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By Bryan Bierman
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"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 junglethe music's most partycentric subgenreas 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 arrangementstaking 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 atdevelopment. 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 pointthese 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 examplecome 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.
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 convictionsrather 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 thingEric 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 toothat 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 thrillslittle 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 incessantlythe 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 structureit's more a dense form of chattering, a close cousin of the African tradition of hocketing.
Though you can hear something similar in really dense funk (or Timbaland tracks), in the dance world that's been the exceptionbassist and drummer are usually too pleased when they devise a fresh groove to risk messing with it. Jungleat least in its original, beat-crazy formchanges 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 allowmove 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 altoistsa 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 Amenone 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.
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 Noteand 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 innovationsbe they harmonic development or digital technologyreturn 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 theor, OK, aShape of Jazz To Come.
Lemon D. will spin at Konkrete Jungle at S.O.B's Thursday.