Gilles Peterson epitomizes the ideal of DJ as tastemaker, bringing a cerebral edge to a markedly hedonistic impulse. Peterson currently produces his own BBC Radio show (broadcast in fifteen countries, as well as online), yet it’s fair to say that he continues to play the margins… something he’s done consistently since broadcasting a pirate radio show from his own back yard at the age of 15.
For some 20 years now, Peterson has skirted the fringes of the more populist dance centers. Few have invested as much spirit, passion and commitment into jazz, funk, and soul-inflected dance music as he has. If your “Dream Club” line-up includes the likes of Larry Levan, Marshall Jefferson, Sasha, and Paul Oakenfold out on the main dance floor, then you’re likely to have Gilles Peterson and James Lavelle tucked away in a dimly-lit back room, where soul boys go hang and play and the essence is as much of smoke as of powdered euphoria. In a long music history, Peterson not only coined the original phrase “Acid Jazz,” but named his first record label after it. Later, feeling the label had been co-opted, both as a descriptive and as a genre, he lifted sticks and set-up Talkin’ Loud Records—soon responsible for such important acts as The Young Disciples, Nu Yorican Soul, Roni Size, and 4Hero.
Peterson’s newest project is a two disc exploration of Brazilian sounds, released on Ether Records. The first disc examines the more traditional sounds of the country, while the second disc looks at more recent and progressive recordings. It’s a collection that encourages debate between those who admire Peterson’s vast music knowledge, and numerous critics who see him as an arch, pious “trainspotter;” or, on the one hand, those who see him as a genius musicologist, and on the other those who feel condescended to by a purist music snob.
The more honorable aspiration behind this collection would be the attempt to introduce less familiar Brazilian standards to a wider audience, and also to offer context for the latter music by way of earlier tunes, both classic and esoteric. Not that this release lays claim to being a definitive sampling of Brazilian music, by any means. Still, Peterson sets out to take in the fuller picture, tossing in a willfully obscure or eccentric choice along the way—and this is what’s been known to get him in trouble. While to some it represents a thrilling erudition, others tend to see in it something just a little bit too precious. Personally, I see the latter as a necessary adjunct to the former. When you spend all your days mining for gold, it’s useful if even the less exotic minerals are able to captivate, between stretches hitting pay-dirt.
Disc one, “Classico”, reminds me that traditional Brazilian pop music is possibly the world’s least offensive music. In this sense, perhaps, it’s a natural precursor to latter day lounge music, the very intent of which is to soothe gently without irritation. Ironically, so prevalent and wildly unimaginative did lounge music become over the last few years that the very idea of “lounge music” has become an incredible irritant. But there you go.
So “Classico” proceeds harmlessly enough, although much of it seems not so much to hint at the ‘60s and ‘70s (decades from which many of these selections emerged), but rather represents a veritable time-capsule from that era… all high treble and jangly guitars.
Disc two, “Da Hora”, is infinitely more compelling, however, and much more likely to infuse a Copacabana spirit—no matter which beach town or urban enclave you come from. “Da Hora” opens with “Mandingueira” (BiD), serving as a bridge between the classic and contemporary. Yet the album begins proper with a discerning and discernable club track, “Bob” (Otto, featuring Bebel Gilberto); from there it moves briskly on through a wide-ranging and glorious tropical palate. “Escravos de Jo” (Joaquin Claussell and Kerri Chandler—Robust Horns Mix) is a joyous parade of jazz juice and percussion, precisely what you would hope and expect to find here. It is reminiscent to me of a time when English soccer commentator Barry Davies, reporting on the genius of Brazilian star Socrates, described a particularly artful goal as “encapsulating the whole philosophy of Brazilian football”. The pun was shameless, yet only too accurate. Now, substitute “music” for “football” and you get the idea.
Later, “Moments of Lust” (from DJ Marky, featuring Victor Duplaix) suggests PM Dawn laid down over drum ‘n’ bass, twilight on some distant Pacific Coast; Drumagick’s “Malandragem” invokes theme music that might have belonged to James Bond, were he conceived of South American descent. It’s all pretty stuff, evocative and intoxicating. And whether you eventually get equal wear from both discs one and two soon becomes a mute point. You have the option, which is better than not to have it.
Furthermore, in Gilles Peterson I believe you do have a guide possessed of integrity. In this aspect, it seems significant to me that Peterson chooses here not to mix each individual track into the next. Flashier, more self-conscious DJ’s might have felt the need to strut their stuff, conceive of complex transitions, forcing them where necessary. Peterson enables the tracks to breathe by themselves, as needed: his choice. It’s a subtle choice, but also one which suggests the music at the service of the DJ and not the other way around. So for me, yes, I’m prepared to forgive a certain recognizable self-indulgence. Gilles Peterson may be a bit cooler-than thou, hipper than all of us—but you only have to look at his record to see that it’s earned.