A set of one-take recordings from Jeff Mills’ four-piece techno-jazz-funk fusion band—and one terrific Terrence Parker remix—are a reminder of the importance of editing.
Is there any practice likelier to strike fear into the heart of the right-thinking music fan than the jam session? True, there have been bands—Can are a notable example—that have turned their improvisational nous into wonderfully adventurous music with the benefit of strict editing. But for most musicians outside the actual jam-band scene—jazz players excepted, of course—getting together to bang out musical thoughts results in little more than the bare seeds of ideas.
Voodoo Magic, the first album from cerebral Detroit techno producer Jeff Mills’ improvisational quartet Spiral Deluxe, does not exactly disprove this theory. Most of the four original tracks here were laid down by the four-piece techno-jazz-funk fusion band in one-take recordings during a two-day session in Paris in an attempt to “capture the moment.” And frankly it shows, although probably not in the way the band intended. The album’s title track is flat-out terrible, as bass guitar and drum machine show off to each other in an antipathetic musical stew. It’s the kind of formless noodling you might just about excuse if it took place at a gig while the guitar player was re-stringing his instrument and the singer was having a strop. On record, though, it comes over as self-indulgent, amorphous nonsense that should never have left the studio. The song also illustrates one of this album’s biggest problems: a weird tonal combination of glossy, sub-“Seinfeld” bass elastics and drum-machine thump that sounds ill-fitting at best and downright curdled at worst.
Yet buried somewhere within this elaborate self-gratification is the germ of a good idea. Jeff Mills may be at his best making thunderingly precise techno that wastes not a second of its relentless energy, but he is also the rare musician who can actually play the drum machine live, accompanying everything from his own DJ sets to the Montpelier Philharmonic Orchestra on his trusted 909. Gerald Mitchell, who plays keys in the Spiral Deluxe, is also a hugely accomplished player who has worked extensively with fabled techno collective Underground Resistance. When Mitchell’s soaring piano runs and classic Detroit keyboard lines combine with Mills’ masterful drum-machine work, as in the propulsive opening five minutes of “E=MC²,” supported by Kenji “Jino” Hino’s wandering bassline and Yumiko Ohno’s Moog burbles, you can feel the spark. Here, the quartet comes close to combining jazz’s unfettered melodicism with techno’s propulsive charge. That the song then breaks down into a garden-fence chat between bass twang and polite drum-machine strokes is frustrating, but you can, at least, glimpse what the band was aiming at.
Perhaps most infuriating, though, is the fact that the solution to all this dawdling is painted in mile-high fluorescent colours on the album’s closing track, a wonderfully tight Terrence Parker mix of “Let It Go.” Parker’s remix cleverly excavates every last ounce of funk and soul from the original song, which precedes it, and pushes them into the red. Coming just too late for redemption, this life-affirming example of classic Detroit house (reminiscent of the output of Underground Resistance’s Happy Records in the 1990s) is a reminder of what the rest of the album isn’t: urgent, tight, vivacious, and damnably alive. That Parker distills the bass, so fussy and flash on the original, into one simple, repeating line that actually enhances the song is telling.
As an end to the album, Parker’s mix of “Let It Go” is both brilliant and troubling, a belated sign of what Voodoo Magic could have been if Spiral Deluxe had thought less about capturing the moment and more about smashing that moment down to its essence. Playing live is all well and good. But Parker proves that proper editing is magic.