Warren Walker holds the torch high when it comes to innovation in jazz. His first electronic jazz LP, (N)Traverse, has a very intimate process behind it. Each song is a collab with one of his jazz and fusion artist friends during the 2020 pandemic. Having met on the jazz stages of the world, they now approached working within the realm of sound collage and sound synthesis, from home, safely and unrushed. Warren admits this was a live improvisation approach, still on the ticking clock, to not get lost in the songs but to make them as a snapshot, a unique moment in time. And he worked on these songs in a live mixing process, keeping the sound fresh and raw.
For some context, saxophonist, composer, and producer Warren Walker is a Bachelor of Music from the University of Nevada/ Reno and has toured internationally with his group The Kandinsky Effect, oddAtlas, Collektor, and Twinlux, as well as playing in the Daniel Hunter Quartet. Warren currently resides in Paris, and his performance with Shai Maestro, Cyrille-Aimée, Roberto Negro, and others can be found on his LP (N)Traverse.
Genre-wise, despite their very distinct fan bases, jazz and electronic music has been in constant dialogue since the fifties. This means that contemporary nu-jazz or Jazztronik sound that has blossomed since the nineties has roots in albums from visionary artists like Sun Ra, Herbie Hancock, and Bill Laswell. These artists have shaped the sound of popular music styles, reverberating into Afrofuturistic sounds and hip-hop music. With respect to the Weather Report, whose synth work of ‘jazz’s Arnold Schwarzenegger’, aka Joe Zawinul, has showcased other options for jazz keys players to set their eyes and ears towards the future for decades and try some patches, custom-made synths, and science fiction arrangements.
Yes, there is a link between what Warren Walker has done on his LP (N)Traverse and the works of sax player Michael Brecker. Also, it links to the modern jazz experimentalist and film composer Colin Stetson, who morphs jazz instruments into ethereal sonics, soundtracking horror films. What you get here is a superb gelling of the sound created in New Orleans and the technologic digital and analog music that represents modernism and futurism in our minds.
(n)Ter, the intro to the LP is like a magnetic siren/ sonar pulling the listener inside an environment of reverb and mystery. Step into a fantastic world of sound, where what you hear is what you get: synth modulating focused carelessly.
The next song, Shai is probably my favorite: a subtle bouncing of piano keys notes with a funky synth riff and a dubby rhythm. Such finesse and groove you hope it lasts forever, increasing the hypnotic repetition to the infinite. Instead, Warren just pulls the plug on the flow of the track and ruthlessly takes a stand for an economic composition. He is no Jon Hopkins or Nils Frahm to drift off into a short film soundtrack score. His songs feel like entries in a sonic diary. It is not a novella or thick book, it has raw feelings taking shape electrically.
Agni is the first song resembling jazz music. It is an ambient piece, with saxophone parts and a pumping drum sound. All up until halfway, when a reversed voice starts creating a dizzy chant. What starts like the soundtrack of an 80’s science fiction film turns into a score for a poetic church choir directed by Alejandro Jodorowsky.
Next, Arthur is far more playful with bouncing drums that remind me of Warp Records electronic fusion releases. Tempo is an essential detail in this tune, and the way Warren breaks, cuts, and pastes it with synth interventions and noises just make it a thrilling sonic jewel.
Garraf is far more electronic, and Walker returns to synth riffs and muted arpeggios. This tune is like a passing comet, plummeting through solar systems looking for light and warmth. I just wonder if these cosmic, organic sounds will ever get to be the soundtrack of a Hollywood film. They surely deserve to!
Eddie continues where the last song left, in a haze of synth waves crescendo-ing towards oblivion. This is a strange feeling. I'm listening to these songs and get stuck in them, unpredictably hoping they are loops that last forever. The magic of Warren Walker is to finish the tune fast and focused, unlike jazz, where length is very relaxed (unless you are listening to John Zorn’s Naked City). (N) Traverse is a different kind of beast. Tracks never go past the four-minute mark. As I said earlier, this jazz artist knows how to be economic, and that is a God-given gift.
On Cyrille, you dive again into the chill atmosphere of ambiance. This track should be experienced with headphones on, as most of the album. Do not waste your time by listening to it on a laptop. Snippets of vocals come gently in the groove, massaging your ear nerves and you can’t waste that.
There is something cinematic and mechanic about (N)Traverse and the next song Maestro. Maestro is a special one, with cavernous reverbs and rippling synth waves, probably the continuation of Shai. Again, it's one of my favorite pieces of music on the LP. It has a dub quality to it that sticks to my mind like glue.
Antonin is a jazz-electro track with beautifully processed drums driving the attention. I can feel the synthesis there, ripping through the fabric of the groove laid down by the master drummer, and the whole short exercise just morphs into a song.
Simone breaks the groove again with sounds of tweaked piano chords, reverberating and floating in space. It is a feeling of getting lifted in the air and floating around. The whole dynamic of the LP is to shift your mind away from everything else and just enjoy a free-flowing entertaining album, without risking boredom, but with a focus on sound.
With a tune like Fede, stars align. There is a spark in this melody and the sounds surrounding it. Warren Walker’s vision from the live experience as a heavy touring jazz artist has new shapes and forms in the electronic environment and sound manipulation modular synthesis. You get that precious energy of jazz translated into electric nuances.
Wood is, on the other hand, another rhythm-centered composition. This is a short and effective idea, like a breath of fresh air.
Next, Faye is a piano melody given the Warren Walker aesthetic surgery treatment. Subtle and sweet, it is a mellow chant, almost wailing, and you get to enjoy its three and half minutes. The way Walker works with drums as a saxophonist is very original. He knows that volume has value, and the rhythm highlights how important tempo is for composition. Also, what it means to have it programmed and not performed live by a human being.
Phil is the folklore tune on the NTraverse LP. It carries the heavy burden of painting an exotic picture within the album's electronic jazz compositions. Great variation and distraction!
Here we are at the longest song on the album. With Francesco, we get on to the dancefloor properly. This is not a late-night rave, the lights are all-natural. To be honest, it feels like an outdoor party, underneath hot weather, brighter than a thousand suns. The song is the closest thing to a science-fiction soundtrack jam. Witness a score for a mechanic dance of AI robots with tweaks, blips, and chips that are allowed and welcomed.
Hermon is a jazz fusion number with a saxophone riff driven by a steady beat with a hard snare making sure the groove is balanced and swirling. It is the closest song to a proper contemporary jazz tune, directly linked to Flying Lotus and Squarepusher.
Album closer, Isabel, come as a mood swinger, with processed piano and drums, an underlying synth crescendo, and superb reverb and delay effects. It comes full circle and shows Warren Walker's ludic approach and a showcase of strong but sustained imagination.
There is a lot of contemporary exploration towards electronic music in jazz, and one cannot ignore the legacy of Jagga Jazzist of Ninja Tune fame, the effortless energy of London’s Shabaka Hutchings, and especially his trio The Comet Is Coming. Also, he drives inspiration from American artists like Squarepusher, Flying Lotus, Snarky Puppy, and others who combined jazz with electronics and experimental hip-hop on their albums.
(N) Traverse Volume 1 is creatively exciting and full of ideas that turned into songs and interludes release, but overall a marvelous online conversation between jazz music artists. Jazz artists are famous for having fun and playing with a deep passion, and Warren Walker’s project is at the same time superbly aligned to the whole concept of culture challenge. It would be no surprise to see him commissioned by GoGo Penguin for a future remix album.
People view electro music as the opposite of jazz, body music, not for the mind, but this album is best experienced immersed, with your headphones on, with your brain receiving frequencies and orgasm-ing on them. The short compositions just offer texture and color for both music genres fans, so rejoice and grab that vinyl for the full deep listening dive.