Techno’s earliest pioneers from Detroit often referred to the genre’s humble beginnings as a new form of urban jazz, because they experimented with familiar synthesizers to create previously unheard sounds. Similarly, from the earliest days of house music in Chicago, the DJs mixing edited disco records with drum machines played live underneath undoubtedly echoed the improvisational nature of jazz. It is in this spirit that German producer Christian Prommer — a veteran with the legendary imprint Compost Records, former member of Fauna Flash and Truby Trio, and current house producer extraordinaire — conceived of and brilliantly executed Drumlesson Volume 1.
The idea of the project is simple: 100 percent live-jazz remakes of seminal house and techno tunes. His process? Hire musicians who don’t even know the source material to record the entire album in a single day, speeding from one song to the next as if they were playing a live set. Prommer, a veteran of electronic music who’s well versed in the original tunes, spent months creating the jazz arrangements ahead of time. His hired guns — a drummer, pianist, bassist and percussionist — were themselves veterans of Europe’s jazz circles, with no knowledge of the songs they were playing outside of the rough arrangements they were given. Prommer’s arrangements are the backbone of the project, but Drumlesson sounds like an ultimately collaborative effort heavy on improvisation.
The result is a record of percussion-heavy, swing-dance-inducing jazz belters, at times echoing the 120-plus BPM speed of house and techno but often veering slower. Jaydee’s dark house anthem "Plastic Dreams" is barely recognizable when interpreted by leisurely piano chords and slow-swinging drums. Ame’s minimal-techno anthem "Rej" gets a more maximal jazz treatment, as heavy drums build the tension and the tune’s off-kilter arpeggios are played effortlessly by pianist Roberto Di Gioia. Even Daft Punk’s filter-heavy French house gets the treatment, with the vocoded vocal melody from "Around the World" emerging through melancholy piano lines.
The jazz treatment of Derrick May’s seminal "Strings of Life" was the original impetus for the project. It was recorded earlier and is included on the album. It still stands out as the best interpretation on an album full of beautiful and creative reworkings.
In recent years, the electronic-music world has often revisited jazz and funk classics through remix compilations galore. In this rare turning of the tables, Prommer has put as much love and care, deep knowledge, and respect into a project that could have come out sounding like a big pile of elevator-ready cheese. Drumlesson Volume 2 is already in the works, interpreting jazz classics in an electronic format with the help from current German house pioneers Henrik Schwarz, Peter Kruder and more to be announced. But this stellar first volume stands on its own as one of this year’s essential albums for anyone with an interest in dance music.