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Various Artists: Space Jazz

Shan Fowler

Various Artists

Space Jazz

Label: Quango
US Release Date: 2001-08-21

Labeling something jazz or rock or rap or blues or anything else is a tad arbitrary. It's been a long time since genres of popular music stopped being genres and simply started being linguistic placeholders for similar sounds and styles. That's usually the main way music gets its names in the first place -- through an attempt to put into written language something that is purely an aural experience. The result are words that help us understand what we're hearing.

What Quango wants us to hear on the latest in its series of "lifestyle music" compilations is Space Jazz. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that what the name is pointing to is something weightless, something dark, something slow and deliberate, something with a mini-ensemble of instruments that flicker and glide more than they jump and explode. As arbitrary labels go, it's an apt description.

As with its other recent compilations (Mystic Grooves, Cosmic Funk and Brazilified among them), Quango aims for the witty, urbane set with this compilation. Cosmic Jazz is too atmospheric and scripted to play in the foreground, but as background music in a penthouse filled with angular furniture, chrome appliances and windows that look out on a dirty world that is diametrically opposed to the antiseptic world inside the windows, it's perfect: hidden, but not hiding. Cosmic Funk, in combination with designer jeans and a subscription to Wallpaper magazine, won't make you a better person, it'll just make you look like a better person when your friends are over.

And that ain't all bad. Who says musical escapism always has to be something drastic? Why should I have to be the King of Rock or King of Rap or King of Disco when all I feel like being is the Duke of Cool? Not all rides have to be a roller coaster; sometimes all we need is a slow float above the atmosphere.

Space Jazz sets us floating right off with a remix of the Tosca classic "Chocolate Elvis", a debonair vibemaster that sounds like foreplay in action. The smoky sax, flute and strings that follow on Akasha's "Mescalin" finish the job with the subtlety of a wink, and then we're set off on the next journey down a back alley to a steady backbeat on Reflection's "The Wall with Paintings".

These descriptions might be a little less than musically descriptive, but the jazz standards that are distorted for optimum mood-setting on Space Jazz seem meant for such ambiguities. From beginning to end, you can hear so many bits and pieces of jazz history -- the loopy piano and hyper-shuffled percussion of Pnu Riff's "Comfy Club" could be an homage to the Dave Brubeck Quartet's "Take Five", while the two offerings from Love TKO could have been outtakes from Bitches Brew and the sublime guitar work on The Forward's "Modern Crimes" seems an ode to electric guitar virtuoso John McLaughlin -- that the reference points quickly lose their genre and strictly become cinematic settings.

Of course, that's only when you're listening hard enough to write a review of the compilation. Even though it makes for great listening when you're paying attention, Space Jazz works better when it's not the center of attention. That way, the images will melt into something less pervasive than a back alley or an urban penthouse or even a spacewalk. If you're merely listening to Space Jazz without really paying attention, it means that you've already gotten away from reality for a bit, and that's always better than waiting for the music to do that for you.

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