St. Germain: Boulevard: New Version, the Complete Series
Lots of artists have endeavored to combine elements of jazz and house, but no one has done it as seamlessly as St. Germain's Ludovic Navarre. Navarre's dreamy, downtempo blend of dancefloor beats and cool-cat musicianship brought him huge success in the UK and in his native France, and paved the way for other successful "French touch" artists like Air, Rinôçerôse and Grand Tourism. None of St. Germain's music, however, made a dent on the slow-witted U.S. market (though plenty of savvy American DJs, like Kevin Yost and Miguel Migs, borrowed heavily from the St. Germain sound in developing their own versions of jazzy deep house) until 2000, when Blue Note Records wisely picked up the group's sophomore release, the amazing Tourist. By either jazz or dance music standards, Tourist was a smash hit stateside, selling over 200,000 copies. No surprise, then, that St. Germain's debut album, 1995's Boulevard, is finally getting its U.S. release, complete with two additional tracks to entice fans who may have already bought the import.
There's little doubt that Boulevard was one of the most influential house music releases of the 1990s -- but influential does not always mean great, and St. Germain's debut, while still a solid effort, doesn't measure up to the brilliance of Tourist. Where Navarre's work on that disc was full of compelling beats and memorable melodies, Boulevard's tracks tend to be more flavorless, simply establishing a monochrome groove for his musicians to solo on top of. They also tend to meander on longer than necessary -- "Street Scene (for Shazz)", for example, presents listeners with over 15 minutes of aimless soloing atop a midtempo funk/soul groove that wears out its welcome less than halfway through. A track like the opener, "Deep in It", works better simply because it doesn't dwell too long or rely too heavily on its simple dance beat infrastructure -- instead, it lets jazzy electric piano and clave solos lead the way, sneaking its shuffling house beat in almost as an afterthought, and wrapping everything up in just over seven minutes.
"Deep in It" establishes a very nice vibe, but the only track off the original Boulevard album that really equals the uniform greatness of Tourist is "Sentimental Mood", which may be St. Germain's jazziest number to date. Making surprisingly effective use of a one-chord piano vamp, "Sentimental Mood" starts with a playfully simple refrain that allows its primary soloist, saxophonist Edouard Labord (or Labor -- his name is spelled differently in the liner notes to Tourist) to launch into some invigorating work atop a nicely syncopated house beat.
Elsewhere, the original Boulevard tracks are good but unremarkable -- warm-ups for the more fully realized work Navarre would produce on Tourist. "What's New" is a straight deep house joint that features an unidentified voice name-checking a who's who of deep house record labels and DJs -- the sort of self-congratulatory pap the house scene has been guilty of churning out for years. "Dub Experience II" is a disposable piece of reggae/dub jamming, while "Forget It" is a more interesting but not wholly effective foray into experimental breakbeat sounds, led by some nice trumpet work from Pascal Ohse. Two other tracks, "Easy to Remember" and "Thank U Mum (for Everything U Did)", have been left off the U.S. version, and while here again they weren't St. Germain's best work, I would dispute the decision to omit "Thank U Mum", which was an interesting jazz-funk jam employing old bluesman samples a la Tourist's "Sure Thing".
Happily, the new Boulevard features two great additional numbers previously available only From Detroit to St. Germain, an uneven compilation of St. Germain's early (and until recently, out of print) 12-inch tracks. "Soul Salsa Soul" lays down a deliciously jazzy salsa beat that brings out some of trumpeter Ohse's and pianist Alexandre Destrez's best work. Todd Edward's mix of "Alabama Blues", meanwhile, shows how effective St. Germain's music can be in a more uptempo house/disco setting -- the bluesy vocals sound right at home over Edwards' hip-shaking beat.
Ultimately, the most remarkable thing about Boulevard is that it was released in 1995 -- for all its shortcomings, everything on it still sounds fresh, and it will undoubtedly satisfy most fans hungry for more of Navarre's jazzy compositions until the real followup to Tourist hits. Here's hoping it comes soon.