One of the more enjoyable house CDs I've heard in quite a while.
Henrik Schwarz has been around for a while, but chances are good that a lot of people hadn't heard of him until last year when his contribution to the venerable DJ Kicks series was released by !K7 Records. Just about one year after that particular release, Schwarz is back with !K7 for the release of Live, a rather unusual album that nevertheless succeeds as one of the more enjoyable house CDs I've heard in a while.
I say "unusual" because there is something definitely unique about the way this album is put together. As you might surmise from the title, the album has been recorded live... but not quite in the manner of an actual "live" album. Many of the tracks here are Schwarz's own -- those from other artists have all been significantly transformed to fit -- and they were recorded live at various venues across the globe. Sixteen cities are listed in the liner notes, and sure enough, there are 16 tracks on Live. But the tracks have been compiled together in the studio to create a seamless mix. The result is undoubtedly an odd hybrid. That's not necessarily a bad thing, because the record sounds pretty damn good. However it was created, the result is a pretty seamless mix of jazz-inflected deep house and minimal techno.
It's pretty hard to mistake Schwarz's catholic intentions when the first track on his CD is by none other than Sun Ra. "Lullaby for Realville" begins the album with a slow shuffle, languorous horns softly playing over slinky percussion. And then, things change -- the song is slowly altered until the basic shape of Sun Ra's tune has become churning deep house. The radically transformed "Lullaby" segues into Kuniyuki's "Earth Beats", a slightly mordant bit of minor key menace that offsets portentous piano triads against a churning bassline. The end result is that while the tempo is generally up, the mood is subdued, contemplative. Most of the tracks run towards the long side, and over the course of five or six minutes Schwarz gives the listener a lot of material to play with. It's easy to see how these tracks worked in their original live contexts, with constant reinterpretation and jazzy improvisation turning what could have been bog-standard house and techno tracks into something far more interesting.
It's also interesting to see the lines between modern techno and house being blurred. A track like Schwarz's own "Kalimba Dance" could have fit on this year's Kompakt Total compilation, with its clipped high hats and almost subliminal bass tones. But the song doesn't stay in that mode -- the manic kalimba (or kalimba-like) elements grow in complexity, creating increasingly challenging rhythms that allow Schwarz to introduce a Latin theme. The next track, a collaboration with Ame & Dixon entitled "Where We At", builds on the basis of "Kalimba Dance" but adds a more pronounced beat and conventional house structure. Everything gets thrown together and the result, as throughout the album, is a rather intricate patchwork that maintains the spontaneous, improvised feel of modern jazz while never losing sight of the driving rhythmical imperative of house.
One of the criticisms frequently leveled against jazz-influenced house music -- and I think in many cases that it's a fair criticism -- is that house producers simply appropriate surface attributes of jazz without really interfacing with the music on a deeper level. And, really, how many times have we all heard house songs that use tiny samples of old jazz records to recondition what would otherwise be absolutely unmemorable? Schwarz doesn't do that.
The biggest surprise on the album is undoubtedly his remix of James Brown's "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" -- probably not one of the first songs you expected to hear in this context. But it turns out to be a really great song, and it succeeds because Schwarz knows how to create something that works on a completely different level than the original. He takes Brown's impassioned voice and lays it atop an off-kilter microhouse beat adorned with repeating melodic refrains and shifting percussion. The music continues implacably underneath Brown's vocal, adding and changing different elements with no overt connection to the vocal movement. The effect is more Fela Kuti than James Brown, and it's one of the very best remixes I've heard in ages.
The entire album is pockmarked with interesting surprises put across with extraordinarily subtle effect. This is not an album intended for easy listening. This is a disc that rewards close scrutiny spread across multiple replays.