Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome is a medical condition in which an extra electrical pathway in the heart causes a rapid heartbeat. Jochen Rueckert, the German drummer who’s collaborated with artists such as Pat Metheny, Madeleine Peyroux, Nils Wogram, and Kurt Rosenwinkel, has lived with this syndrome and has named one of his musical projects after it. You could say that the name fits. For this particular enterprise, Rueckert steps away from the drum kit and concentrates on intricate, twitchy electronic programming.
Despite his jazz resume, Rueckert’s foray into electronic music is not a random whim out of nowhere. He grew up in Cologne, Germany, a city with a vibrant electronic music culture. For Favours, the first Wolff Parkinson White album since 2014, Rueckert has altered the playbook by enlisting vocalists. Self-described on his Bandcamp page as “hard-to-listen-to electronic music”, Rueckert eschews the 4/4 time signature, and this time around juxtaposes the tense torrent of processed, rapid-fire sounds with the warmth of the human voice. The results are often breathtaking.
The variety of vocalists used on these tracks is admirable. Georgian composer Natalie Beridze sings on the opening track, “Sand”, wrapping her gentle, low-key pipes around the complex grid of blips and off-kilter beats. While more than half of the tracks employ female vocalists, the male ones provide an interesting contrast and come from somewhat unexpected sources. Jesse Murphy, perhaps better known as an in-demand bass player and member of Brazilian Girls, has collaborated with Rueckert in the past (particularly on Ilhan Ersahin’s Wax Poetic project). On “What’s True”, Murphy’s raspy vocals – occasionally treated with effects – mesh well with Rueckert’s sonic landscape.
To most listeners, the most familiar name on Favours is most likely Norah Jones – described by Rueckert on his site as an “old-time friend”. At first, it may seem odd to hear the Grammy-winning chanteuse lending her voice to such an unusual project. Still, her collaborative history is wide and varied, working with everyone from Ray Charles to Mike Patton to Danger Mouse, so this is definitely in her wheelhouse. On “Department of Failure”, the album’s second single after “Sand”, Jones’ soothingly familiar voice in tandem with Rueckert’s music seems initially jarring. But the combination works well, sounding not unlike a torch singer in a dystopian Terry Gilliam-inspired nightclub.
On “Revolt”, Alexa Barchini brings additional jazz sensibilities to the project, but to an even greater degree. Rueckert puts the harsher aspects of the programming on hold in the song’s striking, gorgeous middle section, allowing Barchini to soar. Likewise, on “Light Fall Shadow”, Amanda Baisinger’s distinctive Joni Mitchell-isms get plenty of room to breathe as Rueckert pulls back the throttle. One of the more unusual collaborations on Favours includes vocalist Larissa Hopwood, perhaps best known for singing children’s songs as part of the duo Lolly & YoYo. Her contribution, “Little Bird”, doesn’t stray musically from the rest of the album, and it wouldn’t be a stretch for the song – with its innocent lyrical content – to make an appearance on a slightly adventurous children’s music album. The song speaks volumes about the lengths both Rueckert and Hopwood will go to step out of comfort zones.
Favours is certainly a unique, ambitious project, and has allowed Jochen Rueckert to take his successful Wolff Parkinson White project into new territory. It also works well as a showcase for some tremendously talented singers, and will hopefully provide a gateway for listeners to discover more work by these artists. In that respect, this wonderful album is – among other things – appropriately titled.