Cinematic Orchestra Keep Nu-Jazz Alive

Just don’t confuse the genre with smooth jazz.

When the nu-jazz craze faded in the early naughts, only a handful of bands popular during that era managed to hang on to success. Many of the groups that capitalized on the jazz/electronica hybrid that dominated the British music scene in the late '90s, and subsequently pervaded virtually every automobile commercial here in the U.S., sank back into obscurity. But for Jason Swinscoe, the architect behind the U.K.'s Cinematic Orchestra, nu-jazz's vapid jazz pastiche was always just a passing fad, a momentary event that happened to intersect with his broader vision for the marriage between jazz, electronic music, and sonic narrative.

"What happened over this time was a cycling of music styles," Swinscoe says. "Nu-jazz or whatever we used to be associated with has passed, and some of the artists have faded."

Around 1997, after getting his feet wet as a DJ on London pirate radio, Swinscoe began laying the framework for the Cinematic sound. With just a computer and a sampler, he concocted basic song ideas that he planned to augment with live players. His acumen behind the production table, from recording live musicians to dissecting and reassembling their parts, has come to define the Cinematic Orchestra sound.

In '99, after taking up employment with then-London-based independent record label Ninja Tune as an export-sales rep, Swinscoe culled together the group's core players—bassist Phil France and saxophonist Tom Chant. The resulting album, Motion, was completed later that year and released by Ninja Tune with just a bit of trepidation, Swinscoe explains.

"I believe that Motion was never traditionally a Ninja record," Swinscoe states. "It was received very well, to Ninja's surprise, and subsequently attracted a whole new audience to the label. I feel that it helped both of us back then and through to the other releases."

An amalgamation of jazz samples, looped grooves from Swinscoe's live players, and a decisive film-noir feel truly set Motion apart from the other Ninja Tune releases of the time, which were better known for their cut-n-paste breaks, kooky electronics, and bold sampling. However, while Motion was highly lauded by critics (voted album of the year on Giles Peterson's Radio 1 program), Swinscoe says it was raw, and barely graced the zenith of his musical ambitions.

"I think Motion was a great sketchbook of ideas. It was never created to be released as an LP at any point," he says. "For me, it was the beginning, and therefore setting out a somewhat simple palette and trying to execute some visual ideas sonically."

From the film-noir feel of Motion to the smoky-jazz-cafe atmosphere of the group's second album, Everyday, to their soundtrack to Dziga Vertov's 1929 silent film, Man With the Movie Camera, this sonic re-creation of visual ideas has always been the hallmark behind the Cinematic Orchestra concept, evolving and maturing with each new release. But perhaps this vision only reached fruition with their latest album, Ma Fleur.

Through 10 seamless tracks, the album follows a romantic narrative that was originally scripted by Swinscoe's friend, Gavin McGraw, a Parisian art director. Disillusioned with the progress of the album, Swinscoe handed a rough copy of the record to McGraw, who then returned several weeks later with a script for a film. The two refined it a bit, and the script eventually became the story line and lyrical framework for Ma Fleur.

Polished and lacking the gruff edges found throughout Motion, Ma Fleur's impact comes in the form of instrumental nuances (acoustic guitar, piano, bells) and smartly selected vocal accompaniment. Swinscoe again calls upon the elegant yet dour vocals of Fontella Bass (originally featured on Everyday), but this time bookends her songs with the lulling serenade of Lamb's Lou Rhodes and the Antony-esque falsettos of Patrick Watson, a Montreal pop wunderkind relatively unknown in the States.

Seemingly less beat-centric—lacking the fluttering, looped rhythms featured on tracks like Motion's "Channel 1 Suite" or Everyday's "Man With the Movie Camera"—Ma Fleur feels more organic and personable. With all the worn elements of nu-jazz far removed (i.e., the repetition and the canned hooks) and all the exciting aspects accentuated (i.e., the jazz), this fully conceptualized version of the Cinematic Orchestra sound should find the group near its pinnacle.

"There is a jazz element, which is nice to explore live," Swinscoe says. "It is also a show which has a fair amount of improvising and takes energy from the audience. It is very much a shared experience, and one that we thoroughly enjoy."

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