Various Artists: Nu Jazz Essentials

[17 April 2003]

By Marshall Bowden

Nu Jazz Essentials is a two-CD set comprised of two different albums. The first is Mr. Gone’s album Fresh Out of the Box, while the second is CollectionA, a collection of remixes under the nom-de CD of Trumethod Collectiv, which is Mr. Gone and Blackgold. Artists whose work appears on the collection includes the Truby Trio, Aim, Mr. Gone, and the Black Science Orchestra.

Mr. Gone is none other than bassist/keyboardist/DJ Simon T. Bramley, a Leicester native who has been playing jazz/funk for many years, currently holding down the bass chair for the group Afro Elements. Bramley’s influences include George Duke, Herbie Hancock, Jeff Lorber, Earth Wind & Fire, and, judging from his chosen recording name, Weather Report. Live, Bramley utilizes a full 10-piece band to create a full jazz/fusion/dance band, but in the studio the work is done by Bramley with a small group of guests, including keyboardist/sampler Neil Hunter, keyboardist Neil Burditt, reedman Jamie M. Harris, and percussionist Robin Jones. To this group additional flavorings are occasionally added, bringing a variety of sounds to this dance-based music. The resulting sound is very clearly dance/techno music, but retains a nice mix of fusion, funk, and Brazilian elements that provides a pleasant listening, as well as dancing, experience. It’s much easier to imagine this band reproducing their work live than St. Germain or other such groups, because while those bands rely heavily on their sampled elements to create interest, Mr. Gone is able to include real musicians playing real music that can be translated to a live performance.

That’s not to say that Mr. Gone is the perfect solution to the marriage of jazz/fusion elements with dance music. Bramley is too married to the dance beat to allow much subtlety to creep into the music, and the result is that, for all the different grooves and colorful elements splashed into the mix, the final product lacks a real sense of risk or adventure. Take the opener, “Fusao”. It begins pleasantly enough, with a bass-drum heavy beat that is punctuated by congas and a solid bass riff, but the energy is largely dissipated when the overly-mellowed out keyboards arrive, together with some horribly repetitive keyboard noodling by Neil Hunter. You’ve already heard all the elements that make up the track halfway through, and none of them are really compelling enough to want to hear again.

Better is “Equation: Boogie” which features Bramley on bass and keyboards as well as a marimba solo by Leni J. Unta. The track is somewhat marred by Harris’ clichéd sax lines which remind one instantly of hundreds of smooth jazz tracks. The energy isn’t subverted on this number, though, so it manages to hold the listener’s interest. “Mosquito Coast 2000” is presumably a new take on a previously recorded number, and it satisfies heartily, with a fierce Brazilian beat and some solid acoustic piano work from Hunter.

Unlike other jazz/techno producers, Bramley doesn’t do much to manipulate his beats, instead setting them up and then combining elements over them until a number’s conclusion. This can be both a blessing and a curse, as most of the overlaid elements, while pleasant to the ear and well done, are simply not interesting enough to carry the production. In addition, his sounds and melodies often stray perilously close to smooth jazz territory, as on the insufferable title track, complete with Dave Koz/Candy Dulfer sax work. Of course, for listeners who enjoy smooth or light jazz, this will likely prove a winning combination, particularly when combined with a dance beat. For listeners who are fans of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s fusion of Herbie Hancock and Weather Report or folks who have been beguiled by the combination of free jazz and electronica on some of Matthew Shipp’s Blue Series recordings, Fresh Out of the Box will be a terrific disappointment. I certainly cannot say that Bramley and his bandmates have nothing to offer—they are obviously accomplished musicians and there are times when perhaps one might find Fresh Out of the Box perfect music, but that time is not when one is looking for anything that involves risk or stretches boundaries.

CollectionA offers the chance to hear music other than that of Bramley, though he figures heavily in the remixing of these pieces. The album begins with a version of “Fusao” remixed by the Truby Trio that demonstrates very well that the driving dance rhythms Bramley sets up are much more fascinating than the elements he lays over them. The remix focuses on the drum and percussion mix as well as the excellent bass line, and then explores the percussive elements of the electric piano and keyboard parts. Overall, this version of the number brings out the energetic elements of Bramley’s song while discarding the more clichéd elements that marred the piece on Fresh Out of the Box. Unfortunately, from there things begin to lose steam and the problems mirror those of Mr. Gone to an annoying extent.

The guitar loop that forms the central theme of “Chocolat” is hardly enough to hold one’s interest for more than a moment, and the encroaching smooth vocal harmonies should send anyone running for cover. Even a decent organ solo arrives too late to really save this track. Overall, there’s a numbing sense of sameness that arises, choking off anything different or truly compelling, perhaps in large part due to Bramley’s heavy contribution to both the raw material and remixing on this compilation. It’s rather like listening to music that has been put on autopilot. I realize that this is largely meant to be dance music, particularly in the remix setting, but even dance music needs some element of interest to remain truly compelling. Again, those who like primarily smooth and pleasing sounds will probably like this if they are seeking something with a dance beat to it, others will be profoundly disappointed.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/various-nujazzessentials/