Such is the musical shift between Azure's When She Smiles
(Azuremusic, 2009) and Hiptronics
that they sound like different bands; effectively, they are. The main songwriter, classically influenced pianist Pierre-Francois Blanchard has been replaced by keyboardist Federico Solazzo and only co-founder, guitarist Rogier Schneemann remains from the original group, which has grown to a quintet with the addition of trumpeter Rik Mol. In interior design terms it would be akin to gutting a property and going for a futuristic styling with a little 1970s retro thrown inthink Woody Allen's Sleeper
with a funk-cum-hip hop soundtrack.
The old Azure certainly displayed diverse influences, from Keith Jarrett
and the Modern Jazz Quartet
to Esbjorn Svensson
, with Schneemann veering between lyrical and slightly distorted excursions. The subtle harmonics and discursive drumming then have been replaced on Hiptronics
by David Barker's fat back beats, synthesizer-led jazz funk and an altogether more urbane group sound, typified by guests Benjamin Rhodes' R&B vocal and DNA'ssatisfyingly intelligible and poeticrap on "Ocean's Edge." That said, Azure's music remains inherently melodic, interestingly eclectic and superbly executed.
The instrumental version of "Ocean's Edge" opens with Barker's snappy beat and a blue-toned synthesizer motif, which Solazzo develops into a singing solo. It sounds like a 1980s John McLaughlin
record at 78rpm, a notion not dispelled until the clap-along groove that accompanies Mol's bop-funk trumpet solo. There's more funk in the infectious "Waving Tables." Once the highly melodic groove has been established Schneemann launches into a ripping six-stringed attack, followed by Solazzo's Herbie Hancock
-esque squishy synthesizer solo. Luciano Poli's spare bass lines contrast with the greater freedom around himanother pleasing feature of the recording in general.
The funk-lite, smooth jazz of Solazzo's "It's Like Nothing Ever Changed" evokes Level 42
, with Schneemann's solo enlivening the palette. There is, however, more on offer than just funk grooves. Slower numbers like Mol's caressing "Miss Incognita," the gentle, piano-dominated "Within Reach" and the dreamy blues-pop of "Puddle of Sand"both penned by Schneemannchampion mood over rhythmic dynamics. "Planets I" and "Planets II" are slices of ambient minimalism; the former revolves around a two-note Rhodes mantra and softly bobbing bass, with Mol's lyrical trumpet solo punctuated by a sample of Gustav Holts' The Planets
; the latter is more abstract, with drone noise and walkie-talkie chatter underpinning the briefest of trumpet interventions.
Elsewhere, the triumphant "Dawinul" conjures a summit meeting between Santana
and Pat Metheny
, with Latin percussion, well defined trumpet/guitar hooks, flowing solos and soaring backing vocals together forging a potent cocktail. The urgent rocker "Burn Everything" showcases Schneemann's visceral, no-holds-barred playing, somewhat evocative of Focus-era Jan Akkerman. Barker contributes two tunes: his punchy "Mosquito Massacre II" stems from overlapping ostinatos but eventually plots a more reflective course led by Solazzo's piano, while "DB" is a curiously catchy vignettemelodically fluid and rhythmically evolving.
Azure sounds at home in its new skin, one that embraces smooth and raw textures, funk, rock and Latin-jazz elements, ambient and R&B grooves. With this hip release it should succeed in converting a few people across the musical divides, in all manner of directions.
Ocean’s Edge; Mosquito Massacre Part II; Within Reach; It’s Like Nothing Ever Changed; Waving Tables; Miss Incognita; Dawinul; Planets I; Puddle of Sand; DB: Burn Everything; Planets II; Ocean’s Edge.
Rik Mol: trumpet (1-2, 6-8, 12), flugelhorn (9); Rogier Schneemann: guitars; Federico Solazzo: keyboards; Luciano Poli: bass; David Barker: drums; Cecilia Baesso, Federico Solazzo, David Barker, Luciano Poli: backing vocals (7); Benjamin Rhodes: vocals (13); DNA: rap (13).