a different remix artist, all put together in a straightforward fashion by Smash, a DJ who has worked with many of these artists over the years and who did a few of the remixes himself.
The artists included bridge the territory between mellow jazz, “positive” hip-hop, and R&B/funk; many of them already have a history of dipping in and out of these genres. The album begins with a collaboration between Guru and Medeski Martin & Wood, “Whatever Happened to Gus”. Sounding like more like an organic-sounding Guru track than an MMW space-funk jam, the track is brief, but effective at showing off Guru’s voice and message (“There’s no justice, there’s just us”) while paying tribute to the history of jazz via recorded samples of a jazz player reminiscing. From there the album flows through tracks by musicians who tread on the soulful side of contemporary jazz (Cassandra Wilson, Richard Elliot, Ronny Jordan), hip-hoppers (CL Smooth, Mos Def), those who combine the two genres (Greg Osby, Us3) and a handful of others (Salif Keita, St. Germain, Angelique Kidjo).
It’s an interesting batch of tracks—some are more appealing than others to my ears, depending in part on my general feelings about the artists involved. The highlight for me is “A Brighter Day”, by guitarist Ronny Jordan featuring hip-hop man-of-all-trades Mos Def. Though it’s remixed in a rather pedestrian manner by DJ Spinna, the song gorgeously melds Mos Def’s soulful singing and heartfelt rapping with the singing of Jordan’s guitar. The other hip-hop appearance, besides Guru’s and Mos Def’s, is from CL Smooth (formerly of the great duo Pete Rock and CL Smooth), who shows of his nimble rhyming skills on Greg Osby’s “Raise”, understatedly remixed by Ali Shaheed Muhhamad (of Lucy Pearl, A Tribe Called Quest).
The remixers overall seem to have taken a low-key, conservative approach to their tracks; little here sounds drastically different. As the album proceeds, it picks up more of a dance-club feel, though the vibe is still mellow. The last five tracks, starting with Todd Terry’s nice remix of the otherwise mundane “smooth jazz” track “So Special”, by Richard Elliot, pick up the pace and take Phonography onto the dance floor. That pick-up is definitely appreciated, and a few of these songs, especially Salif Keita’s energetic “Tolon Willie”, remixed by Joe Claussell, and St. Germain’s groove-based “Rose Rouge”, remixed by Blaze, are some of the album’s brightest spots.
Phonography is an entirely pleasant trip; even the tracks that don’t excite me much (like Cassandra Wilson & Dianne Reeves’ stiff cover of the Beatles’ “Come Together”, for one) still have an inherently friendly quality about them. It’s a grab-bag of musical styles, but fans of light jazz, soul, hip-hop, and mellow club music should all find something of interest. Nothing here is especially surprising or jaw-dropping, yet overall the album works to conjure up a relaxing mood while showing off the talents of a diverse group of musicians.