Once More, With a Pulse
When I first began learning to play saxophone, my teacher placed equal emphasis on listening. So, he introduced me to a cat named Bird. Through Bird, I discovered a host of other musicians with equally mysterious names: Monk, Diz, Lady Day, and so on. After a couple years, I noticed they had all recorded for the same label: Verve. Sure made CD shopping simple. Like stocking up on cooking essentials, Verve provided my first tools in preparing jazz.
A few years later, my teacher hipped me to another cat: Trane. Trane was certainly a whole different breed. Where Bird wafted, Trane collapsed. Where Bird cooed, Trane shrieked. Where Bird sighed, Trane suffocated. The ride was bumpy, but absolutely enthralling. Subsequently, Trane begat a new host of enigmas: Pharaoh, Archie, Sun Ra, and on and on. And, sure enough, I found that these brothers shared their own digs: Impulse! Where Verve gave me my first taste, Impulse! brought a heavy-handed refinement to my palette.
My story is undoubtedly familiar. Numerous other jazz enthusiasts have made the same journey because of the path’s chronology. Each label’s apogee corresponds with a different time in the progression of jazz music. Concert promoter Norman Granz created Verve in the ‘40s to collect name talent under one roof, lending the label a mainstream showcase quality. Nearly 20 years later, with jazz further diversifying, producer Creed Taylor dedicated the Impulse! imprint to “The New Wave” and subsequently highlighted works from the genre’s deepest explorers. Thus, the idea that each label can draw a listener further in seems understandable, almost to be expected.
This continuity appears to be explored as Verve makes the transition from the Verve Remixed series to the new Impulsive! Revolutionary Jazz Reworked. Where the former series interpreted the likes of Nina and the Cat for today’s advertising generation by coating each acetate with a glossy sheen and buffering each note with ProTools©, Impulsive! plays up the art-house sensibility of the Impulse! roster by emphasizing the producer-as-auteur. Instead of faceless house Mingus remixes, critically-lauded artists, such as RZA, Kid Koala, and SA-RA Creative Partners, fill a roster of talent from today who are spiritually in tune with yesterday’s jazztets. Greater freedom is given to the collaborators, as several interpretations either completely rework the original or are wholly original compositions (Ravi Coltrane and Julie Patton set music to a poem by his father). Thus, while Impulsive! bears similarities to its predecessor project in terms of form, its musical direction is appropriately different.
Fortunately, the leaders of Impulsive! present themselves as disciples rather than interpreters, thus maintaining a degree of creative integrity for both the remixer and remixed. RZA’s crack era grit hardly resembles the narcotic wild man blues of Mingus, but Prince Rahiem demonstrates the similarities in their swinging majesty by chopping “II B.S.” into percussive bits of bass pulls. Slouched over and breathing heavily, drool practically oozing off the lower lip, RZA’s “Bounce Mix” shifts restlessly at the Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting like a young buck rearing and kicking to be released from his master’s hold. Similarly, Chief Xcel’s make-it-simple sonic credo appears to stray from Archie Shepp’s hit-em-upside-the-head ‘70s outbursts, but the two find unity over a common subject that both have paid recorded tribute to, Attica. X collages choice bits of Shepp’s tense strings, exploding breaks, shirt-ripping vocals, and his own dirt-dawg tenor, finding common ground in fury and release.
The new style is hardly a complete middle finger to past values, holding reconciliation a generation’s arm’s length away. Kid Koala builds Yusef Lateef’s “Bamboo Flute Blues” back up from scratch (no pun intended), twiddling each instrument into a flittering mush of abstraction that searches endlessly for new sound, much like the original multi-instrumentalist. SA-RA captures the frenetic energy of George Russell’s NYC ode, “A Helluva Town”, by going to town with a Propellerheads-like take that grand theft auto races down B’Way while popping Bennies all the live long way. Telefon Tel-Aviv conducts and filters a completely new orchestral arrangement of Oliver Nelson’s classic “Stolen Moments”, wafting in mere hints of the original bridge, yet adhering always to its modernist beauty. Similarly, Ravi Coltrane keeps father in mind while playing for self on “At Night”, a kind posthumous tribute of sorts.
While this remixer-remixed integrity remains consistent throughout, Impulsive! slips when its collaborators fail to push their own boundaries. Mark de Clive-Lowe adds little more than a gentle bump to Chico Hamilton’s rolling “El Toro” while Gerardo Frisina loses track of Dizzy’s charming goof on “Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac” by beating it to Lincoln Mercury monotony. DJ Dolores boosts the percussive aspect of Chico O’Farrill and Clark Terry’s “Spanish Rice”, but unnecessarily works an otherwise cool track into a lather. However, in each of these missteps are otherwise decent productions, which maintains the overall quality of the compilation.
Certainly, the commercial aspect of this venture should not be lost amidst the praise. Considering that both Verve and Impulse! are part of the same company, the idea of revisiting the house catalog with the help of some younger friends seems, well, easy. However, Impulsive! deserves credit for making several notable pairings and rightly offering a degree of creative freedom (artists were also allowed to make their selections). Considering the critical weight surrounding many of Impulse!‘s efforts, each remixer wisely avoids recreating the form or accomplishments of their sampled subject. Instead, they opt for clever tributes to their creative godfathers (no ladies featured here, at least this time around). Should Impulse! choose to continue exploring its vaults, hopefully it is with continued or even greater verve and spirit.