It has been a source of bitter complaints amongst jazzmen for at least 10 years: the general public likes the idea of jazz, but hates the actual music. Everyone has a vague notion that Miles Davis was a remarkable trumpeter, but precious few would dream of checking out today’s players. When Saint Germain proved that people actually like the sound of trumpets and jazz guitar styling when you add electronic grooves, sections of the jazz community suffered severe depression. Anyone who thought this was a one-off marketing success was proved wrong when veteran producer Marc Moulin recently released “Top Secret”.
Not a jazz album
Electronic grooves and jazz are the new thing, as they would have said during the original ‘cool school’ period. “I don’t consider “Top Secret” a jazz album,” notes Marc Moulin. He’s right. It’s a stylish, intriguing exploration of early House with very tasteful appearances by Philip Catherine, Johan Vandendriessche, Chris Joris and Djaffar Bensetti. Even Moulin was taken aback by the response. “When Gilbert Lederman of EMI asked me to record an album that featured all the music I have liked over the years, I thought it was a nice idea. I worked on it a bit like a Sunday painter. I didn’t really expect that much. But with the releases in Belgium, France, the UK and a number of other countries, I’ve had to change my plans.”
It might be worth filling in a few gaps here. Marc Moulin was originally a jazz pianist who left the genre. “I couldn’t take playing ‘Stella by Starlight’ every night,” he remembers. With Philip Catherine, he embarked on the fusion adventure pioneered by Larry Coryell. “We wanted to use jazz harmonics over rock rhythms,” he explains. “There’s a parallel with what’s happening now.”
Moulin then recorded a number of interesting solo albums before becoming part of the jokey electro trio Telex in the eighties. They had several international hit singles, and worked with the Sparks and others. He was also responsible for bringing popular music to the RTBF radio in a big way with the massively successful Radio Cité weekend shows in the 80s, which showcased quality disco, funk and electro – yep, many of the elements of “Top Secret”. He subsequently worked with singers such as Alain Chamfort and more recently has become a regular contributor to the Belgian weekly TV magazine Télémoustique and the RTBF.
Toying with jazz and dance
So “Top Secret” is very much the result of a life spent toying with both jazz and dance music. Moulin rarely goes to clubs these days. So the album can hardly be called cutting edge, but it is a very pleasant guided tour of how jazz and dance music can work together. “I suppose that might also be because jazz actually comes from dance music,” he says. “I”ve noticed that the two genres are less far apart than you’d think. The divide is more on the part of the critics. I see more and more musicians such as trumpeters playing gigs with DJs and digital musicians. So things are moving on that side. It’s the critics that are still fighting for what they consider ‘real jazz’.”
Many critics feel that unless it can be played live, it’s not jazz. “Nonsense, of course,” says Moulin. “I remember there used to be endless debates about whether jazz music was played on, before or after the beat. Philip Catherine told me recently that he took a tape by legendary bassist Paul Chambers and put a click track over it; he played totally on the beat. So you can very well add a digital rhythm track of military precision, it will still be jazz. The difference is in the notes Chambers used to accompany the main melody. That’s where the jazz comes in.”
And for the ultimate name drop, Moulin sums up “Top Secret” pretty accurately himself. “My intention was to go back to the simplicity of Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’. He went all the way on that: simple chords, clear interpretation. So it’s basically early modal jazz with early modal House.”