If any one collective typifies both the essence and inexorable rise of the European nu-jazz sound it is Berlin’s Jazzanova. The surprisingly large sales of The Remixes 1997-2000 (200,000 copies worldwide) alerted a world outside the more eclectic clubs that something rather wonderful was stirring therein. Next to St. Germain’s Tourist, that lengthy and luscious set was the prime signal of the move from smoky basements to superior coffee-tables that is currently occurring in the once obscure field of “broken beats” and “jazz lounge”. Hence this “debut” album has been both eagerly anticipated and accompanied by more hype than this introspective genre has hitherto seen.
Nor do they disappoint. The range of sounds—lashings of neo-soul, a dash of hip-hop, plenty of post-acid jazz, and a “breakscape” built around subtle electronica—encompasses almost all the styles associated with the form. As an introductory work and as a tribute to one of the movement’s original pioneers, the aptly titled In Between could hardly be bettered. In terms of choice of material and contributing talents it is “State of the Art”. That includes some of nu-jazz’s less attractive features as well as its many positives, but more of that anon.
Gathered here to augment the efforts of the six-strong team (three DJs, three producers) are some of the more forward thinking talents from the artier wing of club culture. The new sound of Philadelphia is represented by the mercurial Vikter Duplaix, compulsory guest poet Ursula Rucker and two rappers, Hawkeye Fanatic and the very impressive Capital A, pitch in with respected keyboardist Hajime Yoshizawa. London stalwarts Valerie Etienne and Rob Gallagher are on hand, as is veteran vibes-man David Friedman. Add the sweet vocals of Clara Hill and a guest appearance by Micatone bassist Paul Kleber and the elite and multi-national status of the project is apparent. You know you are in premier division territory.
Each track showcases a different aspect of the Jazzanova aesthetic. “Love and You and I” is Latin lounge, sophisticated almost to the point of self-parody and boasting an exceptional solo from Friedman. Clara Hill brings to an already melodic “No Use” a charm and a breathiness that could produce the first broken-beat pop classic. The hip-hop track “The One Tet” has Capital A coming on like a jazzier Rakim, reminding you how effective a well-wrought rap can be. Three numbers old and the album has justified itself.
“Hanozino” follows, a complex instrumental and my favourite cut of all. This is quality 21st century jazz, great keyboard work, and an atmosphere that manages to be simultaneously ambient, exotic, futuristic, and funky. It is followed by the Etienne led “Mwela, Mwela” which is updated Brand New Heavies-ish and a confirmation of the new music’s acid/rare groove origins. Familiar, but just about fresh enough.
However, from this point a certain exhaustion sets in. The inventiveness and the adept touches continue to impress but I am less ecstatic about the second half of the set, even though it contains the invigorating club hit “Another New Day”. There is nothing particularly amiss with the tunes, just a certain sense of diminishing returns. Even Vikter Duplaix sounds pleasant rather than exciting. Everything is well executed and anyone who has not recently overdosed on nu-jazz will find plenty to appreciate. On the other hand, the lack of edge, introversion, and the moodiness that does dominate the form can begin to either bore or even irritate.
Maybe it is just over-exposure. Ursula Rucker I have had enough of, although “Keep Falling” is no better or worse than any of the multitude of nu-jazz spoken pieces she has been involved with in the last three years. Similarly, the synth squeaks and the broken beats behind Duplaix no longer seem as captivating as they once did and you almost long for a more conventional arrangement. Don’t get me wrong, the closing numbers knock spots of most contemporary pop music and “Takes You Back” and “Wasted Time” are undoubtedly beautiful songs. In fact, taken singly the standard can be seen to have been maintained. It is perhaps only the sequencing or lack of the odd firing tempo which is at fault.
Jazzanova are major figures, and I am glad this album will reach a new audience. The rather glum, morose side to the outfit is something I’ll just have to accommodate (Jazzanova do rather look like Rainer Fassbinder’s film crew so what would one expect them to sound like?). Even if it is not the total masterpiece that it has been trumpeted as, it still contains more imagination, subtlety, and sheer musical ability than any half-dozen competing deep or jazzy compilations.
As such, In Between should be on your shopping list, whether you are already in to what has been a gratifying (and genuine) underground success story or simply want to find out what all the fuss is about. As the Superclubs collapse and mainstream music plumbs new levels of banality daily, Jazzanova may just be in the right place for reaping the rewards their integrity and diversity have fully merited. Initially, the group were marketed under the banner “Future Jazz”. That future may now have arrived.