Sam Gendel – COOKUP
(Nonesuch Records 7559790713. Album review by AJ Dehany)
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COOKUP, the latest batch from Sam Gendel, prolific multi-instrumentalist majoring in ‘saxofone’, is a microwave meal of an album that rewarms some of the most familiar earworms from the most recent couple of generations of RnB and neo-soul ballads through Gendel’s characteristic ‘slacker jazz’ treatment. His 2020 album “Satin Doll”, which I quite liked, played loose with jazz standards, with a kind of psychedelic wooziness. Sam Gendel’s new short collection ‘COOKUP’ is part wonky muzak, part neo-exotica.
Recorded as a trio with Gabe Noel and Philippe Melanson the process is deconstructive and experimental, and the results remain untidied. The process is on show and open to view. There isn’t a lot of production. The noise floor is higher than an LA restaurant’s mezzanine and there’s a loud hiss throughout (I mean hiss, not just crackle, which is deployed at the start of “Candy Rain perhaps to disguise the hiss). Tracks begin and end with voiced instructions about what chords to play, which…yeah…
It’s edited to be and to sound like a sketchbook, which is okay. His instincts were probably better in 2021 when he just chucked out Fresh Bread as 52 tracks over three and a half hours. It’s easier to enjoy this stuff as free unadorned expression than when you feel he’s slightly half-assing an album selection that exposes the sketchiness of the work. Yet you stick with him, thinking back to something like 2022’s album blueblue, a focused performance with Gendel playing everything over 14 tracks with Japanese titles and a zen theme.
Perhaps the most familiar sound world on COOKUP for a conventional audience is Gendel’s version of 112’s “Anywhere” with a nice vocal from Meshell Ndegeocello. Throughout, Gendel’s sax playing is always pleasant, perhaps too pleasant to really state whether what we’re listening to is well-intentioned (and therefore bad) or intended to disrupt (and therefore in the realms of ‘art’ and so up for debate and thought). In “These Jeans” itself abjures RnB shininess for a Japanese flute sound and forest sounds. Aaliyah’s Are You That Somebody has an appealing hostility. Candy Rain trips and bubbles with weird noises. Let Me Love You becomes a parody of sexy with the highly irrestible allure of waves washing up, lapsteel guitar, chimes— the works, which is horrible but kind of works. It takes it out of cheese, straight through muzak and back out into exotica, which is no bad thing.
The originals of these anthems must have clocked up plays in the billions. We’re talking the level of Beyoncé’s Crazy in Love, Ginuwine’s In These Jeans, All-4-One’s I Swear. If nothing else it’s provocative to go up against the shiniest produced masterpieces of modern pop, but it’s not always the case that these anthems, which is what they are, have quite enough going on to sustain experimentation. Again the decision to make the sound unsettling works in its favour, but you wonder.
The weird thing it’s all right while you’re listening to it, but then later you think back and you remember it being quite bad. It’s the normal way art and utterance and music stay with you but rework themselves: the malleability of memory and the conscious and unconscious processing, whereby tastes can be acquired and you can love something that at first you hated, or come to dislike something you liked. Gendel says “For this occasion, we hovered over a particular flavor: jams that we grew up with. We sculpted in sound our collective memories of this music.” But it suffers from over-affection. Water Runs Dry doesn’t add anything much to make you hear it anew, as covers ideally should. Their 96-second “Crazy In Love” is crazy irritating, and nothing more than running through the two sections a couple of times before realising that pretty much no-one can get in the ring with that song.
At its best, COOKUP can be delightfully and provocatively quirky. But me, those moments were outweighed by irritations, things I found—shall I say— a bit half-baked.
AJ Dehany writes about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk
Sam Gendel’s COOKUP is released February 24, 2023.