We've been doing this for so long that it doesn't seem new," says Jazzanova producer Axel Reinemer over the phone from Germany, describing his group's music. "I mean, other people do it. ... Do you think it's new?"
Wait. A dance music producer that doesn't claim he's doing something new?
On the surface, Jazzanova's methods do seem to be old news. For nearly two decades, hip-hoppers and dance-music heads have created music using the same basic ingredient: samples from older vinyl. Even the lamentably self-important acid-jazz movement, which made "virtuous" claims of revivalism by plopping vintage sax-squalls over hip-hop beats, dates back to the late '80s.
So what's so "nova" about this six-man outfit?
The answer can be found in a cursory look at history. During World War II, the United States used the inherent Americanism of jazz and swing against Germany and its Axis partners through movies, records, and USO tours, creating a cultural weapon of sorts. But later, as rock 'n' roll took a firm hold, things changed. By the mid-'60s, even though composers like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock were on an artistic crest, jazz as pop music was through in America.
Enter Jazzanova. Its work has brought jazz back onto dancefloors with a forward-looking energy. With its debut album, In Between, these six Berlin-based vinyl archaeologists have reinvigorated lost '60s and '70s American jazz and rare groove by reassembling its DNA in surgically precise post-hip-hop style like many of their contemporaries. But rather than indulge in the simplistic cut 'n' paste of many of its peers, the group shapes its seamless, rhythmically-centered collages into cohesive, melodic songs that sound decidedly unsampled. In Between is a formidable album by six guys with virtually no formal musical training between them, and only two of its seventeen tracks feature live instrumentation. Yet it exudes a multivoiced aural warmth and an achingly emotive rhythmic glow. In its swirling environments, cozy electric piano, muted vibraphone, and tight string sections bounce on broad basslines. The instruments are woven into groove-ridden beat arrangements that cover a range of tempos.
The group was born in 1995 at a packed Berlin club put on by the three eclectic DJs Jurgen von Knoblauch, Alex Barck, and Claas Brieler in the trendy Mitte district. By this time, acid jazz had given way to a broader, more sophisticated mode (later branded "nu-jazz") which was typified by the threesome's blend of '60s- and '70s-era American and Brazilian black urban music fused with groundbreaking new European and US approaches. Downtempo or uptempo, samba or hip-hop -- in Berlin, it was all about melodic soul in a city with a hard techno rep.
It wasn't until club regulars Reinemer, his childhood friend Stefan Leisering, and Roskow Kretschman offered up their much-needed production and studio chops that the DJ trio really began to flesh out its mondo-genre approach. The tracks they came up with were dense, energetic weavings of breakbeats, propulsive jazz basslines, Latin percussion, and soulful keyboard riffs, spiced with digital effects. The sound they created quickly became embraced by discerning DJs throughout Europe, Japan, and the United States.
In 1998, the outfit -- now known as Jazzanova -- began a three-year flurry of activity. While the DJs kept up the local club and toured the globe, the group as a whole collaborated with cohorts to build the Sonar Kollektiv, an amalgam of nine diverse labels. In addition to their work with the Kollektiv, a real buzz was created by the three EPs Jazzanova released during that time. They soon received a flood of remix requests from dancefloor heavies like 4Hero, King Britt, Incognito, and MJ Cole, and endless questions about when to expect an album.
With some sketches for the record already written, the group released The Remixes 1997-2000, which offers a snapshot of a productive yet somewhat frustrating period. Though Jazzanova's EPs were diverse, artists seeking the group's remixing touch seemed most drawn to the more bubbling, Afro-Latin flavored tracks. "People mostly handed us uptempo songs [to remix]," remarks Leisering, "so we had to wait for the album in order to make something different."
"Everyone expected a trademark 'new Brazilian' sound from us, which could work against us," says Barck. "We sometimes felt like we'd created a monster."
But In Between became the silver bullet shot into that monster's heart. The album is virtually devoid of anything South American, and most of the uptempo funk rhythms are touched by a hard-bop feel. Zoom out from those specifics, and you'll find Jazzanova serving up a stylistic feast without creating a confusing mess. There are mood changes galore, but the album's sequencing allows it to breathe, allowing the koto-piano fusion of "Hanazono" to slide smoothly alongside poet Ursula Rucker's hip-hop agit-prop on "Keep Falling" and the soulful chants of "Mwela, Mwela (Here I Am)."
According to Barck, the group strove to understand musical boundaries before smudging them. "We'd have a really hard look at [an individual genre] and ask 'What's its core, how have other people done it, and how can we integrate it into our vision with our feeling and taste?' We tried to discover what makes a genre tick, then how to take it apart, and the album's our vision and our test of what's possible in music."
Two songs on the album feature the sensualized, almost androgynous vocal stylings of Philadelphia producer and singer Vikter Duplaix. Duplaix compares Jazzanova's aesthetic to Berlin's recently transformed Bundestag government building. "It's impressive -- you learned in school that this is where Hitler and those guys were -- and then you notice that they cut the top off and remodeled it with glass. Here's this really solid, intimidating building topped by this sleek and stylish new twist. Same with Jazzanova: they have a love of yesteryear, where these organic melodies and textures come from, but they're also fascinated with technology, and they make their music with machines."
Some trad-jazz pundits will doubtlessly see In Between's "machine music" as a refuge for those too lazy to take up the instrumental craft of jazz, a view that Reinemer rejects. "Oh, it's a lot of work, trust me. Just another kind of work, including research, engineering, and composition." He notes that it took the group six solid months to tightly program all the handpicked sounds.
Another surprise for fans was In Between's use of vocalists, including Rucker, British vocalist Valerie Etienne, and Bay Area rhymer/producer Capital A. "We'd only previously dealt with prearranged vocals on our remixes," says Reinemer. "We were dealing with a human element that was more difficult to control."
That touch of chaos provides for the album's most poignant live vocal moment, as early-'70s era Detroit avant-jazz-funk drummer Doug Hammond delivers his spiritual lyrics in a slightly flat tone over the whirlwind of mbira, flute, and breakbeats.
Noting that audiences often expect a full band when Jazzanova's on the bill, Barck offers no apologies for either their DJ-only shows nor their recording methods. "I think that you can put more feeling into sampling than some traditional jazz players do when they play," he says. "Maybe you need more feeling to program a Rhodes solo than to just play it, because sample players relate deeply to sound itself and how to execute it. Keyboard players listen to our tracks and say 'I can't play it like that!'"
"This isn't just a bunch of guys in a studio basement makin' tracks and experimenting," says Duplaix. "They have a purpose and a vision for their music, and it reflects the culture they came up in. Most of them come from East Berlin, so they're still becoming comfortable with having freedom in the past ten years. Everything they're doing -- this traveling the world and DJing for people -- is new and fresh, and their music's informed by this fascination with being out in the world."
According to Reinemer, the next task in Jazzanova's calculated sights is fortifying Sonar Kollektiv, which encompasses labels that range in specialty from house to dub, hip-hop, and downtempo. With straight-ahead soul and folk-rock projects in the works, the Kollektiv seems ready to reconfigure Berlin's genre-striated music scene in much the same way that In Between has redefined the standard for the dance album. "We have a rich music scene here, which the world is starting to recognize," says Reinemer. "But it's made up of lots of focused scenes that don't connect. If we could somehow get them working with each other, it would get really strong here."
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