Alan Lomax's Southern Journey Remixed
Blue Note Revisited
Blue Note Records
Is it cultural piracy, a masturbatory reach back to try to extract one more hit out of music that has already played its part? Or is it a resurrection of ghosts too long out of sight and mind, the revitalization for a new generation of music that could still have resonance, but is easily ignored for the foul stench of the old by a speed-obsessed culture that thinks not only terms of "new" but of "nÃ¼"? The two catalogs of primary source material explored by deejays/remixers/producers on these two discs collectively comprise a cultural Sierra Madre treasure of American culture -- Alan Lomax's Southern field recordings and the endless and vaunted Blue Note catalog. But as we all know, delving into such rich but unwieldy veins is risky business, and both Tangle Eye and, to a lesser extent, the hip-hop, house, and broken-beat practitioners of Blue Note Revisited face cave-ins and badge-less desperados on their journeys. But only one set makes it out alive.
The New Orleans-based Tangle Eye posse takes mostly a cappella recordings of blues and folk songs from Lomax's vaults and lays them over trip-hop and downtempo rhythms and accompaniments from both computerized and acoustic (slide guitar, harmonica) instruments. Rather, they should have laid the Lomax pieces over the rhythms and accompaniments. Instead, Tangle Eye has made the Lomax material at best secondary to its own tracks, with songs that initially sweated soul and rhythmic flow stilted and forced into dominating 4/4 time signatures and crassly overbearing accompaniment. Take "Home," based on "I'm Goin' Home," a prison recording done in 1959. The vocals are slapped unceremoniously onto what must be the most boring reggae rhythm ever produced, corrupted by Clapton-esque, soaring, Carnival-cruise-ship blues guitar solos, and generally robbed of anything soulful. The result would've been revolutionary in 1979, maybe.
But, while it's never "good," thankfully that's pretty much the worst of it. Some tracks -- the trip-hop jazz of "Parchman's Farm" and the Moby-esque version on "O Death" are actually decent, if dull. Even another cruise-ship reggae effort, versioned over some sea chanteys, works out to some extent. Yet overall, Tangle Eye's reworkings seem to have spent an awful lot of time and effort on bettering music that could've easily been worked with at face value to greater yield.
Blue Note's material has been remixed, re-worked, re-tweaked and re-released to death. Since the acid-jazz boom of the late '80s and early '90s, the venerable jazz label has gone full steam ahead into new jazz-related music, releasing the likes of St. Germain and allowing heads such as US 3, Gang Starr's Guru (for Jazzmatazz) and, just this time last year, Madlib to raid the vaults. Following the success of Madlib's excellent jazz-hop Shades of Blue and the commercial explosion of Verve Remixed, they've this time opened the doors wide for a variety of modern jazz remixers to create Blue Note Revisited. Will it sound as dated in 10 years as US 3's "Cantaloop" does now? Probably. But for now, it's post-acid jazz at its finest.
The main reason is the loving touch heaped on the original songs -- in some cases entirely recreated, rather than remixed -- by some of the finest and most experienced producers around the globe. Kyoto Jazz Massive and Vanessa Freeman do nothing wrong with Eddie Henderson's "Kudu," Jazzanova's remix of Eddie Gale betrays the group's Teutonic roots without losing the song's feel, and Matthew Herbert's "Caravan" has the same po-mo edit groove of Herbert's own Big Band project from 2003. But the finest stuff on Blue Note Revisited comes from London's Co-Op massive, just as you might guess. Bugz in the Attic attack "Los Alamitos Latinfunklovesong" like the 21st-century jazz aficionados they are, with sweeping vocal layers and sunny chords a la Brasil '66 never upstaging the beat and the melody. "Won't You Open Up Your Senses," redone from Horace Silver by 4Hero and again featuring Freeman, is a gem, from the rebirthed-cool horn arrangements to the heavy syncopation on the cymbals and snares.
In the light of Blue Note Revisited, Alan Lomax's Southern Journey Remixed becomes even more disappointing. But given the market for upscale cocktail-hour versions of down-home and old-school soulful music, we can hope that one day those recordings, too, will come under the gaze of more skilled, more musical, modern pros.