One of last year's highlights and a key player in the current French dominance of jazz-house gets a rapid re-launch. I suppose the continuing crossover popularity of St. Germain has inspired this move, for the album has been easily available through F-Comm and most people into the genre will already be familiar with it. Listening again, after a year in which this easy mix of acoustic jazz and digital lounge has become so ubiquitous, it is encouraging to find that it still sounds fresh. In fact, it is, I would suggest, both a more varied and more imaginative set than Tourist to which it is always, inevitably, compared.
Ludovic Llorca is one of the generation of Paris-based DJ/producers whose work has come to personify a particular type of nu-jazz aesthetic. Club oriented but smoother than their post-acid jazz counterparts in London and sophisticated enough to attract the (not always approving) attention of straight-ahead jazz magazines, the music is at once eclectic and instantly recognisable. Heavily reliant on lengthy samples, the music nonetheless has an organic, "live" feel. Deep house of the Naked/Om persuasion is also a close cousin and the album and anyone who likes Aquanote or Soulstice will only have to up the jazz quotient a little to feel immediately at home. In short, Newcomer is an amalgamation of all that is chic and subtle in contemporary dance music. Too chic for some, who have been quick to call the genre coffee table House, with all the coziness, complacency, and lack of edge such a term implies.
Well, that's their loss. Any set that opens using samples from Mingus' "Haitian Fight Song" and Dizzy Gillespie's "Umh Umh" (performed by Mingus Big Band and James Moody respectively) is hardly aiming at the hard house or nu metal market. That the third track features the much praised Julien Larou, confirms the fact that Llorca is not merely a dance man making a few "jazzual" nods, but a genuine operator within the jazz field. Of the three numbers ("The Novel Sound", "Indigo Blues", and "Lights Behind Windows") I'd pick the third, driven along by Larou's sinuous tenor sax, but all three are exemplary state-of-the-art items.
Other jazz treats follow later, notably the moody "Always" and "Lalo Caught Me Dancing". The latter is particularly winning, being a bouncy and totally infectious stroll through jazz-funk pastures past and present. As elsewhere, delicious piano carries the melody, while horns float in an out with telling precision. All this occurs, of course, over solid and floor-friendly rhythms.
The tempo varies enough to give the lie to both the Trance Mags' accusations of ambient somnolence and the orthodox jazzer's refusal to hear anything but a persistent digital thump. The actual rhythms are a mixture of mid-tempo house, broken beats, nineties boogie, and even a little trip-hop. The opening exuberance of "The Novel Sound" is as different to the down tempo closing number "The End" (already a much compiled favourite) as can be imagined. What links them together are the poise and clean production values that we take for granted with Parisian-based material these days.
So, a fine instrumental album in a suave, cafe bar sort of way? Yes, but that is to ignore the songs. And they are even more engaging than their wordless counterparts. True, "Indigo Blues" wanders a little close to cabaret pastiche, but the soulful "I Cry"(featuring a lugubrious Mandel Turner) and the two contributions from the pen and voice of the exquisite Ladybird would have made Newcomer worth buying even if the rest were as bland as the most hostile genre-haters have claimed.
Ignore "Syrupy" or "Saccharine" when discussing Ladybird. All smoother vocalists get so termed -- until their career is over. Every French producer's singer-of-choice may not belt things out like Etta James, but she can be as evocative and emotive as any of her gutsier sisters. The chugging, mid-tempo "True to Me", a post-Heavies/Incognito groove, would have already registered more heavily were it not for the excellence of "Precious Thing".
I have written of the beauty of this track before and will continue to use it as my touchstone for all that is good about the gentle house-soul sound that graces the current (and often graceless) dance scene. Miguel Migs' "Friend of the Blues" and Aquanote's "I Wish" follow closely, but "Precious Thing" still rules. With the stately opening, shifts in tempo, compelling beat, not to mention the well-crafted lyrics and achingly pure vocal rendition, it is almost flawless. In the future people will say "How come they can't make records like this anymore?".
If you picked up on Newcomer first time round, all this enthusing will be somewhat redundant. However, you may want to check the whole album again if, like me, you got waylaid by one or two tracks. On the other hand, if you missed out then just give thanks for such a rapid re-issue. Soul, jazz, and house -- whatever you want to call it -- Llorca makes superior music, intelligent and far more heartfelt and moving than much of the new hybridity often manages. An album of the year, any year.