Various Artists: Masters at Work Present Latin Verve Sounds

Masters at Work are those rare artists concerned with paying more than just lip-service to their historical antecedents.

Various Artists
Masters at Work Present Latin Verve Sounds
22 June 2004

Verve seems to be doing as good a job as any of the extant jazz labels at keeping their rich and varied catalog an ongoing concern. It’s no secret that jazz sales are down and have been going down for quite a while now. Every attempt to try and reach past the aging jazz demographic is an attempt to create inroads into new audiences that represent the industry’s lifeblood.

Verve’s ongoing Remixed series is probably the best example of this type of cross-generational promotion. By taking some of the crown jewels of the company’s voluminous catalogs and giving them to hand-picked remixers from across the spectrum of modern electronic music, Verve succeeded in connecting the conceptual dots between their well-established jazz tradition and the upstart electronic scene. Judged from a purely aesthetic level, both volumes in the Verve Remixed series are amazing achievements, and incontrovertible proof that the jazz of our forefathers remains as vital and important today as it was many decades ago.

This disc before us appears to be an offshoot of that particular brand. The popular and long-lived house production team Masters at Work (AKA Kenny Dope and Louie Vega) here provide a guided tour of Verve’s corner of the Latin jazz world. There’s also a Masters at Work remix of Willie Bobo’s “La Descarga Del Bobo” tacked on at the end of the disc.

I must admit that this disc reinforces a long-standing prejudice of mine. As producers, DJs, remixers and compilers, Masters at Work remains an absolutely unbeatable team, and this expertly selected compilation is no exception to that rule. While most of house music (and electronic music in general) is focused on an endless love affair with the New & Different, Masters at Work are those rare artists concerned with paying more than just lip-service to their historical antecedents. (The other part of that rule, in case you’re wondering, is that while Masters at Work are wonderful at most things, they remain stridently unable to craft original material that is even slightly memorable, but this does not apply here.)

By selecting Masters at Work to produce this compilation Verve has chosen to shed a spotlight on one of the more interesting chapters in the development of house music. If you asked most people what the defining characteristic of house music was, they would undoubtedly answer “the beat”. And by “the beat” you could probably take it to mean that they were referring to the distinctive pulsing 4/4 that runs under house music (in addition to every other genre that evolved from house).

But this beat was no simple development. In the Paleolithic era of house music, the straight 4/4 of disco was merged and spliced with the rhythms of reggae, new wave and funk. But the most important element in this multi-ethnic stew was the strange syncopation of the Latin shuffle, which grew out of the traditional Latin jazz movement and into the worlds of house through subgenres such as freestyle and (New York) garage.

This compilation has been chosen with an eye towards the evolution and progression of these Latin rhythms into the modern house organism we know today. Tracks like Dave Pike’s “Sanduga” (one of two Pike songs included) illustrate how melodic and harmonic elements can be folded into the service of percussive rhythms. “Ritmo Uni” by Cal Tjader and Eddie Palmieri (also one of two tracks by Tjader and Palmieri) links the Latin beat to a more familiar jazz idiom, with the traditional arrangement of trumpet, piano and xylophone interacting with a masterfully coruscating rhythmical bedrock.

It would be hard to screw this compilation up, and indeed, it succeeds masterfully. You can accept this as merely another sterling collection of undeniably funky Latin rhythms, or a sonic history lesson from one of the most elegantly deferential duos in electronic music.

If you want to understand the very simple lesson here, just listen to the original version of Willie Bobo’s “La Descarga Del Bobo” side by side with the Masters at Work remix. The latter is very similar to the former. They wisely choose not to simplify the irresistible beat of Bobo’s original, but merely to emphasize different parts in order to create a slicker and more DJ-friendly version of what is, essentially, the same song. Here is the remixers art at its best: they merely serve to accentuate the best qualities of their source material in order to make it fit into a new musical context.

Masters at Work Present Latin Verve Sounds is living history at its finest. Once again, the Verve label deserves our kudos and respect for showcasing why their jazz remains resolutely contemporary in the face of changing tradition.