Peggy Oliver: A Perfect Match: Jazz and the DJ

The mighty art of remixing has a few things in common with jazz. In both instances, craftsmen are firing their improvisational bullets by inserting samples here, manipulating notes there and switching the musical mood or tempo everywhere. Both the DJ and the jazz musicians' originality lies in how well they can rework old and familiar material to create a new work that's undeniably their own. It is perhaps fitting then that these kindred spirits of improvisation have forged a musical relationship on wax. The fruits have spawned a musical phenomenon with a number of jazz remix projects capturing the public's attention, impressing critics and creating a windfall for a handful of labels cashing in on their dusty vaults of back catalog gold. With such esteemed institutional jazz labels like Savoy Jazz, Blue Note Records and Verve opening those vaults and lending their respected gleam to the remix DJ, the jazz remix project-and its arbiters-are an oddity no more; they're finally respected musicians in their own right.

Two of the labels discussed above, Savoy and Blue Note, sparked the Bebop movement in the early forties and have over the last two decades continued to spawn remixes, reconstructions or reinterpretations of such jazz greats as Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderly and Dizzy Gillespie by such noted craftsman as DJ Spinna, Madlib and King Britt. A third conglomerate, Verve, sprung into prominence in the mid-fifties by peppering some soul into its jazz menu with a roster of female powerhouses like Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone given fresh sounds by Joe Claussell and Thievery Corporation. The latter label, Verve, has recently released the fourth installment of its highly prolific remix series, one whose stumbles are out-of-step with a modern musical genre known for its boldness and daring. But more on that later.

For its foray into the remix game, Savoy Jazz has well-represented itself in this emerging genre a couple of times, including 2006's Rebop: The Savoy Originals, which juxtaposed hip-hop's multi-dimensional sonic beats with Bebop's frantic rhythms. There are two strong examples of this signature juxtaposition on Rebop worthy of comment. The jittering vibe solo from Milt Jackson as The Modern Jazz Quartet's "Movin' Nicely," accented by DJ Eclipse's tight scratches and laidback drums is one. Another, DJ Spooky's razor sharp cut and paste job on Charlie Parker's "Koko." Spooky's respectfully illuminating touch on the Parker classic teaches listeners a lesson on the complexity of the Bebop experience. The creative success of Rebop is a fulfillment of the glimpsed ingenuity Savoy Jazz's promised three years earlier on another Bebop experiment.

In 2003, Savoy also deservedly saluted Parker, one of Bebop's most influential forces, in a full-length remix affair, Bird Up: The Charlie Parker Remix Project. This was not your run-of-mill remix experience, as experimental boundaries were pushed to the limit. Reconstructed takes of "Bird of Paradise" and "Cheers" offer two cases in point about this project's boundary stretching. "Bird of Paradise," with its schizophrenic trip down chill hill, Meat Loaf bravado vocals and an angry rant by producer Serj Tankian from alternative rock unit System of a Down is an acquired taste to be sure. Another daring audiophile moment comes in listening to the X-Ecutioners on-point scratches rubbing elbows with the horn section on "Cheers."

Savoy's risk-taking and innovation with Bird Up and Rebop brought music critics to their feet. In May 2006, listeners also rewarded Savoy's Rebop with a Top 25 debut on the Billboard Contemporary Jazz Charts, marking the label's critically acclaimed entrance into the remix game with plenty of just financial desserts.

Never to be outshone, Blue Note Records got into the remix act with its respected Be-Bop and Progressive Jazz catalog using two very different artists, Us3 and DJ Madlib, respectively, to refresh their sound. The remix/reinterpretation project, Shades of Blue, was piloted by the well-versed DJ/producer Madlib and gave young small jazz combos a chance to shine in honoring the song's original versions. Madlib's Yesterdays New Quintet revisualization of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints" and Horace Silver's "Song For My Father," played by Sound Directions featuring Madlib on acoustic bass, were the two highlights amongst this project's more usual hip-hop remixes.

On a totally different plane, in their nod with Blue Note, Hands On The Touch, the duo, Us3, sparked mainstream audience awareness of the modern Acid Jazz movements then hidden contribution to music. The idea of this duo tinkering with the Blue Note's sacred catalog was not without its share of controversy, but Us3 let the Blue Note samples take center stage. It proved the right move for both Us3 and Blue Note as Hand On The Torch went on to garner a monster Billboard Top 10 hit in 1994 with "Cantaloop," a remix of Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island." Other charters and notables included the laid-back follow-up to "Cantaloop," the dancehall infected "Tukka Yoot's Riddim" and "Sookie Sookie," sporting the inimitable Grant Green's chunky organ lines. Hands On The Touch was but one in a line of internationally successful remix projects launched by Blue Note throughout the 1990s.

Observing the lucrative trend begun at Blue Note, Verve and their family of labels launched a plan of attack of there own. With some of the most prominent artists in jazz history lining their catalog, Verve had plenty of ammunition on hand, and seemed to be the most aggressive in expanding its remix library. Whether it's the unpretentious style of Nina Simone; the epitome of Brazilian cool in Astrud Gilberto; the Afro-Cuban rhythms of Willie Bobo, or two of Jazz's vocal queens, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn, Verve Remixed has stayed the course for three installments since 2002. Several of the remixes earned Verve a virtual mint in music licensing, with Nine Simone remixes making appearances in movies like Cellular and popular TV shows such Sex and the City and Carman McCrae's digitized voice appearing in several national advertising campaigns.

Verve Remixed 4, unlike the previous efforts, plunges into more soulful strides, which is by far its biggest strength. The Truth & Soul team, which recently teamed with retro soul/blues vocalist Amy Winehouse, molds Dinah Washington's "Cry Me A River" into a stimulating torch ballad with not too much tinkering other than gentle guitar strokes and the smoother updated beats. Boasting Joss Stone on his production resume, Mike Mangani revisits the sixties go-go swing of Motown as Simone's "Gimme Some" complete with xylophone fills, tom-tom drum breaks and peppy harmonies. James Brown (who once actually contributed to Verve at his peak with the late jazz drummer Louis Belson's Big Band) gets the masterful Kenny ‘Dope' Gonzales treatment on "There Was A Time," pretty much leaving the funky personality, grunts and all, intact. Marlena Shaw's "California Soul" is amplified, thanks to DJ Diplo's swift horn and string track restructuring.

After these gems, however, the rest of Verve Remixed 4 is just "okay." There are enough shocking disappoints to go around, but two tickle the gag reflex. In Cinematic Orchestra's (AKA Jason Swinscoe) hands, Ella Fitzgerald's "I Get A Kick Out Of You" becomes a sluggish country song gone way south. Roy Ayers' soulful gas "Everybody Loves The Sunshine," dissolves under the hip-hop producer, 9th Wonder's, hollow drum programs.

Given the on-line community's overwhelmingly positive reactions to the Verve Remix series as a whole and with the discretionary appeal of the iTunes format, which will allow listeners to cherry pick from this latest installment, I believe the Verve franchise will survive these unfortunate missteps. Still, it's a bit sad that Verve didn't continue the major jazz labels' modern tradition of continually pushing the envelope on this eclectic marriage between jazz and the DJ. For my money, Verve Remix 4 could have been entirely devoted to the soulful and funkier side of remixing, a side, heretofore, rarely seen (a little hint for future volumes). That said, knowing that those jazz vaults still have plenty of diamonds left for those innovative DJs to mine, this celebrated high-tech era of jazz remixes will continue to live on through Blue Note, Savoy, and especially Verve, which no doubt has a Remix 5 already up their sleeve.

By Peggy Oliver  

 
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