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Transcending the Transatlantic: Lo-Fi in Nu-jazz and What It Could Mean

by admin on April 23, 2017

Since it was coined in the late 1990’s the term “nu-jazz” came to encompass any fusion of jazz and electronica influences. Changes within the genre have roughly paralleled the upgrades in technology we have seen in the past several decades. Recently, however, a new group of up-and-coming nu-jazz artists has surfaced, and they all seem to be embracing and taking advantage of lo-fi sounds and samples to bring major changes to the genre. The Oxford dictionary defines lo-fi as “employing sound reproduction of a lower quality than hi-fi (sound with high fidelity),” and while this may traditionally be less preferred in music production, its popularity is increasing quickly and it is finding international footing with musicians.

Nu-jazz first began to surface in the late ‘90’s with the popularity of jazz-hop and jazztronica artists, such as Digable Planets, A Tribe Called Quest, and Pete Rock. It wasn’t however until more recent years (the late 2010’s) that the nu-jazz genre would crystallize in the United States. The most notable of these artists have been based out of Los Angeles, and have worked with the independent label Brainfeeder, established by Los Angeles artist Flying Lotus. While the label doesn’t self-identify as nu-jazz, the artists associated with the label incorporate nu-jazz elements (taking advantage of electronic sound, heavy bass kicks, and ambient synthesized noise). Artists on the label have been increasingly gaining traction with mainstream audiences, and popular music artists have been showing support for the label (c.f., Erykah Badu with her recent endorsement of the artist Thundercat’s newest album). Music critic Tony Brewer wrote, “Nu Jazz is to (traditional) Jazz what punk or grunge was to Rock. It took it (Rock) from the hands of virtuoso soloists (for example: Yngwie Malmsteen) and gave it back to the kids in the garage (Kurt Cobain). This stimulated Rock by putting it back into the garage.”

Traditionally the divide between jazz and nu-jazz musicians has been clear: jazz is canonic (an American ideal), nu-jazz is processual (a European ideal). Tony Brewer wrote further of nu-jazz “The songs are the focus, not the individual prowess of the musicians,” and this is an apposite declaration of how nu-jazz could be concretely considered processual. As demonstrated by the artists at Brainfeeder, the focus is on being self-made, being involved in every aspect of their works’ production, implementing new and nontraditional instrumentation, and making works that a listener can enjoy and participate in without being an elite jazz scholar. And yet, nu-jazz has somehow also managed to appeal to many musicians and listeners who value a canonic approach to jazz. This includes musicians like trumpeter Dave Douglas and drummer Mark Guiliana, who broke out within the genre with their single “High Risk,” which blends the hi-fi sounds of acoustic instruments and lo-fi effects from electronic instruments and sound boards, and pianist Brad Meldhau with his piece “Free Willy,” which pushed his traditional work into an almost post-modernist and techno niche of nu-jazz.

The appeal of lo-fi in nu-jazz to both canonic musicians and process-driven musicians is, I believe, linked to the accompanying implication of cyclical evolution within jazz innovation. By now incorporating lo-fi, the genre allows for actual canonic works to be sampled, as the artist Kormac does in his song “Scratch Marchin’” (a sample of Duke Ellington’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm”), or his piece “Big Bad Trumpet Player” (which features numerous samples of Glenn Miller in the film “Orchestra Wives”). Furthermore, it reinforces the original jazz principle of a self-sufficient musician by empowering home-studio artists to produce and distribute their own work with less regard to sound quality as a result of the style’s growing embrace of lo-fi sounds. It creates a sound and attitude that can be drawn back to jazz in an era before its relationship with high-brow concerns. Much like other genres, after being over-produced, jazz is appearing to cater to self-produced or self-made musicians with its garage band equivalent of Nu-jazz and lo-fi embracing artists.

With personal recording equipment and production software, and with music sharing platforms like Bandcamp and Soundcloud, the voice of nu-jazz has been enabled to become more diverse and widespread. Whereas the latest development of nu-jazz was based in Los Angeles, newer innovators come from an array of countries, and each is part of the simultaneous invention of a new phase of jazz evolution (see, e.g., artists like Wun Two (Germany), Tomppabeats (Finland), The Deli (Texas), Joey Pecoraro (Michigan), and Idealism (Finland)). They, and others, implement both lo-fi samples as well as their own lo-fi instrumentation to create works that sound simultaneously traditional and experimental, giving them canonic and process-based jazz aspects. This technique also bridges the divide between European and American jazz by providing a unifying sound (the lower quality makes distinctions within the genre more subtle). With this in mind, it can be said that with the growing popularity of nu-jazz and its inclination to imitate long-established jazz approaches, lo-fi within nu-jazz is blurring the divide between European and American jazz while also enabling a rebirth of jazz-individualism in accordance with canonic perspectives.

by Christian T. Smith

Works Cited

  • Junaini, Hidzir. “From Nu-jazz to Neo-soul: New Party Series Reverie Dreams of a Soulful Club Experience.” Bandwagon. Bandwagon, 8 Feb. 2017. Web. 3 Mar. 2017.
  • “Lo-Fi Jazz Festival Leva Shows E Discotecagem a Dois Pontos De SP.” Catraca Livre. Catraca Livre, 07 Oct. 2015. Web. 03 Feb. 2017.
  • Nicholson, Stuart. “Jazztronica: A Brief History of the Future of Jazz.” JazzTimes. JazzTimes, 01 Mar. 2003. Web. 03 Feb. 2017.
  • “NU JAZZ, a Jazz Music Subgenre.” Music Archives, n.d. Web. 03 Mar. 2017.
  • Paige, Luisa. “Alxndr London Innovates a New Sound on “XXX”.” EARMILK. EARMILK, 25 Aug. 2016. Web. 03 Feb. 2017.
  • Writers, CP Staff and Guest. “The Week’s Best Concerts: Feb. 3-9.” City Pages. City Pages, 3 Feb. 2016. Web. 01 Feb. 2017.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

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Hope April 26, 2017 at 10:45 pm

I didn’t know that nu-jazz was really a thing so this was a very interesting read. I really enjoyed your comparison to punk rock to get a better sense of nu-jazz. The idea of being self-made and individual is a pretty common trait in jazz, but nu-jazz takes it to a different level. I’m a very “canonic” jazz person, I like the classical, traditional parts of jazz, so I can contest to say that, like you said in your article, I enjoy this nu-jazz sound


Kyle Muench April 25, 2017 at 11:49 am

It’s really fascinating to compare nu-jazz to punk rock. And it’s interesting to learn about what happens when an art form turns upon itself. I’m curious about how the African-American jazz community deals with the idea of post-jazz and this sort of thing. Nu-jazz certainly had a profound and powerful impact on the jazz world


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