It's like the blind leading the blind as I wander happily around downtown Toronto with three members of Jazzanova, label rep in tow. The trio of Berliners — Alexander Barck, Claas Brieler and Roskow Kretschmann, aka Kosma — are in town to promote the collective's first artist album, In Between (JCR, 2002). All of us being out-of-towners, nobody knows where the hell we're going, but who cares? It's one of those brisk afternoons that feels like winter but smells like spring, where appropriate attire consists of winter coat and sunglasses — except for the few climatically overzealous winterphobes who've busted out the Birkenstocks before the snow has even melted.
After traipsing as if under hypnosis into every record shop on Queen Street, we deliberate on a variety of “quirky” interview scenarios: cocktails, shopping, even a swim in the hotel pool (unfortunately, Kosma and Brieler have colds). Finally, hunger wins, leading the crew to Marché Mövenpick, a touristy eatery that feels like Euro-Disney for the gastronomically challenged. There, we are greeted by a perky creature of green apron and jaunty beret who looks as though she's been on the Mövenpick world tour a time or two too many. “Oh, a European market,” say the boys, grinning in amusement, having traveled from the real Berlin only to find themselves in this bright, amusement-park rendition of their homeland.
Known for fusing the organic sounds of deep jazz, Latin and Brazilian music with the modern beats of house, drum 'n' bass, trip-hop and broken-beat, Jazzanova illuminate the dance-music industry with their down-to-earth attitude, meticulous productions and legacy of influences. The six-member collective is: DJs Jürgen von Knoblauch, Barck and Brieler; producers Stefan Leisering and Axel Reinemer (known together as Extended Spirit); and Kosma. Jazzanova were first recognized locally for their eclectic DJ sets and then internationally for EPs such as Fedime's Flight (JCR, 1997) and Caravelle (JCR, 1998). Their remixes for the likes of 4Hero, MJ Cole, Ursula Rucker, Ian Pooley and King Britt also amazed listeners with a revolutionary use of samples, the best of these collected in The Remixes 1997-2000 (JCR, 2000). Champions of community, Jazzanova run their own label, Jazzanova Compost Records (JCR), and are affiliated with the 24-member Sonar Kollektiv (including other labels, a design firm, a booking agency and a recording studio).
In Between strays from the dancefloor appeal of the group's most popular releases yet somehow retains the distinct Jazzanova sensibility: authentic music made with spiritual passion and technical precision. The sophisticated result of their two-year labor features a diverse array of vocalists, with appearances by Clara Hill, Ursula Rucker, Vikter Duplaix, Capitol A and Rob Gallagher, as well as Japanese keyboard wizard Hajime Yoshizawa and Micatone bassist Paul Kleber. The album goes beyond their so-called signature sound to delve into the roots of hip-hop, afro-funk, disco, boogie and soul.
CAN'T FIGHT THIS FEELING
Once everybody has chosen their repast and is comfortably installed on the restaurant's “patio” — deceptively designed to give the impression of being outdoors when really we are seated in a mall with a glass ceiling — Barck attempts to explain that distinct Jazzanova sound. “The typical Jazzanova sound is defined by the producers: how they chop beats, how they use sounds,” says the 30-year-old. “It's that special treatment, the possibility to integrate everything from a folk song to a techno sound. It comes down to what we think is most important: Is the music authentic? Even if they decide, ‘Okay, it's not my thing,’ somehow, they can feel it was made with love. If you can keep that in your work, people will feel it.”
Blinking behind black Armani frames, Barck looks me in the eye when he speaks. He chooses his words carefully, responsibly, as if to make sure you understand what he really means — no, really. And he listens just as attentively, maintaining an honest human connection even during this most manufactured of interactions: the interview. Alternately talking and munching on a shared plate of sushi, Brieler and Kosma are just as sincere. They are men who think about the philosophy behind their music, who wonder where music goes when it's released to the world and who care about where it came from. They are men driven not by the complexity of ego, but by the simplicity of love and the undeniable need to express it.
“There's a point in the song where the sun is rising,” Barck continues. “If you really listen to it, how does it do that? All of our records have something that touches us somewhere. We can't describe how we do it, but we know if we did it. To listen to yourself is an ability you really have to learn. The music comes in, hits something, and comes out in a different way. You have to just let it happen. That's the reason our music doesn't have to be uptempo — that feeling. You have it in classical, heavy metal … you can see if the artist is real. We look for that feeling in every part of the world, in every record shop, for producers with this talent. Our aim is to be somebody like that.”
In unconscious contrast to the superficial nature of the music industry, Jazzanova's humility is a breath of crisp air not unlike the day's weather. The collective radiates simplicity, responsibility, passion and truth — values that have earned them international respect while granting them the patience required to make meticulously produced music fueled by pure inspiration.
Jazzanova fuse science with emotion and technology with art, applying a scientific method to understanding how music makes us feel the way we do. “The basic thing is to learn to listen,” says Barck. “Our way of working is to discover new territories. If we want to integrate a Brazilian feel, it's not just about a whistle. We approach it in a scientific way. We listen to Brazilian records and ask, ‘Why are they like that? What are the elements?’ Or, ‘What are the elements that make something ‘uplifting’?”
Brieler, 34, concurs: “Over all the years, we learn so much from these records, as much as people have learned in university. It's very important to check out how a beat works rhythmicwise — the harmony, the feel — to try to figure out how and why it is like this.”
In their first incarnation, Jazzanova were a DJ team, formed when Brieler met Barck in the Berlin club Delicious Doughnuts. The pair hooked up with Jürgen von Knoblauch to form the DJ crew, and together they developed their eclectic sound. “The club was known for organic sounds, so musicians came,” Brieler recalls. “It was the only place where you could hear jazz, funk, hip-hop … You could play everything. It was important to play melodies because the sound system had no bass; we needed to play music people could hook onto.”
When they met him, Kosma had been producing hip-hop since 1988, credited with working on Germany's first hip-hop records. He was known for his 1994 underground hit LP Universal (Instinct, 1997). “I was getting into jazz and soul and underground hip-hop,” Kosma reveals. “At the time, the idea to get internationally known for production was unheard of. I started to get more into old stuff and new club movements and tried to combine jazz fusion with new club music in Universal. From this time, everything was possible.” Barck fixes his gaze on his colleague. “Your LP was really up-front; the music was so different — rich musical ideas, all new. But the people who got it still have it to listen to.” Although one would imagine he's heard Barck's comments billions of times by now, Kosma blushes almost imperceptibly and lowers his eyes ever so slightly.
The response to The Remixes 1997-2000 gave Jazzanova the confidence to do music full time and give up their day jobs; von Knoblauch had studied economics, and Barck, psychology. Today, Jazzanova approach their studio process in ever-changing duos; each unique combination of souls becoming its own creative entity. They work in two spaces: Kosma's studio and the Extended Spirit facility belonging to producers Leisering and Reinemer. “We start in teams of two, one studio guy and one DJ,” Barck explains. “In the beginning, we thought everybody was the same. But, now, we see it's quite different from person to person. Everybody has a special relation with each other person, his special language. Claas works differently with Kosma than he does with Axel. But when we, the DJs, are in studio, we are producers, as well, contributing ideas, arrangements …”
“It would be a big confusion, six people in the studio at once,” Brieler interjects with a smile. “We see ourselves as a band; everyone has his role. Each song may be composed by two persons, but I have the feeling that everybody contributed. We say, ‘Ah, perhaps Jürgen could do something here,’ or, ‘This is a moment for Alex.’ The others are there.”
Of course, Jazzanova found the process of making an entire album from scratch to be different from remixing other people's tracks. “You have to start from zero,” says Brieler. “Remixes always have something basic: a voice, an element, an idea. A remix is a remix. You do a mix, and it has to be cool. An album is different; you have more time to integrate.”
When Jazzanova started making records, the art of sampling was pretty much limited to the loop-de-loops and repetitive samples found in the era's hip-hop and house records. Those were recognizable clips lifted from their original sources to get booties shaking and hands in the air (and wave 'em like you just don't care). But Jazzanova had a different approach — to use the sampler as an instrument in itself. Produced exclusively using samples, each of their tracks is a cut-and-paste collage of literally hundreds, even thousands, of tiny snippets melded together.
“It was very new to work like that, to cut-and-paste instead of using loops and repetitive samples,” says Barck. “To use different harmonies up and down, to reprogram, to chop the beats, every hi-hat. So we started to chop everything up to have bigger creativity with the sounds, to work with the sampler as an instrument, to use the computer to translate ideas we had. It's a very new way of creative work, an actual idea you try to fix with computer, and the result is always different. There are accidents, possibilities to go this way and that way.” Brieler agrees: “The transfer of idea of the original tune, like an image transfer, is very different than what we do. We use isolated sound to form something completely new. We use hundreds of samples. A percussion line might have several hundred; a snare might have 50 samples, from the metal, to the kick, to the bass. The sound is completely isolated from its original context.”
From a producer's perspective, Kosma regards his E-mu E6400 Ultra as a proper instrument. “You can work with it just basic, or you have to learn about it and study. For people to see an electronic instrument as valid is a sign of the times.”
So where do all their samples come from? “Mostly old records,” says Brieler. “We are always on a search for undiscovered samples. We won't take a very known breakbeat. For us, it's more interesting to find some obscure East European fusion-jazz thing. We'll find a little lick, start modulating it, add effects and make it our own sample.” Interspersed with tweaked bits of samples are live performances recorded by Jazzanova. “We often use live bass, live keyboard solos,” says Barck. “We love it! The best moments are live moments, not programming.” But the combination of live performances with programmed sounds is what the band is most inspired by. “We like how samples sound,” says Brieler. “It's warmer; it's already compressed from original recording. To combine this with a live musician is great!”
Yet with the sampling process comes a responsibility that is almost eerie, a vinyl legacy sort of like finding a hat in your grandfather's attic, putting it on and discovering you suddenly own all of his musty memories. Barck explains: “If you define your work by using samples from other records, you have to think, ‘What are you doing?’ You're not stealing ideas; you're taking the music from this point to another point. When you borrow from your inspiration, you have to give it back in a respectful way. It's not right to steal a cliché. You have to dig in the crates; you have to have dusty fingers. It's part of the whole thing. You have to do the work.”
“When you're using samples, you're taking over knowledge,” Brieler adds, his eyes lighting up. “The recording of every sound is a very particular individual. People who originally recorded it … generations of musicians studied decades before us; we find this knowledge and use it.”
Nevertheless, how these sample fiends maintain that technology is not the most important element in Jazzanova's work. “We still work on an Atari sequencer,” Barck admits. “That's a reason for our special sound, as well.” Such apparent limitations only add to their artistry. “Sometimes it's good to be limited in possibilities,” Barck says. “Do not feel the limitation, but have a little one because, then, you start to get into the perfect creative process, like, ‘It's not working this way; I have to find another way.’”
ONCE, TWICE, THREE TIMES A DJ
Behind the decks, Jazzanova's love of eclectic music translates into creating “surprising moments” on the dancefloor by juxtaposing various musical styles. “The DJ thing can get anonymous, so we like to create moments people can remember — eccentric music, just music we like, such as Radiohead,” says Barck. “People will remember, ‘You know this crazy guy when he played that love song in the middle of the night, and nobody was dancing?’”
They get away with this, Brieler says, because of their relationship to different sounds. “We can mix it up,” he says, explaining that the secret of this diversity lies in the switch. “You play house tracks for half an hour; then, you switch to something else. It's the same feeling spoken in another language — it's instinctive. For example, the particular hip-hop tune has to ‘fit’ with the house tune; it has to have the same harmonies or perhaps the same kick drum. We're not superstar DJs. Some DJs can play the whole night the same tempo and create a vibe, but that's not the school we come from.”
With two labels, music publishing, touring, club nights, a biweekly radio show and the perpetual hunt for records, being Jazzanova has become a full-time job, so much so that its members rarely go out. “In earlier times, I went out, but, simply, I've had enough,” says Brieler. And with a baby on the way, Barck has also calmed down. “For this crazy DJ music thing, you need balance; you need quiet. Since I knew a baby is coming, everything is different. I find inspiration everywhere in life — in books, in cameras, the smell of things.”
Further, the creative haven of Berlin provides an ideal environment in which to nurture their ideas. “Berlin is a special city,” says Barck, finishing his sushi in this quasi-Euro market, as the label rep has indicated that it's time to split. “It gives us a quiet place to concentrate on music. There is so much possibility, loads of creative, young people around. It's a great feeling that gives us inspiration and power, as well. If you put love in your music, it will find its way.”
JAZZANOVA ON THE WEB
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