Sam Gendel – Satin Doll
(Nonesuch 075597922158. CD Review by AJ Dehany)
Sam Gendel’s Satin Doll deconstructs jazz standards in a woozy crunk of dense electronic synthwave dreamscapes. With an ideally quirky lyricism, the Californian saxophonist and producer is like a jazz Mac DeMarco with the early morning hungover sound of Oneohtrix Point Never. The music is zeitgeisty and intensely millennial, and might alienate listeners who might find the saturated production testing. New generational directions can seem ugly at first: from bebop to no-wave to grime. Consider the rock n roll revolution that had some disinclined elders reaching for their earmuffs.
Chillwave (and associated subgenres synthwave and vaporwave) is a trippy development in loop music related to shoegaze. The genre is vaguely built on the shortest of nagging loops and few if any ‘changes’ in favour of evolution and detail. It’s minimalistic but presented in a wash of soft focus chorus and delay with a lo-fi analogue feel. The woozy psychedelic day-glo neon drench of the album Satin Doll feels less bound to loops than Gendel’s album Music for Saxofone & Bass Guitar with bassist Sam Wilke, which had a loose and lazy improvised feel allied to the maxim “Keep it no melody just a solo”. With Gabe Noel on electric bass and Philippe Malanson on electronic percussion the feel extends the form with a greater sense of structure, however so loose, with plenty of melody, however so deconstructed.
The record has you going back to the originals to try and figure out what’s going on. Mongo Santamaria’s Afro Blue is wonderfully unrecognisable. It’s new music. You wonder, why advertise it when it’s so thoroughly deconstructed you could style it out as an original? It works both ways; for example, Charlie Parker’s thing was taking existing chord progressions and extemporising new and incredible toplines over them. Scrapple From The Apple is Honeysuckle Rose. Ornithology is How High The Moon. Donna Lee is (Back Home Again In) Indiana.
Mingus’s immortal death lullaby to Lester Young, Goodbye Pork Pie Hat finds Gendel retaining the topline intact on heavily effected sax, but the originality is he uses sound as much as melodic stroke harmonic language to explore the song. The vocodery robot female vocal might make some of the traddier jazz audience reach for the stop button with some force. But remember: autotune is the new electric guitar. Deal with it.
The breezy appeal of Freddie Freeloader washes up satisfyingly onto the comedown beach of Gendel’s arrangement and production. Ellington’s In A Sentimental Mood also integrates the topline and arrangement in such a complete way that it sounds like Sam Gendel rather than Sam Gendel with a melody on top. Originals Glide Mode and Saxofone Funeral serve up all the appealing elements of this music with less of the melodic cheese.
Stardust, on the other hand, ramps up the inherent nausea of that tune. It sounds like dementia. If you had half day closing at a crematorium and you got locked inside somehow and music was being piped through, it would be this. Deliberately and compellingly horrible, it seems like an exercise in taking something overripe and then juicing it as an exploration of musical self-consciousness in the spirit of millennial irony.
The album is such a lush and complex sonic experience that the themes can add a bit too much specificity to what is often quite a pleasantly vague experience. You’re reminded of Brian Eno’s comment about My Bloody Valentine’s Soon, about which Brain One said, it “sets a new standard for pop … it’s the vaguest piece of music ever to have been a hit.” It’s a complicated affair to be that vague. Shoegaze isn’t just about effects units, it’s a state of mind. Satin Doll itself is scrupulously vague, which is not a criticism. If it was really late at night and I was tired enough to hallucinate, I might hallucinate this album. It’s commendable as both an examplar of a zeitgeisty niche in itself and as an interesting exercise in rethinking jazz in ultra-contemporary terms. As with many compelling albums there’s as much to infuriate you as enchant you, but that’s a whole thing, isn’t it? The New LoFi webzine asked why Gendel always spells saxophone using an ‘f’. He said simply, “It’s provocative.”
AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk
LINK Official EPK video
Afro Blue is released today 13 March 2020