Started fifteen years ago by devoted deejays in London's Soho district, the Sounds of the Universe record store expanded in the mid-'90s to give birth to the Soul Jazz label, an amazing music-business model that stands as perhaps the world's finest distributor of reissue compilations, studies of specifically obscure genres picked by beat-seeking obsessives. Most of these comps consist of eclectic tracks in 4/4 time that form overarching themes, obviously chosen with deep consideration and fellow deejays in mind. Specializing in danceable material from the mid-'70s and '80s - particularly that of legendary reggae workshop Studio One, the first wave of British post-punk funk bands such as Gang of Four and A Certain Ratio, and early house/dance club missionaries such as Nicky Sciano and Kurtis Mantronix - Soul Jazz has recently come closer to its moniker by reissuing works from unlikely artists including avant-jazz drummer Steve Reid, folk/gospel great Odetta and R&B foundation Bo Diddley.
The title of this particular collection refers to a little-known and vaguely defined phase stretching from 1970 to 1985 in which several leading voices of the notoriously difficult free-jazz movement opened themselves to new possibilities in global fusion and more rhythmically streamlined sounds. It made for smoother funk experiments, which provide perfect fodder for crate-digging deejays searching for an appropriately obscure beat. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this comp is how few of the artists are recognizable. You might never guess that the skraggly bump of 1984's "Funky Aeco" is attributed to the Art Ensemble of Chicago; it doesn't even resemble the ensemble's often atonal stop-start horn work from two decades before. Saxophonist Archie Shepp made his name backing John Coltrane, but his "Money Blues Pt.1" is a lively R&B stomp with a single refrain of "Work all day/ Don't get paid/ Talkin' bout my money." Though Shepp battles with several other sax and trumpet players over the chorus of a shouting crowd, the jam feels almost orchestrated, far from falling into the raucous mass of noise at which it hints.
This collection boasts its share of exoticism, from the heavy tinges of Middle Eastern influence on East New York Ensemble's "Little Sunflower" to the beautifully arranged harp and string sections that envelop both ends of Alice Coltrane's reworking of her husband's most famous piece, "A Love Supreme," which is prefaced by a swami intonating lines of verse written by Coltrane himself.
Though the two discs of New Thing! contain some questionable entries, including Travis Biggs's too-smooth-for-comfort flute workout "Tibetan Serenity," highlights such as the percussive atmospherics opening Robert Rockwell's electric funkadelic journey "Androids" more than make up the deficit. The only real complaint is the compilation's imprecise theme and sometimes illogical sequencing, wherein Sun Ra's brief 1957 post-bop piece "Angels and Demons at Play" sits beside Maulawi's "Street Rap," another lively funk train that could easily find a home beneath the respective verses of Common or the Roots' Black Thought. The collection's purpose seems to be to present the interested public - and turntablists in particular - with easily digestible samples of work by some assorted giants of '70s avant-jazz. In that task it succeeds with often stunning resolution.
'New Thing!' on Soul Jazz's Web site (with audio samples): http://www.souljazzrecords.co.uk/release.php?ReleaseId=221&NavId=1&Section=2
Soul Jazz Records Web site: http://www.souljazzrecords.co.uk/
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