Carl Craig's Sci-Fi Jazz

Techno, but not as we know it

 Jazz is a word currently being thrown around techno circles, primarily as a way of defending the merits of the form to incredulous critics. For sneering rockists who dismiss techno as either disposable Muzak or numbingly abstract because of its largely instrumental nature and failure to revolve around easily digestible pop hooks, the example of jazz serves as a welcome corrective. Vocals should be irrelevant when evaluating a genre's worth: Few would dismiss the music of John Coltrane because he failed to sing along to his saxophone compositions. Moreover while Coltrane's later "free" playing lacks the finger-popping, head-nodding character of his early days, it is still a cornerstone of the jazz world, another analogy that transfers well to techno's increasingly strained relationship with clubland's dance floors. The jazz world's rarefied aesthetes appreciating fine art is also a welcome image, one electronica's adherents much prefer to the television news clips of drug-addled teens tripping over their baggy jeans.

Among techno's cognoscenti, jazz now stands as a source of inspiration, and a way out of the creative cul-de-sac that so many metronomic beatmeisters have found themselves in.

"Jazz is a step -- not the step -- but a step out for people trying to warm up the whole electronic thing," says Carl Craig, one of America's pre-eminent techno producers. As proof the Detroit-based Craig points to his latest album, Programmed, recorded under the moniker Innerzone Orchestra, with percussionist Francisco Mora (an alumnus of the Sun Ra Arkestra); keyboardist Craig Taborn (who has performed with James Carter and the Art Ensemble of Chicago); and Matt Chicoine (who as Recloose constructs inventive, off-kilter electronica for Craig's own Planet E record label). Programmed is the sum of those combined résumés, reflecting a vision that is steeped in the avant-garde jazz currents of the '70s, as well as Detroit's seminal techno grooves, all the while seeking to transcend both.

It's techno, but not as we know it: Carl Craig's jazz-steeped Innerzone Orchestra
It's techno, but not as we know it: Carl Craig's jazz-steeped Innerzone Orchestra

"I'd hope that there are young cats out there who think they know what techno is," Craig continues, his voice taking on the tenor of a wary preacher, "and if they've got an open mind, they'll hear Programmed and say, 'This is some interesting shit; this is new techno.' Then they'll listen to someone's jazz show on public radio, come across Miles Davis's Rated X or any of Miles's late '60s or '70s things, and be able to make a connection between that, Tortoise, and Herbie Hancock's '70s stuff. Then they'll be able to help move the scene forward so it doesn't remain so sterile."

If concern for the scene seems strange coming from an artist who regularly jet-sets around the world to high-paying DJ gigs, it also reflects a position of prominence that has been thrust upon him, whether he likes it or not. The 30-year-old Craig first emerged at the dawn of the '90s as a disciple of Derrick May, who (along with Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson) is widely credited with inventing techno, a fusion of sweaty funk and coolly hypnotic tempos that May described as "George Clinton and Kraftwerk meeting in an elevator."

By the mid-'90s, however, May's attention had shifted from releasing new records to DJing (an aural absence that still endures). For their parts Atkins and Saunderson delivered works that, while certainly solid, lacked the fire and revolutionary spirit of their youthful output. Likewise the "second generation" of Detroit techno producers who came of age as Craig's contemporaries (such as Stacey Pullen and Claude Young) had become legendary more for their head-spinning DJ sets than for their own vinyl.

In contrast Craig spent the bulk of the past decade hunkered down in his studio working on a slew of efforts, notable not just for their brilliance, but also for their continual theme of reinvention. As the Paperclip People, he created churning, sleazy, dance-floor burners that gave a knowing nod to the glitter-ball days of Giorgio Moroder's disco. As Six Nine (his birth year) Craig fashioned twisting miniepics of soulful bump 'n' grind; under his own name, he released the album More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art. It's a record that exists as one of techno's few fully realized, self-contained works, which coheres as just that: an album in the classic sense of the word, full of mournful peals erecting a sumptuous soundscape. Add in the 1992 Innerzone Orchestra single "Bug in the Bassbin" (often cited by British fans as one of that nation's templates for drum and bass), and you have a canon that establishes Craig as one of techno's international leading lights, an artist to whom electronica's doyen look for guidance regarding what their music is "supposed" to sound like.

So how does techno's crown sit on Craig's head? "It's been a plague for the last five years," he snaps in reply. After pausing for a deep sigh, Craig adds, "When I started Planet E, the whole concept was to make music that would be classic, that was always expanding the boundaries." Despite this independent tone, Craig has felt public pressure to produce a "Carl Craig" sound, one that conforms to the approach of his past work. Accordingly the jazz tinge of Programmed may throw some fans for a loop. "I know people are going to say, 'What the hell is this? What's going on with Carl Craig?' But maybe in a year, maybe in five years, they'll come around and say, 'Oh, I get it now. I had to get a little bit older; I had to hear differences in music throughout time.'"

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