Jazzanova and DJ Amir
Photo: Braden Harris

DJ Amir Is Fighting for Detroit’s Musical Underdogs with Jazzanova

Jazzanova’s DJ Amir has fought for the musical underdog, and with the Strata Records catalog now readily available, Detroit soul and jazz are getting a glow-up.

Strata Records - The Sound Of Detroit - Reimagined By Jazzanova
Jazzanova
180 Proof / BBE Music
22 April 2022

The organs have a crunch to them. It’s the crackle of an overburdened PA system or an aural depiction of the bristle and speck of a well-fired brick.

A band name like the Lyman Woodard Organization might suggest the patronymic namesake of a corporation housed within several structures built from said brick. What it doesn’t call to mind is a crudely rendered handgun and detached magazine weighing down a wad of cash. It doesn’t call to mind soot-stained alleyways, smokestack sunsets, or liquor store stick-ups.

Out of context, those words probably don’t make you consider the soul-enriching quality of a tasteful flute melody or ponder how a bassline can be so filthy it makes your arms tingle. Yet here it is, a record of impeccable cinematic funk music forged in mid-1970s Detroit. That’s Lyman Woodard himself on organ. That’s also his pistol and wad of cash on the album cover, photographed on a hotel bed after a gig.

The Lyman Woodard Organization’s Saturday Night Special, released in 1975 by Strata Records, is a favorite of Amir Abdullah, also known as DJ Amir. A music scholar and consummate crate-digger, Amir is probably best known as one half of Kon and Amir, the DJ duo responsible for the On Track mixtape series. Alongside DJ Shame’s Traveling Through Sampleland mix, the On Track series set a precedent for how to fluidly blend more exquisite rare grooves in an hour than some crate-diggers can amass in a lifetime. In 2011, Amir started his own label, 180-Proof, which owns the exclusive rights to release Strata Records’ back catalog.

“I really like the Lyman tracks [‘Saturday Night Special’ and ‘Creative Musicians’] because they are really like the soundtrack to Detroit,” says Amir. “There’s a cinematic vibe to the album, and these two tracks epitomize this vibe.”

Amir enlisted the Berlin-based group Jazzanova to record renditions of classic Strata tracks, including “Saturday Night Special”. The resultant album, titled Strata Records (The Sound of Detroit Reimagined by Jazzanova), was released by 180-Proof and features Amir as executive producer. The album converts the analog grime of these funk and jazz records from the 1970s into a more approachable and easily digestible sound for modern listeners. Jazzanova’s versions show reverence for their source material while retaining creative license to cut loose, add or subtract sounds, and get on down the way a good funk band should.

“This project came together over the last ten years,” says Amir. “I had the idea for a re-imagination of the Strata catalog back when I secured the license rights to Strata in 2012. In 2012, I was commissioned by Scion to curate an online exhibition of ‘lost culture,’ and I submitted a proposal on Strata Records. After securing the grant from Scion, a Scion film crew and I flew to Detroit and interviewed a few of the surviving members of Strata. This included the owner of Strata, Barbara Cox. During the course of my interview with her, I took a chance and asked her if she would be interested in doing a licensing deal for the catalog. Needless to say, she said yes!

“The story of Strata is super important to me because of its spirit of Black entrepreneurship and community organizing. From creating the first jazz music program at Oberlin College in 1970 to the immensely important Strata Concert Gallery that featured artists like Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock, Chick Core, and many more. As a Black-owned business, I take a lot of inspiration from the founder, Kenny Cox, and others like him.”

Jazzanova

Amir has worked for years to showcase Strata’s underappreciated gems. 180-Proof has reissued the label’s run of LPs as well as some singles. In 2021, Amir released a compilation of his favorite tracks on Strata, titled DJ Amir Presents ‘Strata Records – The Sound of Detroit’ Volume 1. The compilation opens with “Beyond the Dream”, a 13-minute epic of expansive feel-good jazz recorded by label founder Kenny Cox. Strata was a short-lived label with a shortlist roster, so naturally, The Sound of Detroit includes multiple cuts from the label’s marquee acts: Sam Sanders, Larry Nozero, and The Lyman Woodard Organization.

The highlight is an unreleased demo by an unknown artist. Amir discovered the track on a master tape simply labeled “TJ.” The tape held a percussion-less slice of soul featuring intimate, close-up vocals, delicate guitar strumming, and an endearing touch of tape warble. The song was recorded, like the rest of the Strata catalog, somewhere between 1973 and 1975. Nothing else is known about the recording or the artist. Amir remastered the track, titling it “Time Is Wasting”. Like so many other archival projects of the last ten to fifteen years, Amir has done a laudable public service by uncovering and cleaning up a recording that likely would never have been heard by anyone.

“What drives me is the story of the underdog or unsung in music,” says Amir. “Of course, I love Prince, Michael, Stevie, and all the other greats, but I love to discover unknown artists, at least to me, all the time.

“I grew up in the projects in Boston, and we didn’t have a lot, but God blessed me to have music in my life. There were many days when I would stare at the covers of my family’s albums and imagine the music. Also, hip-hop helped me in my music education, especially when sampling became the thing in hip-hop. I heard a lot of samples that were in my family’s stack of records, and it made me want to know more. Without hip-hop, I don’t know if I would have been able to appreciate Brazilian music, euro jazz, sound library records, Blaxploitation soundtracks, etc.”

Amir’s idea to rerecord tracks from the Strata catalog finally came to fruition in early 2020, when he moved to Berlin and befriended Stefan Leisering, co-founder of Jazzanova. He financed the record partly through a German cultural fund called Initiative Musik and created a Kickstarter campaign to secure the rest of the funding.

“The recording process started first with making the sheet music from scratch because the owner did not have the sheet music for any of the catalog. So Jazzanova painstakingly went about making the sheet music from scratch. Then we started rehearsals in April 2021 during the strict lockdown here in Germany. The guys then started trying out different rhythms and ideas that they had worked on before rehearsals. This first started with the rhythm section, and then later, we added the horn section and vocalist. We were under a deadline of a month to record this album because of the funding rules of Initiative Musik, and we did just that.”

Jazzanova’s cover of “Saturday Night Special” scrubs some of the grime off the streets of ’70s Detroit. Like the rest of the album, the song has a starker sound palette than the original, allowing more instruments to move gently into the mix. Lyman’s beefy organ gives way to subtler tone colors. A slow-attack synthesizer enters halfway through, enveloping the percussion like a fleece blanket. Treated guitar reverberates gently in the left speaker. Soft synth flourishes pan in and out of the mix, highlighting the record’s stereophonic colors. Jazzanova plays with the swagger of an adept live band, but their reimagining of the Strata catalog vaunts the sonic possibilities of the modern recording studio.

Their cover of Sam Sanders’ jazz-funk gem “Face at My Window” features the warm baritone pipes of Sean Haefeli. (The female vocalist on Sanders’ original, who sings the same lyrics in a higher register, is mysteriously unattributed on the back of the original album cover.) Jazzanova’s version adds a horn section, a dash of woozy keyboard in place of the original’s buried string section, and some xylophonic glimmer. Snappy snares are replaced for a deeper bass pulse. They do away with the busy guitar solo, reinterpreting the track as a leisurely cruise in the Cadillac.

Jazzanova

“Jazzanova and I consciously but organically decided to create compositions that were respectful to the original,” says Amir. “However, we wanted to stretch your imagination in regards to the possibilities of arrangements.

“For example, with ‘Creative Musicians’, Stefan Ulrich, the band leader, came up with the idea of a Fela/Tony Allen-like horn breakdown in the middle of the song. If you know the original then you know that this is kind of out of leftfield, but it totally works.”

Maulawi’s “Orotunds” gains a b-boy-friendly drum break and high-fidelity glaze. Sam Sanders’ “Loser” gains the warm embrace of a horn section and loses some microphone distortion. Bert Myrick’s “Scorpio’s Child” gains immediacy and thematic cohesion but loses some improvisatory zest.

Most of these songs were written by different musicians with different compositional approaches. What may be most impressive about The Sound of Detroit is how Jazzanova’s distinct sonic flavor collapses the disparate songwriting talents of the Strata roster into a sound with a uniform shape and compositional approach.

Each track on the album is less challenging than its predecessor. The Sound of Detroit could be used by unacquainted listeners as a light introduction to the label’s output. Once hooked, they can search out the originals, which by comparison are often messier but ultimately more engrossing. “Jazzanova and I definitely wanted to reimagine and reinterpret the songs from the catalog for a newer and somewhat younger audience,” says Amir.

Jazzanova

“In fact, it was my idea to do so because I wanted a newer audience to be exposed to the Strata catalog. We consciously tried to create sounds and compositions that would lend an ear to some modern sounds but not take away from the original feeling and vibe of the originals. Basically, to reimagine these songs, not in a corny or cliche way. We also took inspiration from some of our favorite jazz tunes and even some soul songs. We took inspiration from a lot of genres.”

Like others of its ilk, this project does the important work of cultural acknowledgment, highlighting an obscure nook in the history of Black American music. Today’s reissue culture operates from the position that if you’re not adding to the massive heap of digital recordings or glossily packaged LP and CD sets, the material you revere will, at least in the public consciousness, be engulfed by the rest of the heap.

The days of DJs whiting-out center labels are over. Nowadays, serious crate diggers are more apt to share their rare finds on the internet than horde them. Labels like the Numero Group and Soul Jazz churn out compilations with assembly-line persistence. These releases are streamed by younger audiences capable of appreciating the music without ever having scoured the used bins of disorderly record stores.

We live in the world of the reissue, and no one is better equipped to contribute than Amir Abdullah. Jazzanova’s work on The Sound of Detroit is further proof that mining the past for ideas is not a creative stall but a way of taking old sounds to new and interesting places.

Jazzanova and DJ Amir
Photo: Braden Harris
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