How many modern electronic/downtempo acts take their primary inspiration from the Afrocentric American painter Romare Bearden? At least one.
What do a London-based electronic music producer and the Afrocentric American cultural movement of the '20s known as the Harlem Renaissance have in common? Glad you asked.
Romare the producer takes his stage name from Romare Bearden, the African-American painter who was a part of said Harlem Renaissance, along with the writer Langston Hughes, the activist W.E.B. Du Bois, and many others. Just as Bearden used collage to express various aspects of African-American life, Romare creates sonic collages featuring snippets of various African-American-inspired musical forms, mixing samples and performance. Even the title of Romare's debut album, Projections, is an homage to one of Bearden's installations.
This all might sound a bit high-minded. Fair enough, but in any case, the 11 tracks on Projections have an earthy, authentically humble feel that precludes any thoughts of pretension or exploitation. Romare the producer seems to have a genuine affinity for Romare the painter, which lends a palpable sense of sincerity to Projections.
The music itself presents a unique twist on the trip-hop sounds the Ninja Tune label has been synonymous with for almost two decades now. Romare does indeed create a pastiche of swing, bebop, blues, and electronic dance music. But he does so mostly without the thick, hip-hop-inspired rhythms that you usually get along with it. The result is something airy, often sparse, but also quite groovy on occasion.
Romare has stated he intends Projections to function as a trip through American culture via the different styles of music he incorporates. Opener "Nina's Charm" consists of a simple hi-hat loop, a stark chord progression on keyboard, and a sampled voice assuring you, "Whatever happens... / ...We'll be all right". Gradually, a beautiful gospel chorus fades into the mix. Or is it a tribal chorus? It's to Romare's credit that it doesn't really matter in this context, because he has created a unique musical space where boundaries blur and dissolve.
Yet it's possible to trace specific styles that root each of the tracks. "Work Song" feels like ragtime as viewed through a psychedelic kaleidoscope. "Roots" and "Rainbow" have a distinct disco pulse, while "The Drifter" is sleazy, almost swampy blues with a slink that sounds like it could have come from a Ry Cooder project. "Lover Man" speaks for itself, Sam & Dave horn blasts and a sampled "Baby-baby-baby" refrain duking it out with electronic bleeps and bloops.
Projections' greatest moment, though, is its interpretation of the spiritual "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child". Romare takes a tribal drumbeat and an ethereal, echoing keyboard as the bedrock, then layers woozy vocals, percussion, horns and sundry samples. The result sounds like it's coming directly from a haunted, barren yet beautiful graveyard in middle of New Orleans. That Romare can take such an well-known, much-covered standard and create a totally new, completely engaging context for it is simply astounding.
Not all of Projections is up to that standard. Tracks like "Ray's Foot", for example, are more aimless noodling than inspired eclecticism. And an album-ending comedown track called "La Petite Mort" is, possibly, a bit too much. Still, the lasting impression is that Romare has created something that really does sound both old and new, with a layer of dirt and dust that you don't really expect from this type of thing. Projections is quite likely an album its inspiration would appreciate and enjoy.