Is there a worse name for a sub-genre of music than “nu jazz”? The answer, it turns out, is yes—now some folks have taken to calling the same thing “broken beat”, which I guess is supposed to imply that it’s a smarter, artier spinoff of breakbeat. What’s next? “Fractured beat”? “Broken jazz”? Can’t we all just stop coining dumb names for every new style of music that comes along and doesn’t fit neatly into some pre-existing category?
For a long time I was a stalwart defender of nu jazz, despite all the snickers its name would engender among my househead and beat-freak friends. Yes, some of the genre sounded suspiciously like smooth jazz doing an awkward white-man dance, as if Kenny G were trying to go hip-hop. But then there were artists like Jazzanova and the Rainer Truby Trio putting out stuff that was just so darn sexy and sophisticated, like the soundtrack to that fantasy apartment I still daydream about every time I manage to write a decent line of dialogue in my screenplay. You could dance to it if you felt like it, or you could just pretend you were leaning back on your black leather couch with an apple martini in your hand, gazing out your massive picture window over the lights of the city with a proprietary smirk. Try getting the grubby, ghetto-tinged sounds of house and breakbeat to make you feel like that.
Still, as I listen to the tracks on Om Records’ Departures, a “Global Expedition in Nu Jazz and Broken Beats”, I can’t help but notice that the genre is already starting to get tired. There’s a sameness to all of the tracks here that’s all the more remarkable considering that the artists featured on the disc represent seven different countries. This is the downside to the Internet revolution—now, artists can rip each other off globally, instead developing their own distinct regional sounds.
Some of the usual suspects are here, though none are in top form—Jazzanova weigh in with a nice but fairly forgettable samba-based number called “Coffee Talk”; much-hyped Bay Area producers aFRO-mYSTIK (whose DJ Fluid selected the tracks on this compilation) contribute an abstract broken beat meditation called “The Odyssey” that features a nice acoustic bass and not much else; and Richard Dorfmeister’s side project Tosca turns up with a dubbed-out, sleepy remix of the already sleepy “Honey”. Top artists rarely give away their best work for label compilations like this, especially when it’s not their label, but still, all these tracks, especially Tosca’s, count as big disappointments.
All is not tired on Departures, however—many of the people you’ve never heard of, or wouldn’t expect to find here, contribute some nice material. Italy’s Fragment Orchestra starts off the disc with some genuinely jazzy instrumentation on “The Muse”—a great, meditative tenor sax, some nice, slinky flute and guitar licks, and a bridge with some lovely chord changes. Rocket, a side project of the Wicked Crew’s DJ Garth and Eric James, serves up a sparse, shuffling track called “EZ Rider” that creates a unique vibe with a clever combination of edgy breakbeats, trippy synths and, yes, a Frampton-like talking guitar. Another guy better know for his house music, Nathan Haines, delivers another highlight with his partner Phil Asher and their entertainingly messy “Rainbow”, released under the name Phoojun. Basically just a collection of highly tweaked samples bouncing along atop an intricate breakbeat loop, “Rainbow” mutates at the halfway mark into something more like straight trip-hop, with a slower beat and even some scratching. It’s not an entirely successful grafting of styles, but at least it’s not yet another tinkly piano and breathy female vocal riding a choppy Afro-Brazilian beat.
The compilation’s coolest track comes from, of all places, Japan, though anyone familiar with the Pizzicato Five knows that the people who brought you the Walkman have a bigger groovy streak than most give them credit for. Hiroshi Kotegawa, a.k.a. Error 404, builds up his “Natural Things” from a fairly by-the-numbers broken beat and simple keyboard riff into the only song on Departures that actually gets funky, thanks to some very sophisticated beat manipulations and an old school electro-bass riff that’s straight out of Stevie Wonder’s jazzier late 70’s oeuvre. Even the track’s cheesy flute riffs and synth-string bridges somehow manage to work. Error 404 is one to watch.
Overall, however, there’s not really enough on Departures to win nu jazz and broken beat any new fans, though the genre’s faithful will probably find much to enjoy. Personally, however, I still can’t figure out how something based on three of the most vital musical genres in existence—jazz, breakbeat, and Latin/Brazilian—has managed to become so formulaic. Departures isn’t a bad listen as compilations go—but except for a few tracks, it’s not a departure at all, just more of the same.