By Eric Blendermann
Raise your hand if you’re feeling a bit parched. In most parts of the U.S., anyway, it seems like it’s been a long, hot summer already, and we’re only halfway through July. After enough overheated, unhealthy-air-quality days, the occasional cool-down comes as an unexpected and welcome surprise, and if you get a little summer rain, it’s positively restorative…
In a similar vein, I’m feeling a bit parched by a lot of the music I’m hearing lately. With the evolution of music-production technology, it seems to me like a lot of artists and producers are embracing the extremes of machine-made sounds – vocals Auto-Tuned to the nth degree, ear-splittingly abrasive electronics intended to be “hard”, subsonic bass wub-wubbing in your chest – often with very interesting results, but boy, there’s an awful lot of machines making music at the moment.
That’s why I was surprised and refreshed by Funkhaus Studio Sessions, the latest release by the Berlin-based production/DJ collective Jazzanova (on their label Sonar Kollectiv). This collection of 14 tracks is a bright, lovingly hand-made project that attempts to capture the sound of Jazzanova’s live-band shows, following three years of touring. The manifesto for Funkhaus Studio Sessions could be drawn from “I Human,” a new song on the album: “I dedicate this song to all the human nation,” sings vocalist and band member Paul Randolph. This is definitely an album made for humans by a group of humans, playing actual instruments, cooperating and collaborating to produce the organic and authentic sound of a live band. How’s that for refreshing?
Jazzanova has been in the game for 15 years, with many singles, two albums of their own productions, and lots of remixes for a diverse range of artists, including Lenny Kravitz, Ursula Rucker, 4Hero, and Common, just to name a few. The common element throughout has been a smooth, sophisticated sound that recalls the classic jazz-funk of the 1970’s (think Herbie Hancock, Roy Ayers, Bob James), and that sound is perfectly captured in the new album.
Paul Randolph is another stellar vocal collaborator for Jazzanova (joining ranks with previous standouts like Ben Westbeech and Jose James); Randolph is completely with the jazz-funk program, channeling Al Jarreau and Donny Hathaway faithfully without mimicking them. Funkhaus Studio Sessions could have been beamed into the future from the 70’s…
With the exception of “I Human”, all the tracks on this album have been previously released, several on Jazzanova’s sophomore album, Of All the Things (Sonar Kollectiv, 2009). The arrangements are similar on both releases, but the new, live versions on Funkhaus are brighter and more airy than the earlier, presumably sample-constructed versions. “Let Me Show Ya” and “Look What You’re Doing to Me” are jazzy, flashy love grooves, while “Little Bird” and “Lucky Girl” are more subdued and pretty, sprinkled with piano and flute. There’s quite a bit of the Love Unlimited Orchestra flowing through “Theme from Belle Et Fou” and “Believer”: Disco bass line? Check! Handclaps and synth stabs? Check! Another disco workout is “Flashback,” a revved-up cover of a Fat Freddy’s Drop classic (which Jazzanova remixed back in the day).
Two highlights on this album are live versions of singles from Jazzanova’s early catalog, including their breakthrough single, the groovy and rambling “Fedime’s Flight,” and the joyous hip-hop blueprint “Boom Clicky Boom Klack,” with its irresistible acoustic bassline and funky drumming. If you’re not head-nodding by the end of this one, check your pulse, because you may be dead.
The only thing missing on Funkhaus Studio Sessions is the crowd noise and cheering; this may be as close to a drum-tight, razor-sharp live jazz show as it’s possible to get in the studio. I can only imagine the scene when this live band takes to the road – a lot of extended jams, dancing crowds, and hands in the air, I’m sure! This album makes me want to go and see Jazzanova in concert.
If you’re somebody who likes the stretched-out, spacey jams of Lonnie Liston Smith, or the Latin grooves that popped up on Stevie Wonder‘s albums Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life, then you are going to hear a lot that’s familiar and a lot to like on Funkhaus Studio Sessions. It’s a love letter to 70’s jazz-funk, air mail from Berlin, and it’s refreshing.