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Markus Stockhausen, Arild Andersen, and Patrice Héral with Terje Rypdal

I started to watch Ken Burns’ Jazz this past Saturday, but I kept getting sidetracked by Cops. I know: Shame on me for finding a crystal-meth-dealing father getting busted in front of his kid more compelling than heroin-addicted Charlie Parker. But Jazz is for the general public—not me—as much of what Burns covers is old news to jazz nerds.

Much has been made of Burns’ ignoring the past 40 years of jazz history, which he wraps up in a single episode of his 10-part series. It’s a shame that Burns decided against covering free jazz, world jazz, and fusion, as well as jazztronica—jazz plus electronica (in its every permutation, from ambient to jungle)—the most significant development in the music since fusion sputtered into smooth jazz 25 years ago. Jazztronica, in fact, is so relatively new and unexplored that I had to create that crappy genre name for it.

Jazztronica is an outgrowth of edgy late-’60s and early-’70s fusion, when the studio truly became an instrument in jazz, as it had been for pop groups ever since the Beatles made eight tracks sound like 64. (Although jazz artists such as Bill Evans and Lennie Tristano experimented with multitracking, the practice was generally looked on as heresy in the jazz world, because it didn’t fall under the music’s spontaneous-group-interaction modus operandi.) Miles Davis seeded jazztronica with studio-jam cutups such as 1969’s Bitches Brew and 1972’s On the Corner. Later, Jon Hassell’s early-’80s Fourth World records, Possible Musics and Dream Theory in Malaya, furthered Davis’ approach.

Davis again explored studiocentric jazz on albums such as 1986’s Tutu and 1991’s Doo-Bop. But it wasn’t until the mid-’90s that jazztronica really hit its stride, with albums such as Graham Haynes’ computer-processed Transition (1994) and The Griots Footsteps (1995), Courtney Pine’s Pro Tools-sculpted Modern Day Jazz Stories (1995), and Phantom City’s Site Anubis (1996), to which Paul Schütze, Bill Laswell, and other musicians, working in separate studios around the world, contributed solo performances that were then chopped up and reassembled.

After this rush of sound, there was mostly silence—or there should have been. Haynes released the New Age dud Tones for the 21st Century in 1996 and then seemed to go into hiding. In 1997, Pine slid out the bland Underground. And Phantom City convened in 1996 for a Finnish jazz festival, released parts of the concert as Shiva Recoil: LiveUnlive, and promptly disappeared.

Just when jazztronica seemed to be sputtering out before it ever really began, 2000 saw the release of four strong albums in the genre: Haynes’ BPM, Tim Hagans and Bob Belden’s Re-Animation Live! (a concert recording of their 1999 drum ‘n’ bass effort, Animation), and Cuong Vu’s Bound and Pure. And with the recent releases of Nils Petter Molvær’s Solid Ether and Markus Stockhausen, Arild Andersen, and Patrice Héral’s Karta, jazztronica is gathering strength, mostly because record labels have realized whom to market the records to: not the stodgy readers of old-school jazz mags, but the Glow Stick-toting kids who subscribe to Urb, Jockey Slut, and Revolution.

Norwegian trumpeter Molvær has worked with triphoppers Portishead and Massive Attack, as well as with acid-house heads Basement Jaxx. And although most of the drum ‘n’ bass-influenced Solid Ether builds on the group interaction of guitarist Eivind Aarset, bassist Audun Erlien, drummers Per Lindvall and Rune Arnesen, and DJ Strangefruit, the album opens with “Dead Indeed,” which features Molvær—electronica-producer-style—playing everything but guitar. It would be easy to assume, then, that the track falls into the trap of so many electronica tunes: everything fitting cleanly and evenly around unwavering, preprogrammed rhythms. But Molvær is a jazzman, so he extends his melodies over bar lines, changes speeds with his junglized drum samples, and generally tries to emulate a band in full jam mode.

The disc’s two versions of “Vilderness” also begin with Molvær playing solo, this time through a heavily processed horn. But he’s soon joined by the band—or at least a virtual version of the band. The group’s initial improvisations were taken apart and reconfigured in the studio layer by layer, creating two separate pieces linked only by Molvær’s short but distinct trumpet melody.

Both takes on “Vilderness” evoke the lightly skittering beats and moody ambience of avant drum ‘n’ bass outfit Spring Heel Jack, and the balladlike “Kakonita” and “Merciful 1” are similarly delicate and haunting. But Solid Ether takes a briefly darker turn with the stomping, S&M-inspired “Ligotage” and the funkier “Trip,” both of which recall the pounding, heavy-metal dance beats Björk and 808 State’s Graham Massey explored on their “Army of Me” single.

By album’s end, Solid Ether settles into midtempo grooves with “Tragamar,” the title track, and the brief piano ballad “Merciful 2,” featuring vocalist Sidsel Endresen.

Throughout, it’s hard to tell where the almighty improv ends and the heretical studio constructions begin. Molvær chops up the performances, reconfigures them as timbral effects or spliced-together solos, rendering these hot, on-the-spot performances mere samples. But Molvær’s songs have so many compelling musical tangents shooting through them that these precisely molded tunes take on a vibrant life of their own, breathing like any thriving jazz-ensemble performance. Adventurous jazz fans shouldn’t have any problems with that.

Jazz purists would probably fault Molvær for his lack of a distinct trumpet sound, as well as for his rather restrained improvisations. His trumpet tone is thin and often hidden in electronic treatments, and his whole-note placeholders seem staid when compared with, say, Hagans’ machine-gun eighth notes on Re-Animation Live!. But what Molvær lacks in virtuosity and improvisational skill, he more than makes up for in his knack for creating detailed sonic environments that should grab electronica fans and at least intrigue open-eared jazz listeners.

Whereas Molvær dives headfirst into the studio side of jazztronica, fellow trumpeter Stockhausen, son of modern classical master Karlheinz, takes Vu’s relatively postproduction-free approach, making psychedelic rock- and electronica-influenced acoustic-electric jazz. And unlike Solid Ether, which is purely Molvær’s vision, Stockhausen’s latest, the ambient Karta, is a collaborative effort. Although the augmented trio of Stockhausen, bassist Arild Andersen, drummer Patrice Héral, and special-guest guitarist Terje Rypdal assembled in an Oslo, Norway, studio with themes and songs that Stockhausen and Andersen had written, nearly all of them were discarded once the group started improvising.

Despite the lack of post-production trickery, the group achieved an electronicalike vibe by running its instruments through effects and gadgets of all sorts. Stockhausen used a harmonizer, reverb, and a wah-wah pedal; Andersen and Héral used samplers and delays; and Rypdal’s six-string tone had long been one of the most heavily treated in music—far, far away from that dark, dull, and muddy sound that has forever defined jazz guitar.

Unlike the more regimented Solid Ether, Karta washes over you like a nice, hot, lulling shower. The tracks are mostly collections of evocative timbres, gentle improvisations, ringing percussion, and pastoral effects. The most distinct cut is the stunning closer, “Lighthouse,” which features Andersen’s kalimbalike ostinato pattern anchoring Stockhausen’s gorgeous, classically minded melodies, Rypdal’s swelling waves of sound, and Héral’s shimmering percussion.

Stockhausen’s playing doesn’t sound anything like Davis’—Markus is classically trained, and his precise intonation, forceful attack, and strong tone are the inverse of Miles’ singular but often strained sound—but the influence of the older musician’s dark, early-’70s ambient improvs runs throughout Karta. The moody muted-trumpet track “Legacy” is even dedicated to the Prince of Darkness. But what comes around goes around: After all, it was Papa Stockhausen who influenced Davis to take those genre-expanding sonic risks in the first place. CP