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Jazz You Can Dance To

Since 2002, the Verve label—which possesses a treasure trove of great jazz music—has commissioned a vast array of deejays to plunder its vast catalogue and to create new and different electronic dance tracks using the classic music of the past as source material. The Verve remixes have come out every year since to positive reviews. Now the label has compiled the first three releases, added a bonus disc with nine new remixes plus three multimedia computer tracks, and packaged the result as Complete Verve Remixed Deluxe Box. The title suggests this will be the end of the project—it is complete—which is unfortunate. The vast majority of the almost 50 extended tracks here successfully mesh modern club sounds with the glorious tunes from the past.


It’s a no brainer. Even a five-year-old with a Casio could remix Billie Holiday and make it appealing. The box contains not one, but four different Holiday songs: “Strange Fruit”, “Don’t Explain”, “Speak Low”, and “Yesterdays”. Holiday’s work on Verve is among her finest, and it’s impossible to make this Holiday sound bad, especially when cherry-picking the material. Her voice is in fine form here, although it’s hard to imagine anyone boogieing to Tricky’s remix of Holiday’s sad lament (“Strange Fruit”) about the lynching of black men in the American south. Tricky allows the song its inherent dignity by adding a slow, martial beat with lots of aural space between the vocal lines. The other Holiday tunes work better simply because the lyrics are more appropriate for the electronic dance genre, such as De-Phazz’s remix of “Don’t Explain” with its bouncy rhythms and soap operatic lyrics about love, bad behavior, and forgiveness.


The majority of tracks here, like most dance remixes, feature the sound of female divas. These aren’t just any ladies, but like Holiday, the most important women jazz singers of the post Second World War era such as Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughn, Anita O’Day, Astrud Gilberto, Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, and Shirley Horn. Simone is the source artist most utilized with 7 different songs selected, and that doesn’t count both versions of her exquisite cover of the old Scottish folk ballad “Sinnerman” as two separate entities because they are based on the same recording and mixed by the same person (Felix Da Housecat). In both instances Felix turns “Sinnerman” into a monster dance track that’s propulsive with heavy accents on the second and fourth beats, catchy melodic hooks, and mind-blowing vocals. Simone deftly enunciates the simple words about guilt and redemption in a questioning manner that lets one know the search for salvation never really ends.


Other highlights in this vein include Miguel Migs Petalpusher’s remix of Fitzgerald’s “Slap that Bass”, the Brazilian Girls’ remix of Blossom Dearie’s “Just One of Those Things”, RSL’s remix of O’Day’s “Sing, Sing, Sing”, and Adam Freeland’s remix of Vaughn’s “Fever”. “Fever” is especially noteworthy as Freeland turns Vaughn’s cool version of the Little Willie John classic into a driving, overheated workout. Freeland transforms Vaughn’s utterance of the title word into a percussion instrument through jump cut repetition (“Fever / Fever / Fever / Fever / Fever / Fever”). The result rocks the house.


The box also features about a dozen remixed, mostly instrumental, tracks originally recorded by such notables as Dizzy Gillespie, Archie Shepp, Jimmy Smith, Cal Tjader, Hugh Masakela, and Willie Bobo. The deejays mix the lead players in ways similar to how the deckmasters treat the vocalists. The deejays select and use key segments, add beats and effects, then stretch them out like taffy for the dance floor. Sometimes the results transcend the club, such as Mondo Grosso Next Wave’s treatment of Shepp’s “Ballad of George Jackson”, and Diplo’s take on Walter Wanderley’s “Popcorn”. While many of the cuts on the box would seem out of place on the radio, these tracks contain enough non-dance club elements to be found on adventurously programmed FM stations. The same is true for the quirkiest tune here, the Postal Service’s remix of Simone’s “Little Girl Blue”, in which the original vocalist is barely present. The Postal Service turns the song into an alt-indie rock winter Noel, replete with bells—good music to listen to while riding a sleigh.


The Complete Verve Remixed Deluxe Box is meant to introduce fans of classic jazz into the world of electronic dance, and vice versa. Both groups should find plenty to enjoy here, but dance fans will probably be more pleased than jazzbos as the end results really are techno tracks.

Rating:

Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.


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