[1 June 2003]
I suppose that Jean Michel Jarre has had as much to do with the development of electronic ambient music and the chill out aesthetic as anyone. Though he was preceded by German techsters Tangerine Dream, the Frenchman’s synthesized symphony Oxygene and its follow-up, Equinoxe, were commercially successful in a way that no other electronic music had been up until that point. Along with Vangelis, Jarre defined what the world would think of as electronic music during the ‘70s plus influenced both the synthesizer-driven pop music of the ‘80s and the dreamy, New Age soundscapes that followed. Ultimately, though, much of Jarre’s legacy has been over-romanticized music that served as the soundtrack for spectacle as he gave concerts in Moscow and Paris that were increasingly happenings and media events accompanied by grand sets and enormous light shows. Given this, one can hardly be blamed for feeling that Jarre’s true progeny is Yanni rather than the likes of the Orb or Biosphere.
Now Jarre is back with Sessions 2000 (not given a U.S. release until early 2003, apparently for legal reasons). He has definitely recognized that electronic music in general, and ambient in particular, have moved on since his original groundbreaking albums. Jarre acknowledges and offers his take on the loops, grooves, and jazz-hop feel of ambient electronica. Though still using layers of synthesized sound, he now offers sounds and samples that create a jazzy, nightclub feel, including Hammond B-3 organ, acoustic piano, vibraphone, and stand-up bass. The effect is sometimes a little like a spaced-out, washed out jazzbo trio or quartet jamming for an audience of nodding heroin users, particularly when coupled with annoying robot voices, as on “September 14” (the tracks are identified only by the dates they were recorded. On other tracks, though, like “March 23”, he creates a kind of trip-hop atmosphere over which he sends an ersatz Herb Alpert-induced trumpet solo accompanied by synthesized strings and sound washes. The sound is an attractive one, and it’s easy to hear this being played at a late night chill out room or in a meditative Pan-Japanese restaurant environment. It’s even more interesting when a sampled acoustic slide guitar enters at five and a half minutes into the track. This is certainly not the type of earthy, organic sound palette one associates with Jarre’s most famous work.
Jarre’s work also influenced the development of a French contingent that is characterized by the electro-pop duo Air. Though Jarre has never produced anything so outrightly pop-oriented as the work of Jean-Benoit Dunckel and Nicolas Godin, it’s hard to imagine them coming up with their music without Jarre having existed. Like Air, Jarre himself places much more emphasis on his layers of instrumentally generated sound than on beats or samples. In the end, they each manage to create a unique sonic universe which, while based on elements of other periods and styles, never really places itself firmly in any one genre.
Ultimately, Sessions 2000 is probably most interesting as environmental music (which is what ambient was supposed to be, anyway, though Jarre probably never thought of his work as particularly “ambient”) or as a journal of a year spent in the studio experimenting with a variety of new sounds and atmospheres. Either way, it stands up to some of the work being released today by a variety of newer artists, and that certainly says something for Jarre’s astute sense of observation as well as his overall staying power in a scene he helped create. Given the many flavors of ambient out there today, I can’t say this is an essential album in the genre or that it will likely influence a large number of other musicians. But I do find myself returning to it periodically and finding it an enjoyable and highly listenable experience.