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[whitespace] P'taah Pushing the Boundaries: A chilled-out grace distinguishes the revived form of acid jazz on P'taah's new album.


Birth Of a New Cool

On 'Compressed Light,' Chris Brann's P'taah fuses the improvisational structures of jazz with the organic grooves of electronica

AFTER A FEW MINUTES of hype in the early '90s, acid jazz developed a bad rap. As hordes of would-be neo-Beatniks starting slapping sax samples over drum machines, acid jazz became synonymous with a bland, anodyne kind of cool. Soon, it tinkled unobtrusively from speakers at Starbucks, Pottery Barn and the Gap--it was the Muzak of the DJ generation.

Nevertheless, no amount of commercialization could erase the essential links between jazz and electronic music. With its improvisational structures and its emphasis on rhythms and textures instead of linear narrative, jazz represents a natural crossover to electronica.

Although the label "acid jazz" has been much maligned, the fusion between organic grooves and electronic beats has continued evolving. Witness techno godfather Carl Craig's recent project--the jazz-infused Interzone Orchestra--as well as the current work of acclaimed Austrian duo Kruder and Dorfmeister, and the Washington, D.C.-based Thievery Corporation.

Ubiquity, the thrillingly eclectic San Francisco label, has always provided a home for such experimental crossbreeding. Ubiquity and its sublabels, Luv n' Haight and CuBop, specialize in electronic music, rare groove reissues and Cuban jazz respectively. Thus it's the perfect imprint for P'taah, a new project by Atlanta's Chris Brann that brilliantly mixes elements of all of the above.

I'm reluctant to call Compressed Light, P'taah's debut album, acid jazz because of what that term has come to imply--hipster easy-listening music. The record has many moments of chilled-out grace, but it offers far more than a soundtrack for swilling $8 cocktails.

Instead, the album serves up a bitches' brew of bluesy jazz tangents, Latin percussion, intricate digital rhythms and ethereal effects. It is one of those too-rare records that manages to be cutting edge without being wanky and pretentious, deeply nuanced but largely accessible.

Compressed Light is especially surprising coming from Brann, who is best known for his four-to-the-floor house hits. With his previous Wamdue Kids project, he scored a No. 1 smash throughout Europe and on the U.S. Billboard dance chart with "King of My Castle." But rather than revel in the international success of that track, Brann has been somewhat outspoken about his disillusionment with the genre. On the press release for Compressed Light, he confesses, "House music has never been my main interest, it's more like a byproduct, it's so easily created. I'd rather push the boundaries."

Which is precisely what P'taah does. Recently, the mainstream has once again discovered rave culture. Within the past few months, there have been three new films, a hysterical segment on 60 Minutes II and cover stories in Time and Spin.

Suddenly, glossy, blissful trance is getting tons of attention. No wonder: such music forms the ideal environment for early Ecstasy experiences, and it speaks to the youthful euphoria that causes people to don baggy pants, hug strangers and gush, "Dance music changed my life!"

But for those who are overfamiliar with the disillusioning experience of meeting one's new best friend the day after a party and having nothing whatsoever to say to her, trance's sugary optimism can grate. Compressed Light often evinces an enveloping starburst warmth, but there's always enough yearning and uncertainty to make it feel relevant to life outside the confines of a club.

P'taah's music is far richer than most dance-floor fare but never as opaque and off-putting as, say, Squarepusher. While Squarepusher's journeys in breakbeat-accented free jazz might have had connoisseurs nodding their heads in appreciation, trying to extract real pleasure from it was a headache-inducing chore. Although clearly fluent in myriad musical languages, P'taah doesn't require you to be equally facile. There's beauty on the surface, complexity beneath.

THE RECORD BEGINS with the haunted "Million Miles," with a thick bass churning beneath impossibly forlorn horn tendrils and hazy synth washes. Hearing it, I thought of driving in a car on a Southern highway on a hot summer night before I even saw the name of the song.

The beat is propulsive, but everything that swirls above it suggests a sultry kind of stasis. As "Million Miles" progresses, the horns are cut up until they themselves become part of the beat, and a scatting female voice appears like a firefly. The whole thing is drenched in soul and simply luminescent.

The next track, "No One, No How, Never," a disorientating mélange of Cuban-sounding drums and fractured metallic squelches, proves more head-trippy than sentimental, but the generous emotion in the music returns on "Do You Keep It Near You?" with its anxious stop-start rhythms soothed by comforting bursts of horn and descending layers of gauzy, silken effects.

The breathtaking "Apricot" follows with a melancholy chiming loop that, with its starkness and pathos, puts me in mind of a Hal Hartley film. An aggressive bassline at first seems to shatter the calm, but the elements quickly coalesce into a piece of music that magically balances delicate beauty with undulating funk.

The pastoral quality in Compressed Light never devolves into anything as obvious as the Orb's "Little Fluffy Clouds." You have to listen closely to hear the crickets chirping in the interstices of "Apricots" or what sounds like a sampled sliver of a dog bark used as a beat in "Flying High."

Nevertheless, these understated organic details distance the music from the hollow coffee-shop cool that can make down-tempo, jazzy electronic music obnoxious. There's something uncommonly lonely and vulnerable about parts of Compressed Light that separates it from both the generic mass of acid jazz and from the dance-music mainstream.

I'm someone who grew up on dance music but quickly grew sick of the escapism of rave culture. Sure, there is something invigorating about the communal striving toward joy at a warehouse party. Eventually, though, precisely those elements that once enamored me--the sense of total separateness from the outside world, the ideal of submerging the self into the group--began to appall me.

Rave culture puts a premium on positivity and mass consciousness, so it's inevitable that a somewhat contrarian, introverted, antisocial girl like me would quickly tire of trying to fit into it. I've never lost my love of electronic music, though, and listening to Compressed Light, I feel an odd kind of empathy. House, techno and trance are all about uniting people through movement, which can be a lovely thing. P'taah's music, though, speaks to that much larger swath of life when one is all alone.

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From the June 8-14, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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