Thursday, October 14, 2010

Nu-Jazz: A Microcosmogrammatical Examination

If you're not familiar with the microgenre of nu-jazz, please allow me to explain: Imagine an alternate planetary system somewhere way out in the cosmic unknown. Let's say that at the center of this system is a sun, and this sun happens to be called Jazz. Like all suns, Jazz has a gravitational pull that causes other celestial objects to orbit around it. Now, envision Nu-Jazz on the very outskirts of Jazz’s pull—the Pluto of this musical solar system, as it were. Fittingly enough, some might argue that Nu-Jazz isn't even part is this solar system, and these folks have a valid case. After all, even though Nu-Jazz is still within Jazz’s field, it wobbles on its axis in a most peculiar way and revolves ever so off-kilter, threatening to hurdle off into space at any moment—perhaps to the neighboring Hip Hop galaxy or maybe to the Electronic sector or perchance to the Funk nebula. It may be grounded in the tenets of traditional jazz—what with its jittering syncopations and intricate polyrhythms—but the ancestry of nu-jazz ultimately sums to a sound wholly unique from its parts.

Now, please follow me back to Earth and join me in Winnetka, California. A small town outside of Los Angeles, Winnetka is to nu-jazz as Columbia, SC, is to chillwave and Manchester was to post-punk in the late ‘70s; that is, it is the birthplace, the evolutionary nexus, and for all intents and purposes, the headquarters of the genre. Specifically, the HQ is located at Brainfeeder Records, the label started by nu-jazz giant Steven Ellison, the man behind the Flying Lotus moniker. A nu-jazz all-star lineup, Brainfeeder is also home to fellow genre bigwigs Daedelus, Samiyam, and The Gaslamp Killer. I’m not sure one abstruse, name-dropping example will help clarify another, but it might help to think of Brainfeeder as the nu-jazz equivalent of witch house’s Disaro Records, which lays claim to oOoOO, White Ring, and host of other esoterically renowned musicians…

On second thought, like the often abrupt harmonic shifts in nu-jazz music, allow me to abandon my admittedly futile attempts at explaining music through obscure analogy and convoluted imagery, and let’s let the music do the explaining—specifically Flying Lotus’s magnum opus, Cosmogramma. Sure, the LP came out this past May, but if there was ever such a thing as an instant classic, this is it. A surprisingly tightly conceived concept album, the record builds in warm, ethereal, yet altogether epileptic samples that let the listener know that he’s in nu-jazz’s nerve center, as it were. This pre-liftoff procedure continues until track six, “Computer Face/Pure Being,” where FlyLo introduces the first out-and-out melody in the form of a massive synth line, and the engines start revving.

Then, Flying Lotus at ground control sends Major Thom Yorke to outer space on “…And the World Laughs with You.” And it is here, I’d say, where Ellison’s true genius is exhibited: instead of putting Yorke’s vocals front and center in the mix, he opts to utilize the Brit’s wavering wail as an instrument. This is ballsy. After landing perhaps the biggest and most respected name in modern music in the Radiohead frontman, Steven Ellison buries Yorke’s voice beneath a load of reverb and dizzying synthesizers and even chops it up—just to feed it back to us in sampled splices.

These moments of genius are by no means scarce events, mind you; rather, they’re hidden and are only revealed through repeat listens. For example, in the sensual “MmmHmm,” you’d have yourself a radio-worthy R&B hook and melody if the frantic bass line and overdriven percussion were silenced. Then, in “Do the Astral Plane,” FlyLo plays with the listener at 3:32, dropping out the Kanye-esque lilting strings and club-ready electro synths so that only the claps remain. It is here, in the negative space, that the listener realizes how much controlled chaos Flying Lotus is managing at one time.

And when we get to “Table Tennis,” we find nu-jazz’s answer to Enrique Iglesias’s “Do You Know.” But unlike its pop counterpart, the intervallically irregular ping-pong in “Table Tennis” is in no way danceable or immediately poppy; instead, it brings us full circle. That is, “Table Tennis”—perhaps the anthem of the nu-jazz microgenre—features guest vocalist Laura Darlington singing of gravity and motion and energy and elasticity, reminding us of the abstract lineage of this music. In a way, this penultimate song of Cosmogramma brings us back to a certain aural Great Unknown. We once again find ourselves traveling through the acoustic cosmos, steadily learning the arcane musical grammar of nu-jazz with each listen with Flying Lotus as our guide.

Do the Astral Plane [alt]

MmmHmm (ft. Thundercat) [alt]

Table Tennis (ft. Laura Darlington) [alt]

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Surely Bristol was the birthplace of trip hop, in like the early 90's

Anonymous said...

you've probably got half of davidson whipping out their dictionaries right now haha

Anonymous said...

bravo. Short & sweet

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I wouldn't say FlyLo had anything to do with the birth of trip hop, J. Dilla and others had been doing it for a while before any part of Brainfeeder or Alpha Pup had a chance to enfluence the scene. That being said what Mr. Ellis and his contemporaries are doing is at the forefront of a type of avente-gaurd hip hop that is beautiful, dancable, genius and totally unique to Los Angeles. I'd be lying if I wasn't aware that my living in LA at this point in musical history is a gift. Seeing these guys regularly and being able to go to Low End Theory every Wednesday will forever be some of my most treasured memories. Winnetka pride! Haha

sidewaysrun said...

Fantastic read. That first paragraph essentially summarised what I felt about the genre but failed to put into words. Thank you

Steven Hummel said...

I actually struggled to decide what genre to place FlyLo's music in for the sake of my argument because it really evades categorization. I was originally going to call it trip hop, but then I decided Massive Attack and Tricky and the like were the pioneers of that genre in the early 90s. Then, I moved to the nu-jazz idea.

I don't believe I ever claimed that FlyLo developed trip hop, unless I accidentally posted an earlier draft...which I just realized I did. I stand corrected. Thank you, friends.

Sander Marques said...

Really nicely worded! I like your "Jazz as a sun" analogy.

oksoundsgood said...

nice article, very well written....only thing is that "nu jazz" term kind of just makes me cringe, something about that "nu" reminds me of a lot of bad pseudo jazzy/ lounge acid jazz compilations during the late 90s.
How bout we meet half way and call it "new Jazz"?

:)

Steven Hummel said...

How about nü-jazz with the umlaut, oksoundsgood? Way more pretentious. Probably should've gone with that initially.

I appreciate the comments and praise, friends.

Anonymous said...

Neü Yazz

Steven Hummel said...

Krautjazz?

Anonymous said...

Imho I believe you've forgotten some key figures such as Sa-ra/shafiq husayn, and others.

Anonymous said...

It's great music, but yer love for it is clouding your perspective. Lots of great artists you haven't mentioned and not everything good in jazz (or nu-jazz) necessarily revolves directly around FL. Just sayin.

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