Italian cool meets Bossa Nova with a little touch of jazz-house. Cinecitta soundtracks get the Jazzanova treatment. Bebel Gilberto goes Abstract Lounge. Any of the above fairly accurately describes the latest offering from Italian smoothies, Soulstance. It hovers dangerously close to pastiche, but is so, so chic, dressed up in its summery Latin garb. It is almost certainly playing in a pricey, trendy wine-bar this very moment. Less earnest than the German/Austrian variety, not as housed-up as the Parisian brand, and rather brighter than the Californian chill-out strand, this addition to the growing pile of NuJazz/Lounge releases is completely unthreatening but totally seductive.
Italy got onto the club-jazz bandwagon almost at the start. Labels like Irma specialise in quality house and Latin flavours, acid jazz and reissues, either of rare grooves from the States or of dodgy porn-flick soundtracks -- the very mix of styles that now make up the phenomenon. Soulstance have made four such albums now and their tunes turn up regularly on the stream of compilations catering to this knowing, pre-club, après-club scene. They are consummate professionals and have the requisite mix of ingredients down to a fine art. It is easy listening, deliberately so, but oozes class and the sort of Dolce Vita sophistication that was envied from afar in the early '60s. This is a world of handsome young men and beautiful women, all blessed with time and money and exquisite good taste.
It all sounds pretty irritating, doesn't it? Yet, if you've ever been drawn to a landscape inhabited by a young Marcello Mastroianni and The Girl from Ipanema then you know how this operates. This sound may be very now but its gods and goddesses come from an earlier age. Jazz fusion in this laid-back form represents a fantasy revenge of the cooler side of Mod. This is music that should have been played at all those exclusive parties you were never going to be invited to. Very well played it is too.
I don't know what proportion of the set is real and what sampled. Mostly real, I think, as it has a very organic feel to it and Soulstance are actually the brothers Enzo and Gianni Lo Greco, who not only have the right names but are experts on the guitar and drums respectively. There is also some exquisite George Duke-style electric piano on the album but no details as to who supplies it. Many of the tracks are straight bossas or sambas, slightly funked up and given a modern bassline. Studio techniques are used sparingly but effectively, just enough for compulsory hipness. It is not authentic in the way Joyce or Bebel are but the Italian-Brazilian combination produces its own truth.
This often takes cinematic form. "The Aftermath of Love" and the "Theme from Abbadassee's Street" are good examples. Both have a majestic orchestral sweep and take you on an ocean-backed drive to some expensive resort. Over that backdrop a warm, acoustic bass skips along while flute and guitar deliver lines in the best CTI tradition.
There is plenty of convincing jazz-funk playing -- the guitarist, flute and those devastating keyboards light up even the blandest number. Actually, apart from the persuasive but rather-too-easy device of breathy, female vocals ("Circle" "Riding the Mambo"), it isn't really bland, just mellow.
"Blue Grassland" is the best-known track and the most Nu Jazz Beats-oriented on offer. It makes a very engaging opener and lays out the terrain to be explored over 11, carefully crafted tunes. Some are more wholeheartedly Brazilian than others and these include the reasonably orthodox "Kickin' Samba", enlivened by filter-disco guitar (of the most discrete kind). This has strong dance-floor potential, despite a dated brass sound. Even more Bahiaesque is the swaying, Jobim tribute, "Inspired by Antonio Carlos". Serene to the point of reverence, it is worthy of any Latin jazz set, with the mystery flautist and electric pianist putting in their most telling appearances. Sadly, jazz buffs will undoubtedly dismiss the whole thing as kitsch fluff. Their loss.
The latter sections are more European in their outlook but still essentially Latin/fusion cuts of the sort championed by DJs like Patrick Forge. The rhythms are sprightly but coolness is paramount. Dancing but no sweating is the order of the day. All songs seem to invite being played as background ambience but, cranked up, the music is a lot beatier than you would imagine.
The title track is both absolutely characteristic and a highlight. Acoustic/electric guitar-led with that string section arrangement again, it has a slightly housed-up bossa rhythm and neat melodic touches -- a leisurely promenade of a tune. This is escapist music in the best sense. It transports you away from a wearisome, quotidian existence to beaches and bars only glimpsed in movies or the mind's eye. Many will deplore the absence of rawness and rough edges but that would be to completely miss the point.
Nu Jazz has been criticised for narrow, groove-oriented tracks rather than real songs. Truth, Simplicity & Love, if anything, might prove too tuneful and a little too retrospective for the clubbers. What it lacks in muscle it makes up for in style. I think it is a perfect record for summer evenings -- and in this cocktail hour world it is always a summer evening. If you fancy some Brazilian rhythms, laid-back and served with an Italian urbanity then you won't find that delivered more competently, or lovingly, than the Lo Greco brothers have managed here.