November 22, 2002

Test Spin: DJ Spooky

Print More

Jazz has at times been more a tag for fringe musical innovations than a descriptive and decisive genre label. If a rock musician veered into odd, unprecedented terrain, he somehow spontaneously became a jazz musician. If a folk singer added a saxophone to the band, it became a jazz band. Despite the debatable accuracy of this tendency, it reveals an inherent respect for some sort of legitimacy exclusive to the jazz world. In tandem with this trend is the direct cross-breeding of musical styles and technologies. DJ Spooky encapsulates this latter phenomenon with stunning success.

The Blue Series, a project of the Thirsty Ear record label, attempts to capture the current direction of jazz and its intersection with DJ culture. But instead of presenting a DJ playing jazz, Optometry is clearly the work of a jazz musician using digital technology. Spooky leads the band as a fellow jazzer, not some ambassador from another sphere of artistry. If anything, he takes an understated role as arranger, putting the undeniable chops of pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist William Parker, drummer Guillermo E. Brown, and horn player Joe McPhee in the forefront.

Spooky’s laptop mastery is used for atmosphere and embellishment, adding sound collage elements that compliment the live improvisation of the players. Traffic sounds serve as the backdrop for the opener, “Ibid, desmarches, ibid.” Throughout, Brown’s drumming is enhanced by Spooky’s digital manipulation, blurring the line between electronica and acoustic beats. Possibly the most dazzling contribution, however, comes from Daniel Bernard Roumain. His violin at first sounds out of place amidst the sampled breakbeats of Billy Martin (MMW) and Spooky’s synth loops on the title track, but quickly assumes a distinct and powerful voice in the mix. The violin wanders around the echoing bells of “Variation Cybern