Acid jazz was never really a completely coherent genre. Instead it presented a grab bag of funky grooves from ‘60s and ‘70s soul jazz artists, spacey jams, hip-hop aesthetics, rapping and R&B-influenced “urban contemporary” vocals. The early experiments with combining rap and jazz or jazz and dance music suffered a bit from the fact that there was no real middle ground. Those who tried putting jazzy riffs over electronic dance beats had little real understanding of jazz music, and few “legit” jazz musicians were even attempting the mix. Nonetheless, Blue Note Records, true to the vision of its founder, Alfred Lion, embraced the idea from the start, opening their vaults to US3 in the early ‘90s, resulting in the seminal album Hand on the Torch. That album produced the hit “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)”, which was built around the catchy, funky piano riff and melody of Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island”. Even before the release of the US3 album, DJ Smash was on board, doing remix work for Greg Osby’s Mantalk album and working with Bob Belden’s projects. Over the course of the ‘90s, Smash did extensive remix work for Blue Note artists, and suddenly realized that he’d collected a profound catalog of music. He approached Blue Note about a remix album project, resulting in 2001’s Phonography. Now, Smash and Blue Note have again joined forces to release a second collection, Phonography 2.
Essentially, Phonography 2, like its predecessor, consists of a number of remixes of tracks by Blue Note artists. Each is created by a different remixer, (several by Smash himself), then blended together into a seamless mix. The result is a set of music that holds the listener’s interest yet is never brash or intrusive. The jazz vibe is what holds the whole thing together, despite the fact that the remixes are done in a variety of styles, including drum ‘n’ bass, techno, hip-hop, and house.
The set opens with Charlie Hunter’s “Street Sounds” on which Hunter group members Chris Lovejoy and Stephen Chopek play street-party percussion while Mos Def provides some rhythmic exhortations. This track demonstrates the overall approach that the remixers and Smash will take towards most of these tracks—low key, respectful, and unobtrusive. Next up is a smooth “Poetry in Motion”, from Greg Osby’s Black Book album. On Black Book, Osby worked on merging spoken word rap/poetry with jazz, and the results were generally pretty good. This track is mellow and expansive, the perfect track for a late evening vibe, as is the next track, Soulive’s (with guest Talib Kweli) “Bridge to Bama (Dub)”.
The organ-based groove-jazz of this band receives a pretty significant workover on this remix by Hi Tek, which concentrates on a hypnotic guitar loop punctuated by turntable scratching and some bubbling synthesizer accents and allows Kweli’s exhortations to become part of the sound environment rather than standing out as a separate entity. We are delivered smoothly into the opening Fender Rhodes chords of the Bob Belden Project’s version of Prince’s “Kiss”, remixed by DJ Smash. This is not a particularly exciting track, doing nothing to improve on the original while falling short of its funky-mellow-dance-meets-diva-vocals aspirations. It comes from Belden’s 1993’s When Doves Cry: The Music of Prince, and the world doesn’t need ersatz Prince now any more than it did back then.
But there are better times on the horizon. Erik Truffaz weighs in with “Magrouni”, remixed from his Mantis album by French rapper/remixer Imhotep. This track is amazing, though it brings back the comparisons of Truffaz to electric Miles Davis. The tempo and beat are reminiscent of Davis, as is Erik’s open trumpet sound and the wah-wah work that could have come straight from Davis’s Agharta period. Still, there’s no denying the charm and beauty of this track, which takes us into Blue Note’s international side, further represented by Argentinean artist Henri Salvador’s “Jazz Mediterranee.” If this track does nothing more than whet listeners’ appetites for Salvador’s fantastic Blue Note album Room With a View, it is a success.
Joe Clausell is part of a new group of dance mix artists who emphasize Latin, African, and jazz elements in dance music rather than the more straightforward 4/4 disco-influenced beat many American listeners are used to. He brings this sensibility to New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians the Wild Magnolias’ recording of “Battlefield,” which makes perfect sense, given New Orleans’ heavy African and Caribbean influence. We move elegantly into Marc Moulin’s “Step into the Dark,” full of house dance beat, percolating electric piano, and muted (once again, Miles-reminiscent) trumpet. The track is extremely reminiscent of St. Germain’s work on his Tourist album, which is probably why Smash follows it with “So Flute” from that very album. The tracks by Marc Moulin and St. Germain, as well as Goran Kajfes’ “Mesqualero”, receive little in the way of remixing, reflecting in part some new ideas Smash put into play on this second of the Phonography series. “This time around Smash’s idea was to include not only great new remixes of top Blue Note artists, but also original versions of tracks that have a foundation in the jazz meets electronica world. This genre, once given the misleading tag of ‘Acid Jazz’ is currently being referred to as ‘Nu Jazz,’” says Blue Note’s A&R Director Eli Wolf. Semantics aside (the sound has also been referred to as “jazztronica”, which is the name of an upcoming website and publication on the music and its historic predecessors, fusion and soul jazz), it is clear that the wedding of jazz with DJ culture, dance music, and the creation of electronic soundscapes has produced some of the most exciting recent music in either genre.
The trip continues with Bobby McFerrin’s mysterious “Pat & Joe” from his vocalese album Without Words, remixed by DJ Smash. A heavy dance base is laid down over which the ambient flow of sound, accented by Richard Bona’s haunting guitar work and McFerrin’s wordless vocals. Don Byron’s “Belmondo’s Lip”, a jazzy samba given a trippy, ambient remix by DJ Spooky, continues to caress the international vibe. By the time we hit Smash’s reworking of Medeski Martin & Wood’s “Uninvisible”, with its heavy use of DJ scratching and some spoken word loops, this mix will have propelled you into outer orbit with its clever mix of expansive world beats, jazz lounge sensibilities, and digital aesthetic.
On Phonography, Smash included a house remix of the Bob Belden Project’s version of “Come Together” featuring Dianne Reeves and Cassandra Wilson. That worked OK, given the somewhat flat nature of the original (found on Bob Belden Presents: Strawberry Fields), but the drum ‘n’ bass deconstruction by DJ Kingsize featured on Phonography 2 works even better, since it uses the vocals and other elements of the original primarily as flavoring for the fast, heavy dance rhythms of the remix. It’s a slight shock to the system after the more middle of the road grooves of previous tracks, but it’s a good listen and sets us up well for the album’s closer, Jason Moran’s solo piano version of “Planet Rock”. Given the historic importance of Afrikaa Bambataa’s original recording of “Planet Rock” to dance music and DJ culture, Moran’s version links the music nicely with the jazz tradition and presents a good closing track for this mix. Moran recorded the track using prepared piano, where various objects are inserted in between the piano’s strings to create a percussive sound as well as various tape loops to supplement his acoustic exploration of the track.
Back in 1970, Ralph J. Gleason wrote in his liner notes for Bitches Brew that “electric music is the music of this culture and in the breaking away (not the breaking down) from previously assumed forms a new kind of music is emerging.” That new kind of music has been emerging steadily since then, and recordings like Phonograhy Volume 2 present a marker of how far it has grown since then. I have no doubt that it will continue to grow and develop despite naysayers on both sides of the fence. It seems that jazz has found its latest musical traveling companion in the electronic sounds emerging from DJ culture, and that culture has found jazz and its relatives an excellent way to expand its sonic vocabulary and speak to an ever-widening circle of listeners. What’s wrong with that?