Following a series of curious EPs, the Dutch composer, producer and electronic musician Mitchel Van Dinther, better known as Jameszoo, unleashed his first full-length album, Fool, in 2016. Critics praised the dense, playful electronics – which Jameszoo himself has describes as “naïve computer jazz” – and the sounds emitted from the album seemed to suggest an artist whose creativity was impossible to contain. Perhaps then, it’s inevitable that Jameszoo eventually opted to set his sights beyond studio electronics for his next release.
As far as a comfort-zone-busting milestone goes, Melkweg fits the bill perfectly. It takes Jameszoo out of the studio, onto the stage, and adds dozens of musicians to the mix – namely, an orchestra. Recorded in 2017 at Amsterdam’s iconic Melkweg concert hall (as part of the annual Amsterdam Dance Event), the album features Jameszoo collaborating with the Grammy-winning 49-piece Metropole Orkest, whose high-profile collaborators include Elvis Costello (My Flame Burns Blue), Basement Jaxx (Basement Jaxx vs. Metropole Orkest), and Mike Keneally (The Universe Will Provide). Conducting the orchestra is famed composer and arranger Jules Buckley, and the musicians are also joined by Richard Spaven (drums), Niels Broos (keyboards), Frank Wienk (percussion), John Dikeman (saxophone) and Jameszoo himself on electronics, synths, and Wurlitzer.
The worst thing you could say about Melkweg is that if you’re familiar with the artists involved, it sounds pretty much how you would expect it to sound. Buckley coaxes a warm, organic sound out of the orchestra, and Jameszoo adds plenty of his characteristic funky experimentalism. The mission statement is apparent from the very beginning, as the opening track “(flake)” begins with Jameszoo’s spacey, fluttering synth lines and the orchestra assists with sympathetic flourishes. This intro segment leads into dramatic Kubrickian sci-fi touches and eventually, funky electric piano and an arrangement so stuffed with interesting ideas that you might be afraid the album will implode long before it’s over.
Not to worry. Jameszoo, Buckley, and the orchestra seem to constantly feed off each other’s energy, as on tracks like “(lose)”, where the orchestra’s lush film score chords mesh with understated electronic static before exuberant, prog-funk synth stabs make way for a dreamy, ethereal coda. None of the musicians seem like they’re crashing into each other in awkward, unintentional ways. The stylistic meshing seems oddly natural.
There are times when Metropole Orkest leads the way, and other times when they seem to take stylistic cues from Jameszoo, as on “(soup)”, which contains a full of compliment of strings and brass, but in the service of a gorgeous, understated funk jam oddly punctuated by a low-key, free-jazz sax breakdown before collapsing into noisy chaos. The single “(rolrolrol)” is led by primitive electronic percussion and some positively Stevie Wonder-esque synth melodies. The classical and non-classical musicians seem to relish the concept of venturing into each other’s territories.
On the graceful, strutting “(flu)”, the orchestra is assertive and razor-sharp and is emboldened by Jameszoo’s crew, taking cues from the string-laden disco-funk of the 1970s. Likewise, the gentle sigh of “(crumble)” combines an exotic, brittle beat with a brass drone while occasionally coming up for air with gorgeous melodies and orchestrations that would make Isaac Hayes proud.
Collaborations between orchestras and non-classical artists are often fraught with awkward clashes. Sometimes the pop artists are in over their heads; sometimes they get so consumed by the newfangled atmosphere that their own characteristic sound is lost in the shuffle. As for Melkweg, there is definitely a clash of styles, but it works to everyone’s advantage. The sound is unique and bracing, not unlike discovering the soundtrack of a new planet. As long as Jameszoo keeps mining his boundless curiosity, there should be plenty more unique music where that came from.