Verve Becomes Eclectic
Verve returns with the third installment of its remix series, accompanied again by an “unmixed” companion piece of source material in original form. Once again, the nuggets mined are hardly the rarest of the bunch, suiting Verve Unmixed 3 at most for new jack beatminers and generally uninitiated jazz heads. Inversely, Unmixed 3 can also provide a lead-in for Remixed 3, or a cue for the old school to check in on the kids (although it is questionable how many older music fans would be picking up Unmixed 3, seeing how the majority of the tracks are widely available even on CD). However, Unmixed 3 perhaps works best in tandem with its other half. It completes the conversation of the remix: from here to there.
The presence of standards certainly establishes a high bar of expectation for Verve Remixed 3 [Note: reviewer has not reviewed Remixed 3]. However, the hits carry enough strength to hopefully transcend any doctoring. Nina Simone’s seminal “Little Girl Blue” shimmers and shivers; that this was her debut to many music fans 40 years ago, and perhaps again today only makes the recording that much more breathtaking. Another Nina nugget “Lilac Wine” displays her rapid maturation (recorded only one year after “Blue”), and contrasts excellently with the predecessor. Similarly, Holiday’s reading of “Speak Low” comes late in her career, but finds her sounding coy and cootastic, certainly the preferred mode of Billie for the mild-hearted. In spite of the relative lightness with which she approaches the Weill-Nash standard, she is still full of blue and vigor, creeping in and around the melody. “Yesterdays” finds Holiday draped in familiar burgundy velvet, and the Blues squeezing out of her clenched throat. Sarah Vaughn comes through on the Soul Sauce flavored serving of “Fever”, where she sings with sultry restraint, peaking at key points with a delicious delivery. She spreads her signature command and presence more on the rumbling “Peter Gunn”, where her steady crescendo culminates in a controlled and effective closer. While all three have found a renewed life through contemporary dance music, both in this series and elsewhere, the material presents a challenge of balancing a producer’s vision and capturing the essence of each artist’s performance.
Several selections present equally commanding artists, though are more sensible remix choices in terms of arrangement. Jimmy Smith’s (R.I.P.) uptempo boogaloo soul explodes with a big fat in sound. Smith rocks vocal verses then grunts his way through dizzying B-3 solos. Consistent crowd pleaser Astrud Gilberto chills the session out with a Sebesky-string swept rendition of the Bonfa classic, “Gentle Rain”, proving again why she continues to resonate with the downtempo set. Dinah Washington may seem an odd choice, but her “Baby Did You Hear Me” finds her swinging over a curiously looping bass, a track that bares the most apparent structural parallel with modern beat production. Oddly enough, the odd man out is the most traditionally sample-ready cut, or specifically the pumping break in Hugh Masekela’s “The Boy’s Doin’ It.” The period production values—echoed horns, keys, and Afro-Jazz fusion—push the song into an era apart from the post-bop school that dominates the comp. Though each of these cuts make ‘sense’, they nevertheless represent far corners of the jazz idiom, and a likewise exciting prospect for reinterpretation.
Fortunately, Unmixed 3 does share the spotlight with less-recognized but no less commendable singers. Anita O’Day proves why she deserves her daps by dancing lithely through “Sing, Sing, Sing”, taking an extraordinary thpin, er, spin through Goodman’s trademark solo bridge. The absolutely superb and underrated Blossom Dearie appropriately follows O’Day on a rendition of “Just One of Those Things.” Her airy voice whispers along with Ray Brown’s nimble accompaniment before opening to a more robust tone buttressed by Herb Ellis’ controlled strumming and Jo Jones’ beautiful shuffling. While both have received the reissue treatment in the last few years (and, encroaching their 80s, continue to perform), any new exposure will only help secure their well-deserved positions in music history.
The largest curiosity about the existence of this appendix is that it flies in the face of the code of conduct of Verve’s apparent target market: A DJ Don’t Give Away Their Secrets. By literally handing out a cheat sheet, part of the joy of beat digging is eliminated. Verve’s blatant promotion of its archives thus becomes doubly apparent. Which ultimately is not so bad because the comp can stand on its own merits. The litany of powerful performances found here are quite remarkable; Nina and Sarah not only make repeat appearances in this edition, they receive double takes even. Additionally, the label displays an improving sense of organization, presenting a cohesive mix to be enjoyed by any music enthusiast.
Ultimately, the subdued nature of the bulk of the selections demonstrates the project’s increasing interest in finding news ways to conceive beat music. Everything from Billie ballads to Anita swingers forms the foundation. In spite of occasional obvious choices, like the gentle latin lilt of Holiday’s “Speak Low” and Masekela’s b-“Boy’s”, the compilation sounds more at home pumping through the P.A. of uptown Lincoln Center than downtown Tonic. Which is exciting considering the eclectic cast of remixers this time around: from RJD2 to RSL; indie darlings Postal Service to undie upstart Lyrics Born; Junior Boys and Brazilian Girls; and even stalwarts like Carl Craig and Adam Freeland get their time to shine. While the remixes in the past have often been hit or miss in terms of final product, the source material alone hints at the fascinating explorations of remix possibilities and approaches. Although the strength of the originals could eclipse all followers, the goal is not to one-up a song; it is to see how one puts a new spin on it. Is Remixed/Unmixed thus a triumph of process over product? No, but it’s a triumph of the possibilities of process.