Moment by Moment

How Jungle Is--and Isn't--the 'New Jazz'

"It's Jazzy." "Jazz 100." "Jaz Architecture." Jazz & Bass Session, Volume II. Jazz in a Box. Jaz-Klash. When jungle, the most messianic of electronica subcultures, isn't busy declaring itself the Next Big Thing, it's dubbing itself the New Jazz. Which is odd; DJ culture is dance culture, and jazz hasn't been a dance culture since Charlie Parker set up shop on 52nd Street. But a connection is being grasped at. Both musics are identifiably black, both are primarily instrumental, and both claim status as an art music within the boundaries of popular music. When Goldie denounces jump-up jungle—the music's most partycentric subgenre—as lacking artistic merit, it's the old battle between bebop brainiacs and JATP honkers and shouters all over again.

Nowhere in jungle are jazz references more commonplace than in the newfangled retro style known as Afro-funk. A recent movement that's put the fun back into a music that was turning into a rerun of industrial, Afro-funk gets on the goodfoot by swiping early-'70s jazz-funk samples left and right. Peshay's "Miles From Home" (Mo' Wax import), Adam F's "Brand New Funk" (V/Ultra), Successful Criminals' "Control Freak," and JMJ & Richie's "Zebra 3" (Moving Shadow imports) are recent 12-inches featuring the acoustic basslines and sampled horn sections that are already a staple of the form. Still, jazzheads whose ears perk up at the familiar sounds are in for a disappointment. The Afro-funkers are boffo at arrangements—taking a bassline from here, a wahwah riff from there, and a breakbeat from somewhere else, and patching them together into something entirely new. But they're lousy at what jazz excels at—development. After two minutes, you get how ingeniously Peshay splices a horn blare, a Rhodes break, and some crowd cheers, and then it's just five minutes of getting it again and again while you wait for the DJ to mix something else in. Arguably, that's the point—these tracks are made for mixing, not listening, and it's foolish to hold them to an irrelevant standard of structure. But it's not foolish to wish the tracks worked both ways, especially since so many of them—"Miles From Home" is an example—come packaged with elaborate cover art that declares "Music" as unmistakably as a plain white sleeve declares "DJ Tool."

An even bigger problem for jazz fans is what junglists mean by "jazz"—a hall of fame where Roy Ayers is the most valuable arranger who ever lived and Bob James is the greatest pianist of all time. The jazz-funk that Afro-funk samples is a lowly subspecies best known for providing background music to '70s cop shows. LTJ Bukem's "jazzy" jungle is basically Chick Corea's The Leprechaun revved up with crystalline breakbeats. And Goldie, the jungle spokesman who alienates entire musical constituencies every time he opens his mouth, has often declared his love for Yellowjackets.

Lemon D.'s cubist approach to the beat is more like Elvin Jones's than a techno's producer's.
Lemon D.'s cubist approach to the beat is more like Elvin Jones's than a techno's producer's.

But out of such misprisions great pop-culture advances are made. You don't have to like jungle's sources to like what the junglists make out of them. On the dancefloor, the only place it counts, Afro-funk sounds like jazz-funk with the courage of its convictions—rather than tiptoeing around jazz while making a tentative step into pop, Afro-funk dives into dance. Jazzy jungle undercuts fusion's unctuous sweetness by lending it a useful rhythmic jitteriness. Context, the junglists are always reminding us, is every thing—Eric Gale and Tom Scott's albums don't sound any better now than they did in the '70s, but those cats did just fine on Steely Dan records. In fact, anything more ambitious than their well-honed "licks" might have crowded Becker and Fagen out of the picture.

Still, none of this qualifies as jazz, any more than John Coltrane playing "My Favorite Things" made him a Broadway composer. But just where a jazz fan would never think to seek them out, genuinely jazzlike stirrings are there to be found. Though much electronica comes packaged in visions of a space-age future, in fact the music elaborates and explodes an Eternal Now. If a producer is doing his job right, each moment of a track should bristle with excitement and novelty. Harmonic or melodic development and lyrical invention are beside the point, which is spinning out a three-dimensional soundscape that a dancer can get lost in. If a track creates a series of mind-boggling, body-rattling experiences, the connective tissue between them is immaterial. There are builds and climaxes, but with rare exception they're so predictable they're musically meaningless. Trump Tower has a structure too—that doesn't make it architecture. Jazz, on the other hand, foregrounds the soloist's production of new harmonic substructures. Only the cheesiest saxophonist settles for moment-by-moment thrills—little whoops and hollers that elicit whoops and hollers from the audience. The rest build a solo measure by measure, etching out unique pathways between familiar chord sequences.

And yet, jazz too is marked by a constant interest in dressing up the moment. Though jazz history is usually told as the story of Great Men, all of them horn players or pianists, there's a counterhistory that sees the heroic jazz soloist as the front for a series of rhythmic revolutions that stretches from Jo Jones to Art Blakey to Elvin Jones to Andrew Cyrille. You can always tell a first-rate jazz combo from an also-ran by what the rhythm section does during the solo. In any great band, the drummer, bassist, and pianist shift the beat around incessantly—the drummer dropping an accent, the pianist comping in double time for a few measures, the bassist imitating a tom-tom fill. This rarely achieves the level of structure—it's more a dense form of chattering, a close cousin of the African tradition of hocketing.

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