Monday, February 13, 2012

Re:Generation Music Project—5 DJs Take the Challenge

Scores of jazz musicians have recharged their creative batteries through stylistic cross-pollination. The Grammy® Foundation challenged five electronic DJ-producers to do the same. The results vary but are consistently interesting, as recorded by Amir Bar-Lev in his engaging documentary Re:Generation Music Project (trailer here), which has a special nationwide event screening this Thursday, with an encore to follow one week later.

In filmmaking terms, ReGen is rather straightforward but highly entertaining, following the fab five participants as they develop and record their tracks. How viewers will respond to each probably depends on their tastes. Frankly, despite the intention of the project, many of the DJs do not venture very far out of their comfort zones.

For instance, the duo known as The Crystal Method were assigned R&B, but DJs have been sampling R&B, funk, and soul since the inception of hip-hop. In the case of “I’m Not Leaving,” they were recording original music and vocals, but the results hardly constitute a radical departure for them. Their real challenge is dealing with their vocalist, Martha Reeves of the Vandellas, who has very particular ideas about lyrics. Good luck with that. Sadly, the Funk Brothers (long unsung as Motown Records’ house band) are once again relegated to the sidelines as The Crystal Method negotiates their creative differences with Reeves.

Likewise, Skrillex might not stretch himself very far stylistically, but he is fully aware how heavy a proposition it is to collaborate with the three surviving members of the doors: Robby Krieger, Ray Manzarek, and John Densmore. Easily ReGen’s hardest edged track, their “Breakin’ a Sweat” will probably leave the band’s older fans somewhat cold. However, it is quite appealing to watch Skrillex win them over with his enthusiasm. It is also nice to see the Doors still have some fire in them.

Granted, country music presents the project’s greatest challenge, but the lack of musical curiosity displayed by the DJ known as Pretty Lights is rather disappointing. Fortunately, he discovers the song “Wayfaring Strangers,” which has only been around at least two hundred years and been recorded by the likes of Jerry Garcia, Johnny Cash, and Paul Robeson. Thanks to evocative vocals from Dr. Ralph Stanley and LeAnn Rimes, he ends up with a surprisingly effective track, in spite of himself.

In contrast, Mark Ronson is clearly deeply steeped in the history of jazz and has sufficient musical chops to communicate his ideas to his New Orleans collaborators. Essentially, he produces a funky NOLA jazz track, which is obviously very cool. Featuring the Meters’ legendary drummer Zigaboo Modeliste, Trombone Shorty, and members of the Dap Kings, “A La Modeliste” sounds great, but even with Erykah Badu’s lyrics and vocals and contributions from Mos Def, it sounds closely akin to sort of music the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and scores of younger NOLA bands have been recording for decades. Of course that is hardly a criticism—more like high praise.

DJ Premier however, delivers on the film’s implied promise of something unprecedented with the title track. Assigned classical music, he would seem to have the toughest challenge. Though he knew little about such music, to his credit, he was willing to learn. Again to their credit, he found classical mentors willing to teach him. Ultimately, he assembled classical samples that Berklee College of Music’s Stephen Webber re-orchestrated into an original score, which in turn the Berklee Symphony Orchestra recorded live under DJ Premier’s direction, with NAS’s rhymes later layered on top. Whether his “Regeneration” speaks to listeners or not, it is something new under the sun. Watching it take shape is truly exciting.

Whether it is the scenes of NOLA musicians getting down, DJ Premier pushing the boundaries of electronic music, or Pretty Lights flailing about in Nashville, ReGen is a highly entertaining music doc. At least four of the DJ participants take music very seriously and the fact that one actually comes up with something pretty original is legitimately impressive. Recommended with considerable enthusiasm for listeners of hip-hop, electronic music, and NOLA jazz-funk, ReGen screens this Thursday (2/16) and again on the 23rd at the AMC Empire in New York, IndieScreen in Brooklyn, and the AMC Metreon in San Francisco.