At its most liberating, jazz is about pushing the envelope, not being confined to a claustrophobic box of self-limiting stagnancy -- which makes it completely ironic that the ultramusical electronica subgenre called "broken beat" or "future jazz" is generally overlooked by the staid patrons who comprise the Yoshi's and SFJAZZ crowds. It's unfortunate that jazz is often thought of as music of the past, especially when its history has so much to offer the present.
Case in point: the Verve Remix series, which lets a dream team of remixers -- from the Funky Lowlives to Fila Brazillia -- have their way with jazz classics from the legendary label. Assembled on two discs (with two corresponding CDs of original source material), the remixes add a sophisticated sheen that raises electronica's often lowbrow, trashy vibe to a new level of IDM brilliance, while simultaneously reintroducing classic tracks by classic artists to today's listeners. The new stuff doesn't make the old stuff obsolete, but acts more like a companion, spanning eras and bridging generations in the process. (It should be noted that both remix albums are much better than Madlib's much-hyped, ultimately disappointing Shades of Blue, which ruthlessly pillaged the Blue Note catalogue and left little of significance to show for it.)
It's a little strange at first to hear a jazz icon like Ella Fitzgerald urge you to "Slap that bass ... 'til it's dizzy" over a funky, up-tempo Miguel Migs track, until you remember she once sang, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." Verve's Remixed/Unmixed series has that swing.
When Miguel meets Ella on a track called, appropriately enough, "Slap That Bass," the producer obligingly provides a slap bassline alongside repeating handclaps, conga drums, and spacey keyboard doodles. Yet the juxtaposition doesn't suck in the least, thanks to Fitzgerald's timeless voice and her still-relevant lyrics: "The world is in a mess/With politics and taxes/And people grinding axes/There's no happiness." For that reason, she figures, the bass must be slapped, a conclusion that makes just as much sense in the bling-bling era as the swing era.
Although the sonic treatments applied by the remixers are sometimes predictable -- Thievery Corporation does a downtempo number on Astrud Gilberto, while MJ Cole houseifies Carmen McRae -- most of the juxtapositions work surprisingly well. Rae & Christian's take on Dinah Washington's "Is You Is Or Is You Ain't My Baby?" has all the brassy sassiness of the original, plus a youthful edge that should appeal to people who don't own a gramophone or 78-rpm turntable. Similarly, Oscar Brown Jr.'s "Brother, Where Are You?" remains a benchmark of soul-searching and social commentary. Remixer Matthew Herbert keeps the tune's stripped-down feel intact, retaining its sense of standing precisely at the crossroads between jazz, blues, and gospel by relying on little more than Brown's voice, an acoustic bass, and subtle handclaps. The Funky Lowlives and Fila Brazillia also score with their modern versions of Dizzy Gillespie's "Manteca" and Cal Tjader's "Soul Sauce" respectively, while Willie Bobo's "Fried Neckbones and Some Home Fries" will go down as one of Dan the Automator's most understated -- and best -- remixes ever, with a fluid Latin vibe as potent as sugarcane rum.
Not everything on the two Remixed albums works to perfection. Gotan Project's attempt at Sarah Vaughan's "Whatever Lola Wants" tacks on plenty of bells and whistles, but can't hold a candle to the simmering, ultrasexy, and slightly folkish original. It's also a little unfair to expect much out of anyone commissioned to remix Billie Holiday: Tricky's stab at "Strange Fruit" is quirky, but it's nowhere near as chilling, haunting, or poignant as the original. Likewise, dZihan & Kamien are unable to improve on "Don't Explain," and neither Jaffa nor Felix da Housecat succeed with their makeovers of Nina Simone songs, which sound far too much like generic Euro-house. Fortunately, the same fate doesn't befall either Joe Claussell or Masters at Work, who know better than to reduce the High Priestess of Voodoo Soul to a footnote in her own songs.
Dyed-in-the-wool jazz purists may hate to admit it, but some of the unaltered arrangements on the Unmixed discs, while undeniably classic, do sound a little dated, although there are several tunes that could easily be played in today's clubs. By the same token, there's somewhat of an overreliance on clubby house music on both Remixed discs, which is fine for a night out, but can get a bit repetitive for home listening. It would have been nice to hear a jazz-influenced hip-hop producer such as Jazzy Jeff, Ali Shaheed Muhammed, or DJ Premier have a crack at some of the material; with any luck, this omission will be rectified by later volumes in this series. After all, there's plenty of great stuff lying around in the Verve vaults, just waiting to be rediscovered.
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