Was it the success of Zero 7? Maybe it’s the increasing impact of Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide radio show or the après-club marketability of Lounge and various downtempo styles. Perhaps it is simply the proliferation of Cafe Bar culture as a feature of urban life (its well-heeled part, that is). Whatever the reason, various dance-jazz acts (from Jazzanova to the Cinematic Orchestra) have suddenly found themselves plucked from the review pages of Straight No Chaser and plonked down somewhere that distressingly resembles centre-stage.
A year or so ago NuSpirit Helsinki meant little outside one relatively self-contained subculture. Variously termed “West London” “nu-jazz” and “broken beats”, it positioned itself as a dedicated if somewhat solemn adherent to the acid jazz ethos, a repository of the diverse and different, as all around it the beats got “faster, harder, louder”. Now, along with other proponents of the new hybridity, NuSpirit’s eclectic mix of neo-soul, jazz and mellow electronica can be heard everywhere. This sophisticated music has become the staple soundtrack of upmarket boutiques and bars and the more self-consciously stylish radio stations.
Good, is my main reaction. It is encouraging that, for once, the pioneers and not some watered down, commercial substitutes are themselves reaping the rewards. In fact if I were to take one act that typified the whole nu-jazz/PoMo-dance tendency, it would probably by this Scandinavian outfit. Everything about them resonates with the qualities the genre has foregrounded.
Firstly there is the geographical location. No longer are we given to even the slightest eyebrow-twitch when told that the cool sounds we are enjoying emanate from Paris, Athens, Berlin, Vienna, or Zagreb (not to mention Toronto or Nottingham). Each of those “centres” (or should that be margins—my post-colonial theory is somewhat rusty) has become associated with similar projects to the one these fifteen gifted Helsinkians have put together.
In fact, the last sentence is not strictly accurate. Though Helsinki based, some of the contributors come from far and wide to that capital. Nicole Willis hails from Brooklyn, and spoken word artist (you have to have a spoken word artist—usually Ursula Rucker) Chuck Perkins is from Chicago. This is important, for the link with black America is as essential to the nu-jazz as it was to their old jazz forebears. One more American-based artist also appears, the ubiquitous and never disappointing Lisa Shaw. That will keep the deep house fraternity happy as she is the unofficial “Voice” of Naked Music and other much-loved West Coast ventures.
The rest of the collective are, I think, all Finnish. But the Euro-African-American mix extends beyond the mere accident of birth. This is multi-cultural and not just multi-genre music. If you want an alternative view of present-day Europe to the one given by Le Pen, Haider, and the whole xenophobic “economic migrants” debate, then NuSpirit and their ilk might provide it. Not that this is at all a “political” record, but with race and national boundaries once more on certain murkier agendas such diversity and mutual exchange does no harm at all.
On to the actual ingredients. If you are at all familiar with Compost, Ubiquity, and Guidance itself, then little explication is needed. Mid and down tempo grooves, mute trumpets, lots of jazz flavours, acoustic bass patterns, melodic soft-soul vocals, dubby, digital beats, and lush orchestral arrangements. Rather sober and unsmiling (the genre’s main failing) but more varied than the norm, NuSpirit can lay claim to a lyricism that lightens even the darkest of tracks. The production values are superb, with sampled and live elements impossible to separate and the balance of jazz-inflected playing and DJ/producer input just about perfect.
As to the individual tunes, Soul fans should head first to the opening track which has a very Maysa Leake/Incognito air to it and is probably the best single thing Nicole Willis has yet delivered. Willis, who appears to divide her time between Barcelona and Helsinki, has done exploratory and intriguing work with Jimi Tenor and Maurice Fulton but the poised neo-soul of “Honest” should finally bring her to the attention of the wide audience she deserves.
Female vocalists have a high profile within Spirit’s tasteful aesthetic. Lisa Shaw brings her unique, folk-soul tonal purity to “Trying”. Classic broken-beats shuffler and the first single, I can’t wait for the inevitable re-mixes. Ona Kamu is the “resident” singer and, though a little mannered, does pretty well—particularly on an atmospheric collaboration with Perkins (“I Wonder/2.14”). This mini-playlet is all black coffee, blue cigarette smoke, and jazz clubs and segues neatly into the “Lush Life” meets Braziliana of “Montado Roja”, easily the most jazz-danceable of any of the pieces. Noteworthy sax and flugelhorns, such conventional instruments have a major role on this album. Old school die-hards will have a problem dismissing this set as mere sampled electronica (which, of course, it is not).
Some tracks are a little too ambient, in that pristine but insubstantial way that currently proliferates. The precision and clarity of the arrangements over-rides any real objection though. Even my least favourite aspect of downtempo deepness, the obligatory quasi-dub-reggae number is a pleasant surprise. “Hard Like a Rock” is eerily tender and Daddy Ous’ singing authentic and emotive. Of the clutch of instrumentals, “Subzero” is destined for any number of the better Cafe Del Mar type compilations while the throwaway title “String Interlude” rather conceals the fact that the said item is just about the pick of a very good crop. It sounds like The Love Unlimited Orchestra re-cast for the post-Ecstasy generation. Warm and completely seductive.
Actually, nothing on the album rings false or somehow lets the standard slip. NuSpirit Helsinki thus take their place comfortably alongside names such as Koop, Rainer Truby, Jazzanova, 4 Hero, and Minus 8. Melodically they are more interesting (if a shade more delicate) than any of their contemporaries. The relaxation factor is high, but one or two numbers kick somewhat harder than the exquisite production initially suggests.
Very 21st century, not at all cloying but easy on the ear and subtle as you could wish for, this debut might well become nu-jazz’ flagship album. A potential archetype for the genre that crosses many genres and a highlight among this summer’s releases, it also restores Guidance, a label that has been rather quiet of late, to the forefront of creative “dance-based” music. Even if the lounge bubble bursts or collapses under the weight of its own coziness, NuSpirit Helsinki will undoubtedly survive. Tuomas Kallio, DJ Ender, Kim Rantalla, and the rest of the players have put together a striking testimony to the new interdisciplinarity, but more importantly they have, by any reasonable yardstick, made some marvelous and, I suspect, timeless music.