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If you had said, 15 or 20 years ago, that Germany would someday become a hotbed of soulful club music, you probably couldn’t have found a deep-house head in all the world to agree with you. Sure, Düsseldorf combo Kraftwerk made invaluable contributions to electronica in the early ’70s, and the robo-funk of Afrika Bambaataa, Newcleus, and the Jonzun Crew just wouldn’t have been the same without the influence of Trans-Europe Express or Computer World. But Kraftwerk’s innovations owed more to the rhythmic friction between man and machine and the bloodless sounds of technology than to organic swagger and sweat or anything rooted in American R&B.
Of course, Germany eventually caught on to what was happening overseas, not only to the sound of Kraftwerk at the hands of early hiphoppers, but also to black music in general. And now, more than two decades after Kraftwerk’s pioneering efforts, Germany is a major player in both electronica and soulful sounds of all sortsjazz, certainly, but also R&B, hiphop, and even house. Indeed, Munich-based Compost Records is responsible for releasing some of the world’s most soulful and sonically dazzling electronica in recent years.
Compost staked out its position with the release of Jazzanova’s In Between, a Berlin-made mix of broken beat, soul jazz, and Afro-Brazilian pop that became the deep-house soundtrack to the summer of 2002. This time around, the label brings us the debut album by Trüby Trio, Elevator Music. Though the group’s membersRoland Appel, Christian Prommer, and Rainer Trüby, who is also Compost’s A&R directorreside in quiet, provincial Munich and its outskirts, you can’t call them unworldly. They share Jazzanova’s globe-trotting sensibilities and demonstrate a love for bossa nova, samba, and other South American idiomsnot to mention Afrobeat, R&B, and jazzed-up
Nuyorican deep house.
Also like Jazzanova, Trüby Trio took a while to deliver a proper long-player. The group formed in 1997, when former jazz musicians Appel and Prommer (who also perform as Fauna Flash) hooked up with Trüby, best known for his DJing. After releasing a series of ear-catching singles, remixes for the likes of Kyoto Jazz Massive and Bebel Gilberto, and a DJ Kicks compilation, they’ve upped their game. If Elevator Music doesn’t push the sonic envelope as much as Jazzanova’s painstakingly produced In Between, it pushes the grooves harder, with more sensual bass lines, bracing melodies, and percolating rhythms, all aimed straight for your feet.
And Trüby Trio, for the most part, avoids the experimental missteps taken on In Between. Elevator Music contains no awkward hiphop/broken-beat/Afrobeat meshes such as In Between’s “The One-Tet,” and Trüby Trio completely avoids Jazzanova’s occasional lapses into tedious ethno-jazz fusion. The closest the Munichers come is “Make a Move,” an Afro-Cuban rumba/Afrobeat number, which narrowly escapes a musical train wreck.
Given its creators’ previous work, it’s not surprising that Elevator Music comes with a good share of undulating cuts inspired by Brazilian and other Latin musics. On the fetching “Jaleo,” Trüby Trio demonstrates its skill at concocting Spanish-tinged house, augmenting Martin Kursawe’s flamenco guitar licks and Raoul Walton’s surging bass lines with peppery Latin beats and a passionate contribution from vocalist Concha Buika. The group also revisits two of its 12-inch singles with “A Go Go,” a kind of Latin boogaloo, and “Alegre 2003,” which seduces you with complex batucada rhythms and a dusky Carnaval vibe. The trio falls flat, though, on the drum ‘n’ bass-infused cover of Jorge Ben’s “A Festa,” with tinny beats and ominous synth chords swiping away nearly all the sensuality of the cuica rhythms and unison vocals.
Elevator Music grooves hardest on the R&B cuts. “Universal Love,” with its feel-good chorus, scratchy guitar licks, and popping bass, could easily serve as the CD’s centerpiece. Marcus Begg’s gravelly voice calls for worldwide peace and love achieved through the power of good old-fashioned soul music, and the chorus is taken straight out of ’70s funk band LTD’s “Love to the World.” But Trüby Trio tweaks the song with ’80s keyboard squeals and rubbery beats, making it sound more like a Randy Muller-style summer jam than the Mizell Brothers- produced original. Begg is featured again on the caressing “Lover Uncovered,” a breezy midtempo ballad that combines doo-wop harmonies and a ragamuffin groove. It’s Joseph Malik, though, who sings lead on the album’s best R&B cut: His eerie tenor gets treated to an equally captivating soundscape of sustained chords, creepy percussion fills, and a sinewy hiphop beat on “Bad Luck,” whose lyrics and feel echo Curtis Mayfield’s darkest cautionary tales.
Most electronica acts worthy of their MPC-2000 have a strong diva up front to help solidify their identity; Trüby Trio’s is Wunmi. Although the British-Nigerian vocalist appears on only two songs, her commanding presence transforms Elevator Music from an excellent album to a must-have. On the energetic “Runnin’,” she turns in a Grace Jones-esque performance, her edgy soprano driving both the message and the music. And Wunmi is largely responsible for saving “Make a Move” from experimental debris. As the song jerks back and forth between Afro-Cuban and Afrobeat, it’s her beguiling whispers and yelps that keep the listener from pushing the Skip button.
For all Elevator Music’s eclecticism, the one virtue Trüby Trio holds highest seems to be the impeccable production values associated with German electronica, as is evidenced by the likes of “Cruisin’,” “Satisfaction,” and “New Music.” The last, in fact, is a direct descendant of Kraftwerk’s “Musique Non Stop.” These songs are decidedly less organic-sounding than their R&B-, Afrobeat-, and Latin-inspired companion pieceswhich reveals Trüby Trio to be a lot more Teutonic than it might wish.
Still, even when the machines propel the grooves, Elevator Music easily manages to make the connection between Trans-Europe Express and Soul Train. CP