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Wibutee - Playmachine

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Artist: Wibutee

Album: Playmachine

Label: Jazzland

Review date: Jan. 11, 2005

On Playmachine, their third album for Jazzland Recordings, the Norwegian quartet Wibutee have struck one of the best blends of jazz and electronica I’ve ever heard. Recent attempts to crossbreed the two styles have often displayed growing pains. On the Blue Series releases from Thirsty Ear, major figures from both fields collaborate, but it’s often too clear where one party ends and the other begins. On his 2003 Freak In, Dave Douglas retained a strong jazz base, using electronic colors merely as added texture. As a backdrop for soloing, Norwegian trumpeter Nils-Petter Molvær jettisoned jazz instrumentation completely in favor of clanging jungle rhythms.

Jazzland founder Bugge Wesseltoft’s “New Conception of Jazz” meant simply using live instrumentation to re-create house beats. The aforementioned are successful in many ways, but fail to move both the head and heart. In contrast, Playmachine could easily work as a driving dance-floor soundtrack, ambient headphone listening or intense deep listening.

The clipped bass line, choppy melodies and interwoven electric squeals and bleeping of the title track immediately echo Miles Davis’ On the Corner. But it’s Davis’ approach and not his sound that Wibutee takes. Davis carefully chose only elements he preferred, and Wibutee shows the same discernment. At the heart of ”Ear Traffic” is a lock-down fusion groove from drummer Wetle Holte and bassist Per Zanussi. Havard Wiik on Fender Rhodes and saxophonist Håkon Kornstad help bridge the groove to more abstract soundscapes. The two begin playing a melody with the rhythm section, yet soon push their phrases through filters, drawing attention to the plethora of drum programming and distorted samples. Soon it becomes difficult to tell where the piece’s real heart lies.

Between Davis and Wibutee, however, is 30 years of technological and musical development: digital recording, sampling, the laptop. Wibutee uses this progress to build nuanced, mutating soundfields that thoroughly blur the instrument/machine boundary. ”Gerewol” begins with a passage of whirring samples, needling keyboard loops and nervous programmed beats. Close listening reveals Zanussi adding high-register acoustic bass, a shimmering hi-hat pulse and Kornstad’s horn swelling in and out of the mix. One starts to wonder if the slow swing of the piece’s second half isn’t the more studio-tweaked product and the opening section the more spontaneous one.

Along with their production technique, Wibutee display an intimacy with electronic music’s laptop generation. “Gitlat” skitters on a click’n’cut twitch and throbs with cabinet-rattling bass. “Figment” continues the bass culture explorations with a panning, spongy dub low-end. “Rodeo Activity” builds tension like a House track, hitting breaks where Kornstad interlocks his sax puckers with the layers of rolling percussion.

Their studio success is easily explained by experiencing their live shows, which showcase Wibutee as both tight musicians and accomplished studio tweakers. On stage they emit raw club energy, fine tune the corners of their mix and fluidly improvise on top of real-time video manipulations, capturing the sound and spirit of clubland and multimedia fests. This same energy and media savy comes through on Playmachine, showing Wibutee to be comfortably situated in the midst of a 21st century collision.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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