Moment by Moment

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

Though you can hear something similar in really dense funk (or Timbaland tracks), in the dance world that's been the exception—bassist and drummer are usually too pleased when they devise a fresh groove to risk messing with it. Jungle—at least in its original, beat-crazy form—changes all that. For jazzbos, jungle heals a half-century-old breach between dancers and heads. It offers all those Village Vanguard patrons who expend so much energy tapping their fingers and toes the chance to do what management won't allow—move their asses to Elvin Jones's beat.

Check a recent 12-inch like "Static" (Test Recordings import)—an uncredited track by the jungle producer Lemon D. that has nothing to do with "jazz." "Static" is built on the Amen, a 30-year-old breakbeat swiped off "Amen, Brother," an otherwise obscure soul B-side by the otherwise obscure Winstons. The Amen is the most ubiquitous break in jungle, functioning the way Ray Noble's "Cherokee" did for bop altoists—a pattern recognized within a musical subculture as a neutral site for theme and variation. How good a saxophone player was Art Pepper after he got clean? Let's compare his 1977 cover of "Cherokee" with one of Charlie Parker's to find out. How good a producer is Lemon D.? Let's see how "Static" stands up to Amen workouts by Dillinja or Shy FX or Ray Keith.

In fact, it stands up quite well. Lemon D. takes the Amen (which is basically one measure of 4/4 with double-time on the third and fourth beats, though that hardly gets across its microscopic syncopations, or the vivid snare timbre the producer captured) and atomizes it. After a brief intro, D. samples the first beat of the Amen and hits it seven times (two measures of 4/4, the second suspended on a silent fourth beat) before letting the whole thing loose. The rest of the track is full of such splinterings, especially one pas sage where D. trades fours between two mutations of the Amen—one fairly typical, the other pitched down and gummier. Though D. avails himself of studio effects that most jazz producers would regard as cheating, his cubist approach to the beat is closer to a jazz drummer's than to a techno producer's.

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.

If this rhythmic slipperiness has quick ened dancefloors around the world, it's also made for heady listening. On its recent 12-inch "Summer Mist" (Reinforced Records import), Fusion Forum perks up a liquid guitar solo that would've seemed at home on a Les Dudek album by peppering it with jagged beats. Where the guitarist (sampled or real I'm not sure) prizes finesse over emotional directness, effortlessly pulling bouquet after bouquet out of his soundhole, the drum programming undercuts his suavity, shuffling and reshuffling the 4/4 until the guitarist's unrelenting legato seems like a form of mania. It's enough to make you want to check out a Les Dudek album, or at least remix one. "Summer Mist"'s unofficial companion record is Isometric (Reinforced) by Steve Alexander, a drummer whose shtick is playing junglelike beats on a trap set. The results are a bit too evanescent, if only because Alexander's technique lacks both the irresistible danceability of jungle and the neurotic momentum of modern jazz. But they make the essential point that the only thing keeping a recording like Miles Davis's 1967 "Hand Jive" from being a dance track is the miking and mixing of Tony Williams's drums.

Which is why it's no surprise that it's turning into a two-way street. Next week, the jazz trumpeter Tim Hagans releases Animation/Imagination, his fourth album for Blue Note—and his first featuring jungle beats. The title of the lead track, "The Original Dram and Bass," is a cheeky reminder that even if jungle's roots are in rave and reggae and hiphop, it has, by the process biologists call evolutionary con version, ended up with something akin to jazz. Jungle hasn't produced any Parkers or Ellingtons, and perhaps it never will. But if jazz is regarded as a trading post where African-based rhythmic and timbral innovations are smuggled into the heart of Western music, and Western innovations—be they harmonic development or digital technology—return the favor, then the connection is clear. It doesn't matter if you're an Ayers-hater or loathe the junglists' Spyro Gyrations. For reasons they don't articulate very well, jungle right now sounds like the—or, OK, a—Shape of Jazz To Come.

Lemon D. will spin at Konkrete Jungle at S.O.B's Thursday.

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