Hailed as a national hero in France and often considered the godfather of all things electronic, Jean Michel Jarre has executed some of the most ambitiously ego-massaging concert performances ever. Jarre has regularly performed to record-breaking Parisian audiences that would make the German Love Parade look small, and his concerts in China were an unqualified first. With his 1976 album, Oxygene (Dreyfus), Jarre infiltrated pop charts the world over and went on to move an astonishing 80 million units, all produced from a small studio in the French countryside outfitted with an ARP 2600, a Mellotron, a theremin, an EMS Synthi and two Revox tape decks.
Jarre's career has been a garish spectacle and a musical mission. During the course of 28 albums, Jarre has retained a soothing synth presence in arrangements that rely on shifting, swirling sonic vistas and exotic melodies that reflect the diverse sounds that he absorbed as a classically trained and avant-garde-influenced musician (and the son of renowned film composer Maurice Jarre). Although Jarre's ensuing records never attained the global success of Oxygene and the follow-up, Equinoxe (Dreyfus, 1978), Jarre continued to scale the kind of heights that regularly made him a fixture in the Guinness Book of Records.
Jarre's combined firsts read like the bio of a daredevil: He was the first electronic musician to sell more than a million records, as well as the first Western musician to perform in post-Mao China. Furthermore, he became People magazine's “Man of the Year” in 1977; recorded one of the first pan-global electronic albums with the Arabic-influenced Revolutions (Dreyfus, 1988); popularized the use of two electronic instruments, the Laser Harp and the Lag Insect; performed to a record-breaking 1990 audience of 2.5 million at Paris La Defense; and inspired the Musicall Swatch watch with his music and drawings. And don't forget that the 4,422nd planet of the solar system is named Jarre in the composer's honor.
If that reads like the diary of a shameless media whore, consider the era. Before global Internet raves, downloading and 24-hour cable, performers needed a gimmick and a dream. Jarre had it all and innovative talent to burn. As art rockers like Yes and Pink Floyd cleared the way with banks of synthesizers expressing their boundary-smashing ethos and Krautrockers like Can and Neu! opened deep space for drug experimentation, Jarre's Oxygene provided ear and mind expansion on a bed of pulsating synth fragrance. His influence on knob twiddlers such as Weather Report's Joe Zawinul, Giorgio Moroder, The Orb, the Yellow Magic Orchestra, Tomita and Vangelis cannot logically be denied.
That lasting inspiration and appeal, as well as Jarre's early style, are readily apparent on the four Jarre albums that Dreyfus Records recently reissued. Odyssey Through 02 (1998) features Parisian DJ Claude Monet blending Jarre's synth swashes as remixed by Resistance D, Loop Guru, the ephemeral DJ Cam, Apollo 440, Takkyu Iskino and Tetsuya Komuro. Next up is 2000's Metamorphoses, a babbling playground of synth pads and house beats overrun by the vocals of Laurie Andersen, Natacha Atlas, Deidre Dubois and The Coors' Sharon Corr.
Although these releases do show off the blatant power of dancefloor remixing, they do little to inspire. Better is the 1997 Jarre-only album, Oxygene 7-13, on which the composer elaborated on his original 1976 epic to great success. Equally fascinating is Jarre's 1973 soundtrack to the film Les Granges Brulées. Sounding at times like a contemporary glitch treat or the soundtrack to A Clockwork Orange, Les Granges Brulées is an eclectic slab of seminal synth profundity.
Reissues aside, Jarre continues to record. His 2003 album, Sessions 2000 (Dreyfus), sounds as vibrant as many works by temperamental electronica geeks half his age. Jarre's current technology includes Digidesign Pro Tools, Emagic Logic Audio, a Clavia Nord Lead 2, a Quasimidi Raven and Roland's MC-505 Groovebox and XP-80 Digital Workstation, but he still prefers the sound of yesteryear's analog synths and tape machines. (For a complete list of Jarre's mammoth studio, visit www.jarrography.free.fr/jarre_studio.php.)
“I've yet to find a digital synth that provides an exciting tone,” Jarre told Future Music in 2000. “The Nords and the Waldorfs are fantastic, but the basic tone of the old Moogs, Oberheims, ARP 2600s moves my guts much in the way a good Les Paul or Telecaster guitar would. Today, they do a fantastic job of emulating the filters and stuff, [but it's about] the organic drift in the circuitry. An old analog oscillator is constantly drifting and fluctuating, and it has to do with the moving current.”
A quick perusal of Jarre's albums reveals detailed chronologies of his old synth armory, including such arcane axes as the Baschet Cristal Baschet, the EKO Computerhythm, the Electro-Harmonix Smallstone, the Elka Synthex, the Eminent 310 U Organ, the Geiss Digisequencer, the OSC Oscar 1, the PPG Modular 300 and the Seiko DS-250 — items that have helped Jarre's seminal electronic recordings retain a sound that is human, involving and immediate.