Jazzanova: Upside Down

Upside Down
Sonar Kollektiv

The last full-length album from celebrated Teutonic collective Jazzanova, Of All the Things, garnered a surprisingly mixed reception. Although several reviewers and I heaped praise upon it back in 2008 when it was released, other critics, as well as my own friends and acquaintances, seemed to turn up their noses at it. It was a hard swerve left for Jazzanova, to be sure—a straight pop-soul album, electronic in name only, which provided a platform for little-known vocalists like Ben Westbeech and Paul Randolph to get noticed. I thought the record represented a lot more than that, but consider that it was only their second studio album, arriving six sluggish years after their debut, In Between, set the bar for jazz-influenced electronica. Fans wanted insane beat chemistry and jazz chords welded to perfection, and they got something else; some, obviously, were bound to be turned off.

Those listeners are going to be mighty happy with Upside Down, Jazzanova’s first remix album since that time. Upside Down collects various remixes that artists have done for the Berlin-based sextet, usually on limited-edition vinyl, and puts them in one convenient place. They are prime slabs of groove-oriented electronic music from Europe’s top tier of musicians, including Âme, Mr. Scruff, Motor City Drum Ensemble and Atjazz, who have found inspired ways to rework the material in their own style while living up to Jazzanova’s high standard of quality. Wherever you stand on Of All the Things, that polarizing record makes up 70 percent of the base material on Upside Down, and there is little denying that they provide excellent groundwork on which the featured artists can work their magic.

Two of the best songs are actually from Jazzanova themselves: group member Alex Barck’s house interpretation of “Little Bird”, and the blissfully choppy remix of “Lucky Girl” that Barck and reserve Jazzanova member Stefan Ulrich create as Neve Naive. The former track is a restrained yet oddly exultant club-worthy number, showing off its chiseled European cool before sneakily becoming a Chicago-house wiggle that would make the great Boo Williams proud. The latter slices and dices “Lucky Girl” until it’s all but unrecognizable from the original, and far funkier in its own unique way. The first half works in shots and slivers, with guitar snaps, drums, keyboards and Paul Randolph’s vocal tics coalescing into an oddly fantastic groove, but it’s the second half that steals the show, with vocalist Alexa Voss actually responding to Randolph in the original song with, “You’re a lucky boy….” It’s as brilliant an analogy to the idea of a remix as I’ve ever heard.

Elsewhere, there are loads of goodies for the jazz-house admirer. The remix of “Lie” jettisons everything about the jaunty “Eleanor Rigby”-style original except for Thief’s singing, which becomes slowed down and stretched out over spectral keyboards and a propulsive mid-tempo beat. The track is indeed a more palatable venue for these vocals than the staccato violins from whence they came, whose pungency clashed with the smoothness of Thief’s voice and the gravity of his words. “I Can See” gets two wonderful — and wonderfully distinct — treatments as well, the first from Ye:Solar, who cloaks the song in a haze of vintage lounge jazz, and the second from Midnight Marauders, who ride an addictive little piano lick to an almost 10-minute finish. A couple tracks on Upside Down might be more familiar to the observant listener: Atjazz’s remix of “Dance the Dance” (an In Between song) and Âme’s remix of “Glow and Glare” (which appeared previously on the Jazzanova comp Mixing). They don’t sound quite as fresh as the rest of these selections, for obvious reasons, but they’re still quite strong, and they round out an album that preserves these artists’—and Jazzanova’s—legacy as kings among men.

RATING 8 / 10