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There’s not one jazz musician in the Berlin-based electronica sextet Jazzanova. In fact, the members aren’t musicians at all. And their long-awaited long-playing debut, In Between, would hardly qualify as a jazz album to a purist. It does contain the risk-taking and the rhythmic and melodic pliancy that mark the greatest of jazz albums. But instead of improvising on chord changes or scales, Jazzanova riffs on concepts and dance-music subgenres, crafting luxuriant grooves out of extended samples that move with the unexpected turns and idiosyncratic logic of a Thelonious Monk solo.
Over the past five years, Jazzanova has become one of the most prolific and celebrated acts in underground dance music. The group brings a perfectionist’s touch to all of its work, taking up to three months to remix one single. Indeed, In Between was two years in the making. But this meticulousness doesn’t squeeze the life out of Jazzanova’s material or hinder its productivity. It’s amassed a huge catalog of 12-inch singles and remixes, and two years ago, the collective released The Remixes 1997-2000, a double-disc set of reconstructed tracks by Incognito, United Future Organization, Azymuth, and others. Outside the recording studio, Jazzanova has made its way to such big-time events as the Montreux Jazz Festival and the Montreal Jazz Festival, rocking the beats for club kids and serious jazzheads alike.
Unsurprisingly, In Between is as danceable as it is heady. Lead single “Soon” is broken-beat ecstasy, with fractured rhythms shifting underneath a shimmering electro collage and Philadelphia soul singer Vikter Duplaix’s burnished tenor, which soars over the turbulent soundscape like an eagle. The optimistic, dreamy lyrics—”Places and spaces/They too mean so much to me…/Soon/Everywhere I go/The things that I see change what I know and question what I believe”—and Duplaix’s wide-eyed delivery perfectly match the adventuresome nature of the song.
In Between segues from down-tempo chill-out to broken beats, from bossa nova to hiphop, from nu-soul to nu-jazz, assisted by several under-a-minute interludes. Though too brief to be real songs, these tracks are both marvelous environmental soundscapes and haikulike witticisms. “Fade Out” offers 40 seconds of possible endings for a song, each more elaborate than the last. “Cyclic” opens with the single word “darkness” and a few sparse piano chords before transforming itself into the melody of the next track, “Another New Day.” And the artsy “E-Ovation” deconstructs electronic hand claps into random pointillistic beats.
Electronica acts are usually fairly small, so the six-member Jazzanova is a relative behemoth. The group is basically three acts in one: DJs Jurgen von Knoblauch, Alexander Barck, and Claas Brieler remain from an earlier incarnation of Jazzanova; producers Stefan Leisering and Alex Reinemer come from Extended Spirit; and Roskow Kretschmann has recorded as Kosma. In a recent issue of British mag Straight No Chaser, Reinemer stated that the members of Jazzanova often work in pairs and are seldom in the studio all at once. That explains both the prismatic nature of In Between and the precision of its execution, which is facilitated by musicians such as bassist Paul Kleber, vibraphonist David Friedman, and pianist Hajime Yoshizawa.
Strangely, some of In Between’s best moments are those that sound almost as if there were too many hands twisting the knobs. The episodic opener, “L.O.V.E. and You & I,” is a masterstroke of sampling brilliance. The composition mutates from a disembodied Aquarian Age vocal chorus to a piano-driven bossa-nova groove; then down-tempo backbeats give way to bouncy hiphop and jerky broken beats. Two-thirds of the way through, after the rhythms have coalesced into a single groove, Friedman jumps in with a sparkling solo, riding the waves of a rumbling musical sea with daredevil aplomb.
“L.O.V.E.” sets the pace for the rest of the album, and no other song can quite keep up. The avant-gardish hiphop number “The One-Tet” is a close second, though. San Francisco house DJ Capital A rhymes over interlocking layers of double-jointed beats, polyrhythmic Afro-Cuban percussion, and rumbling piano riffs. It’s barely danceable, almost overwhelming in its complexity, and Capital A’s verses get lost in the mix, but the song is nonetheless captivating, offering an almost cubist take on composition.
Jazzanova stumbles, however, whenever it sounds as if the collective is taking the jazz thing too seriously. Wordless cuts such as the Japanese-inflected “Hanazono” and the New Age-y “Another New Day” don’t have enough instrumental interplay or rhythmic bump to hold your interest. And even the addition of veteran vocalist Doug Hammond, who used to sing with Archie Shepp and Charles Mingus, on the Afro-folksy “Dance the Dance” does little to make Jazzanova’s jazz sound less affected. Hammond’s plaintive baritone floats over sparse keyboard and kalimba riffs, and the song comes off like a cheap imitation of 4 Hero’s work with Terry Callier.
Much better are feet-friendly cuts such as the wistful “No Use,” featuring Clara Hill’s pillow-soft vocals, the optimistic “Mwela, Mwela (Here I Am),” enlivened by Valerie Etienne and Rob Gallagher’s soulful crooning, and the melancholy album-closer, “Wasted Time,” which showcases another impressive performance by Duplaix. All of these cuts have just the right amount of catchiness and gloss to give Jazzanova a shot at the pop charts. But it’s the risky juxtapositions of “L.O.V.E.” and “The One-Tet,” as well as the earnest, if ultimately unsuccessful, forays into jazz fusion that suggest a truly bright future for the group. If Jazzanova wants to live up to its name, it should stay left of center, where the outer reaches of jazz and electronica meet. CP