The genres now loosely labeled as ‘broken beat’ or ‘nu jazz’ advance at a glacial pace. Perhaps that’s because the spectrum of influences is so broad — garage, hip-hop, drum & bass, acid jazz, neo soul, downtempo — that it is almost impossible for any major innovation to achieve the force of consensus. Moreover, broken beat remains associated with the dance floor. Drum & bass, separated from the need to keep bodies in motion, advanced at an astonishing speed in the ’90s, but the core West London broken beat formula has remained largely unchanged for the last couple of years.
In spite of that, it continues to attract a wider audience, with a number of compilations currently available for the coffee-table/wine bar crowd. It also attracts enormously talented musicians, with Madlib releasing a broken beat album under his ‘DJ Rels’ pseudonym earlier this year.
Gabriel Reyes-Whittaker (GB) is a 20-year-old LA-based musician. He is already very well regarded within the scene, such as it is. This release — his debut album — contains numerous collaborations, among them “Livre”, which features legendary jazz vocalist Flora Purim. The album has already attracted the attention of tastemakers like Gilles Peterson and the Bugz in the Attic crew.
Whether GB’s talent is one of brilliant technical innovation, though, is another question. Certainly the opening track, “After All”, sounds deeply derivative. But for the spittle-and-sheet metal textures at the edges of the drum sounds, it wouldn’t have sounded out as a Soul II Soul track in 1989, or, indeed, in any one of the garage-influenced genres to have emerged over the last fifteen years. “Livre” has many of the tired components — particularly the burpy bass ticks — of the jazz-funk. Many of the Afro-Latin mannerisms on the album are deeply exhausted, though the efforts to strong-arm them into a broken-beat structure on “A Funky Afro Rican Weekend” are momentarily diverting. Most of the tracks have the washy Fender Rhodes and synth textures that outline the Roy Ayers / Donald Byrd / Kool & the Gang influence at the back of the nu-jazz sound.
In some ways, though, it is precisely such a facility with the familiar that makes this an interesting release. It is deeply disarming on tracks like “Simply So”, where the vocal lines ground the intriguing production touches: vinyl scratches textured to sound like bubbles, curious cut-up static bursts that echo the snares.
The album’s finest tracks are slower and less crowded. “Phil Jackson” is based on a languorous synthy throb, while “Look Within”, despite its polyrhythmic complexity, shows a strong influence of mid-’90s hip-hop. One sample is taken to point of a machine-like abstraction reminiscent of DJ Premier, another has the lingering melancholy favored by RZA, something reinforced by the makeshift feel of the percussion sounds.
In general, what distinguishes the treatment of vocals in the garage-influenced genres is a willingness to let the production flex around the shape of the song. On one hand, this means that a vocal is not — as in much recent R&B — gridlocked by beats; it allows a song to rise and fall, rather than simply stop and start. Where the material is weak, though, it over-exposes the smoothness of the vocal delivery and the paucity of melodic construction. Songs like “After All” and “Simply So” — “How come you changed so much? / I’m glad you stayed in touch” — are so minimally built that they are barely songs at all; instead they function as collections of vocal licks designed to dress up the groove. Only “Love Is the End”, the attractive track that closes out the album, really functions as a song, nicely balancing the lilt of the bass line and the background timpani sounds.
It seems futile to criticize the unchallenging nature of genres that emerged in part in response to the inaccessibility of drum & bass and jazz. The deliberate sameness of broken beat and nu-jazz are largely intended to make the music work well in the hands of a good club DJ. It is anonymous, consistent; it is not head music. Unfortunately this means that the best producers have to be content to innovate at the margins, something that does not necessarily fulfill their obvious potential. There is an extraordinary breadth of sound on this release, and an admirable attention to detail. But GB needs to ditch some more of his baggage.