Move over, K&D -- here come D&K. It's the easiest thing in the world to compare up-and-coming Viennese downtempo duo dZihan & Kamien to veteran Viennese downtempo duo Kruder & Dorfmeister, for obvious reasons. And on their debut album, Freaks and Icons, the younger pair seemed to invite such comparisons, borrowing from the K&D sound on jazzy chillout anthems like "After". But right from the start there's been a different sensibility to dZihan & Kamien's music, no matter how much it follows the standard downtempo formula, and on their sophomore effort, Gran Riserva, that sensibility has finally ripened into something so good that any accusations of derivativeness are almost beside the point. For all its echoes of Kruder & Dorfmeister, Jazzanova, St. Germaine and other masters of jazzy Euro-chill electronica, Gran Riserva stands as a breakout album from a duo whose mastery of their craft equals and at times even exceeds all of their predecessors.
This time around, rather than focusing on borrowed and sampled sounds, D&K wisely put live musicians in the foreground of their music. The result, especially on the album's first four tracks, is an immediacy and warmth rarely heard in electronica. Even when they're looping live tracks, like Walter Grassmann's syncopated drums on the samba-flavored "Stiff Jazz", or chopping and distorting them, like Daniela Muller's sensual vocals on "Basmati", D&K never lose the analog richness of the original performance. It's like listening to music through a kaleidoscope -- on "Ford Transit", for example, they give you ever-shifting glimpses of a Turkish string section, a jazzy horn combo, and the abstractly funky riffs of a jazz-fusion bass.
The basslines, by the way, remain D&K's secret weapon -- they are masters of a good low-end groove, and they are abetted here by some great players. Double bassist Achim Tang stands out just because his instrument is capable of hitting notes that are almost out of range of human hearing -- the basslines on "Ford Transit", "Dundadeova", and especially the very sexy "Basmati" are impossibly deep and tantalizingly understated, making these tracks among the album's most seductive. But Willi Langer's lively electric bass riffs on the reggae-meets-funk "Sliding", and Julian Crampton's atmospheric work on the brooding "Where's Johnny Sabatino", are just as good. Even on tracks that don't feature live bass, like the jazzy lounge joint "Airport", dZihan & Kamien skillfully use samples to cook up a solid groove.
But perhaps the most impressive thing about Gran Riserva is the way in which D&K are able to dabble in a variety of sounds and styles without ever straying from the jazzy, seductive, faintly exotic vibe they establish from the opening piano-drum-and-muttered-vocal vamp of "Stiff Jazz". They venture into easy listening house ("Deep Kitsch"), graft trip-hop on to Brazilian-tinged jazz ("Thrill"), and discover new nooks and crannies in that most shopworn of electronic genres, nu jazz ("Gutenmorgenduft"). It's all held together by subtle touches of sexy vocals, Middle Eastern strings, Latin percussion, funk-tinged bass, and most of all, dZihan & Kamien's impeccable production skills, which give every note of it a sleek, organic vibe and make it almost impossible to tell where the live instruments leave off and the samples begin.
It doesn't hurt either that those live instruments are played by some outstanding musicians -- in addition to all the aforementioned bassists, there's also Turkish percussionist Misirli Ahmet, used to outstanding effect on "Sliding" (along with reggae-dancehall toaster General Santana -- how's that for a cultural collision?), a solid horn section led by sax player Levent Altindag, whose hard bopping solo puts the jazz in "Stiff Jazz", and jazz percussionist Sammy Figueroa, who's played with everyone from Miles Davis to Eric Clapton and actually hunted down D&K after hearing Freaks and Icons to ask if he could play on their next album. If that right there doesn't tell you how good these guys are, I don't know what will.
So let's just forget all those Kruder & Dorfmeister comparisons, shall we? On Gran Riserva, dZihan & Kamien come into their own with a unique and very tasty brand of downtempo that has a genuine jazz sensibility and production chops to spare. And yes, you can still dance to it. Not bad for an album from Austria with a couple of old guys on the cover. (That's dZihan and Kamien's fathers, by the way, who apparently were accomplished jazz musicians in their own right.) This was one of my favorite albums of 2002, and I can only hope that, following a year that saw a lot of other high profile downtempo and nu jazz acts release records (Jazzanova, Thievery Corporation, Mr. Scruff), it gets the attention it deserves.