Cork Jazz Festival: Jazzanova ready to mix it up

Jazzanova find hidden layers in Detroit label, writes Don O’Mahony, as they prepare for Cork showcase gig
Cork Jazz Festival: Jazzanova ready to mix it up

Jazzanova to perform at Guinness Cork Jazz Festival. Pic: Philipp Jester

There has been a fascinating musical conversation between Germany and America. Consider the influence of electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk on Detroit techno. Afrika Bambaataa and producer Arthur Baker borrowed from the Germans’ “Trans-Europe Express” and “Numbers”, and there is no doubt that the innovators of Detroit techno, particularly those from Belleville, Michigan were also listening to Kraftwerk. In a nice rounding of the circle, Belleville’s Juan Atkins spoke of his delight of learning from Florian Schneider that the German outfit were influenced by James Brown.

The dialogue between the two nations continues in the shape of The Strata Project, a re-imagining of the music of the Detroit label, Strata Records, by Berlin DJ/production and musician collective Jazzanova.

The project is the brainchild of hip-hop DJ and record label boss DJ Amir. As a keen beat junkie and music historian, Amir was fascinated by the short-lived label, particularly for their community focused and socially aware aspects such as their jazz music program as well as their organisational ability in creating a publishing company, booking agency and a concert gallery.

In the course of his research he met Barbara Cox, the widow of label founder Kenny Cox. He made an offer to license the Strata catalogue through his own 180-Proof imprint.

Strata only released six records, between 1974-’75, but since acquiring the rights he has discovered a treasure trove of unreleased music in the vaults.

“I definitely got way more than I bargained for,” he grins. “It’s the gift that keeps giving.”

Amir moved to Berlin in February 2018, and he quickly made his way to the offices of Sonar Kollectiv, the label founded by Jazzanova, and, enthused by their blending of nu-jazz, electronica and downtempo grooves, he proposed the idea of Jazzanova re-imagining music from Strata.

“I had this idea of doing this record with Jazanova for almost ten years,” Amir explains. “Back then I only knew Alex [Barck ] and Jurgen [von Knoblauch] from the Kollectiv. But when I moved here I felt like I should really try to approach them about this idea. And it wasn’t really until the pandemic because before that we were all busy. So once we had nothing to do in the pandemic but just sit there and try to be creative, I was like, let me now present this idea to them and see where it takes us. And here we are.”

Jazzanova - Strata records reimagined by Jazzanova
Jazzanova - Strata records reimagined by Jazzanova

Sitting alongside Amir is Jazzanova producer Stefan Leisering.

“I was totally open to it,” he says. “Not just because of the music but because of being related to record collecting.”

As a record collector and crate digger, Amir could have just sampled and reimagined the Strata catalogue himself. Why complicate things with live musicians?

“I could have done that,” he chuckles, “but I always wanted to work with Jazzanova. Being a DJ I know most DJs from my age group have [Jazzanova’s] records in their collection. We’ve always been fans of their music and I always wanted to work with them. I wanted to present to them a project they couldn’t say no to. A project that would just be best for both of us.”

As it happens, Amir is already doing mixes of the catalogue on the side, but he felt the presence of a live band would bring the project to another level.

“That’s the best way I could see it,” he insists. “I always wanted to work with them as a fan and as a DJ as well.”

Strata may have existed in the shadow of Motown Records, but it was far from being their scruffier cousin as they shared the same pool of exceptional session musicians. Kenny Cox was pianist for the singer Etta Jones and his own band, the Contemporary Jazz Quintet, recorded two albums for Blue Note Records. Keyboardist Lyman Woodard, who released an album on the label, was the musical director for Martha and the Vandellas. While featured musicians like Larry Nozero played with Henry Mancini and Sergio Mendes, as well as playing horn on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, and Sam Sanders performed with Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and Pharoah Sanders.

“There was a lot of synergy there,” notes Amir.

It may have been pitched as a project they couldn’t say no to, but emulating this level of musicianship may have proved daunting to the German outfit.

“Jazzanova comes from sampling music,” acknowledges Leisering, “and I think from my type of working, working electronically on stuff sometimes takes even much longer than working with live musicians because you can tweak and change and make other versions and stuff and sometimes I work for a month on one track, like I did on our first two albums. And also the third.

“We have the live band. We have a long experience with the live band. I have musicians in my team that could particularly help me with writing arrangements and preparing the recording rehearsals and stuff, so that part I really enjoyed. It was a new experience for me to go from beginning to end with a live band having also almost real live experience in the studio. There were some electronic overdubs but mainly this was a live recorded record. I felt really close to the music we did re-imagine.”

Strata’s releases give the impression of it purely being a jazz oriented label, but as Amir dug into the vaults he was surprised by the diversity.

“They recorded a whole bunch of music from Latin music to soul to funk, but they had so much more going on for them,” Amir shares.

Leisering adds: “We decided to do songs that maybe were not the most famous out of the catalogue but I could imagine to do with my band. We talked together about it. It was really a process of a few weeks. Amir told me his favourites. Jurgen was telling me his favourite songs, and we the musicians chose our favourite songs and then we made the selections for the recordings.”

They had planned their approach to the project in early 2020, but because of the pandemic they were unable to commence rehearsals for the project until April 2021, with the finished album, Strata Records - The Sound of Detroit, appearing 12 months later.

“From now, two-and a-half-years later, I would maybe choose another ten songs, but that was the moment during corona. That was what we were feeling to do, and now we have the result,” volunteers Leisering, suggesting a sense of unfulfilled business and the possibility of a follow up record.

Amir says they have discussed doing at least four tracks very soon.

“You never know what the possibility is for the future because there’s so many songs,” he offers.

It truly is the gift that keeps giving.

Jazzanova – The Strata Project will be performed at the Everyman at 6pm on Friday 28th

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