In the Groove

Okay, you’ve heard about acid jazz but don’t have a clue what it is, except that it sounds dangerous. Don’t despair. It’s not easy to keep up with what the kids are listening to these days. Don’t expect an easy definition, however. Few people agree on what it is—except that it’s funky.

To give you a loose grip on it, acid jazz emerged in the late ’80s in the British dance club scene from DJs who were spinning old ’70s tunes mixed with live music and spoken word. Live bands began to absorb the influence, reworking American "roots music"—jazz, soul, R & B, funk—into new combinations with rap, hip hop, sampling, Latin jazz, disco, and African rhythms.

Unlike the preponderance of popular music in America over the last 50 years, mostly built around the guitar, acid jazz thrives on the construction of tight grooves, syncopated cadences constructed around the rhythm section, especially the interaction between bass and percussion. In fact, every instrument is played for its percussive qualities, emphasizing the "feel" of the music rather than giving one instrument (usually an electric guitar) room to show off.

Many also distinguish between the U.K. acid jazz sound and what’s going on in the United States under the same name. Both share a commitment to finding a deep groove and staying there, but in general U.S. bands tend to be heavier on the jazz component, leaving more room on top of the groove for lead instruments to spiral off in solos. There also has tended to be a greater exploration of rap and hip hop in the American acid jazz scene.

New York-based Groove Collective is a good example of this. On their latest offering, We the People, this 10-man outfit jumps from unconstricted free-form spiraling sax ("Jay Wrestles the Bari Constrictor") to hip hop ("I Am") to funked out, distorted vibes and flute solos a la Herbie Mann ("Caterpillar" and "Hide It"). Just when your ears get adjusted to a certain style, speed, and mix of instruments, the Groove Collective comes and gives your ear a shake, switching styles smooth as Ben & Jerry’s. Underneath everything, the groove stays constant, bass and percussion syncopated, driving the music ahead whenever it verges on schmaltz or nostalgia.

Nuyorican Soul is similarly all-American. Produced by "Little" Louie Vega and Kenny "Dope" Gonzalez, two DJs from the dance floors of New York, this collection defies categorization. Vega and Gonzalez have assembled a stunning whack of talent. From the staggering lungs of Latina diva India, to the gospel power surges of Jocelyn Brown, to the timbales of Tito Puente, this album doesn’t just experiment with different styles, it transforms them.

Starting out with a fairly standard hip-hop anthem, Nuyorican explodes into "I Am the Black Gold of the Sun," driven by a deeply percussive piano riff which is then sped up to form the backbone of the sweat-dripping, gospel-influenced "It’s Alright, I Feel It!" "Runaway," a disco hit from the ’70s, moves without painful flashbacks of John Travolta.

As of late, disco has been undergoing a broad-based and, in my opinion, well-deserved rehabilitation. After all, disco is essentially funk that put down the bottle, took a shower, and went out and found a job. Bad disco is funk that forgot where it came from.

But Nuyorican Soul, grounded in roots music, keeps the groove away from The Village People. As Carol Cooper writes in the liner notes to Nuyorican Soul, "M.A.W. (Masters At Work) were never suckered into the glib, revisionist propaganda depicting the 1970s as ‘the decade that taste forgot.’ Their record collections proved that both Latin and black musicians created work of unprecedented sophistication during this period, often working on tracks which combined jazz, rock, funk, and Afro-Latin elements...a trip through different eras and musics not with nostalgia, but with a firm vision of how to carry these traditions boldly into a new, improved, vibrantly multi-ethnic future."

ACROSS THE POND, the U.K. acid jazz sound, while not as eclectic as its American cousin, shares a similar enthusiasm about reviving American roots music, particularly soul and funk. The Brand New Heavies were arguably the first to popularize the acid jazz sound in the early ’90s. Its tight, sparse arrangements of bass, drums, jazz guitar, and Fender Rhodes organ around infectious grooves evoke comparison with Booker T & the MGs, while the vocal range and songwriting of American Siedah Garret (who replaced N’Dea Davenport on the latest album) pushes the band to expand past the rhythm section. While at times verging on the kitschy sentimentality of much mainstream dance music, Shelter is the Heavies’ strongest recording to date.

There’s no sentimentality in Jamiroquai, another U.K. acid jazz band that reinforces the heavy predominance of roots music in the current British music scene. Jamiroquai, a fusion of "jam" (as in "jam out") with the "iroq" (from "Iroquois"), dishes out a continuously heady stew of funky chops to deal with.

Its first CD, Emergency on Planet Earth, rocketed up to number one on the U.K. music charts in 1992. Its latest, Travelling Without Moving, refines their sound somewhat, steering more toward disco. Lead singer Jason Kay—a dead ringer for Stevie Wonder—has gotten in trouble for spouting new-agey environmentalism while buying expensive, gas-guzzling automobiles. (A recording of Kay driving his Diablo SE30 opens the title track on the latest CD.) What can I say? When he opens his mouth to sing, you forgive him for everything.

Acid jazz, while it seems to be moving past the recovery of funk and soul into the multicultural, pan-global experimentation of Latin and African rhythms, is still finally about moving your body. Don’t expect stunningly creative lyrics or acute social commentary.

Go for the groove!

BRETT GRAINGER, a former Sojourners intern, is a free-lance writer living in Toronto.

Emergency on Planet Earth. Jamiroquai. Columbia, 1993.
Nuyorican Soul. Masters At Work. Giant Step Records, 1997.
Shelter. The Brand New Heavies. Delicious Vinyl, 1997.
Travelling Without Moving. Jamiroquai. Columbia, 1996.
We the People. Groove Collective. Giant Step Records, 1996.

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