Jazzanova revisits techno classics live for the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival
As the birthplace of America’s automotive industry, Detroit was once the metal beating heart of America’s future. But by the late 1960s, the automobile-built city was hurtling toward dystopia as American auto giants were eclipsed by foreign rivals. This decline reached a critical mass in 1967 when riots broke out across the city. But out of those cultural ashes was born something new at jazz label Strata – arguably behind Motown and the 1980s techno scene in the call of iconic musical movements to come from Detroit.
“Especially in the late ’60s and early ’70s, racism was rampant in America,” says Amir Abdullah, aka DJ Amir, the producer who curated a riveting reimagining of Strata’s greatest moments in collaboration with the collective of Berlin Jazz Jazzanova. The project is called Strata Records – The Sound of Detroit Reimagined by Jazzanova and it will come to life in Cork when Jazzanova perform at the city’s jazz festival, Everyman Theater on Friday October 28th.
Amir has life experience in jazz and hip-hop. In 2011, he founded the 180-Proof label, through which he oversees the reissue of the Strata catalog. He is a former vice-president of the Fat Beats label, worked in A&R at Rapster/!K7 and ran the Wax Poetics label from 2007 to 2010.
Like Motown, created by Berry Gordy with the help of a loan from his family, Strata was a triumph of determination in the face of formidable odds. For black Americans, especially in Detroit, there was no helping hand.
“There aren’t many opportunities for black people,” Amir says. “Nobody says ‘here’s a bag of money so you can do what you have to do’. You have to gather your resources, pull yourself together by your boots. And do it yourself.”
Strata was founded in 1969 by Kenny Cox, a bank manager turned jazz pianist. He had grown frustrated with his Blue Note label, which put him under constant pressure to achieve commercial success. Eager to pursue a more experimental direction, he founded Strata and soon hosted concerts by Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock and others.
He also began to release music, although during Strata’s lifetime the label released less than a dozen records – all highly sought after by collectors today. Perhaps the first to acclaim was the Lyman Woodard Organization’s Saturday Night Special LP – a jazz funk masterpiece initially mistaken by many for a Blaxploitation movie soundtrack.
There’s no better place to celebrate Detroit’s musical heritage than at the Cork Jazz Festival. Throughout its history, the festival has provided a platform for unsung voices in jazz. And it does again as the Jazzanovas remember Strata — and with it, Detroit’s contribution to popular music and culture.
“You have to understand Detroit and two really big riots – 1967 and 1968, which devastated the city,” says Amir. “And that was the epicenter of the civil rights movement in America. Strata came out of the ashes of it all. It definitely influenced the way they made music and how they wanted to be perceived by the general public in Detroit. , in terms of music.
“That’s why their nickname was ‘all music for all’. They wanted to be able to reach everyone, not just black people in Detroit. But the whites, the Hispanics. All the others. And for them to focus on something else, “oh my god, this building is burning”.
With the Jazzanova project, Amir hopes to challenge Detroit’s image as a post-apocalyptic Netherlands. “A lot of good music came out of that. Let’s not forget that Motown came from Detroit. Many of the most famous jazz musicians – Dorothy Ashby to Shirley Scott. They were from Detroit, or the Detroit area. A lot of great things came out of that fight in Detroit. It turns out they had those two riots – for good reason. I wanted to be able to tell another side of the Detroit story. Not just the creativity, but the intelligence behind the creativity.
The second goal is to make sure that Strata doesn’t slip between historical cracks. Amir would like to remind fans of modern jazz of the importance of the label, which has suffered for years from the scarcity of its releases.
“That is certainly one of the motivations for this project. The Strata story is so important. Besides the fact that they made a bunch of great music. To be honest, they only released [a handful] of recordings. I’ve released a lot of unreleased material over the past 10 years. Strata’s impact goes beyond that, he continues.
“A lot of people don’t know that Oberlin College, which is one of the great jazz conservatories in America, was started by Strata in 1970 [Kenny Cox helped devise the curriculum for the school]. It is one of the first jazz music conservatories created in America. Such a small label had a huge impact on the city. This story needs to be told. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do something with Jazzanova. They would get it. And we would be able to do justice to the table and the story.
With Jazzanova on board, the tour will go one step further – bringing this music to life in a live environment. “The tour essentially showcases the catalog. It’s a bit like a musical story. From the catalog, streets of Detroit.
Strata never had a national distribution in America and therefore remained obscure in the United States. Even in Detroit, there were fears that the label would be wiped from history. Amir’s life’s work is to make sure that doesn’t happen.
“There are people to remember. For people, 40s, 50s, 60s and up…it’s there in the lexicon of people’s minds. They know Strata. They made an impact huge on the city, even though they were such a small label with a small production, the things they did really resonated with Detroit.
Strata lives, sometimes surprisingly. “He is still revered in many ways. Some of the guys from Strata taught at universities. Wayne State University, University of Michigan. Some of these guys I know through social media or whatever. They still talk and teach what Strata did. So at least the inheritance can be passed on.
- Jazzanova brings the Strata Project to The Everyman, Cork on Friday 28th October at 6pm. Tickets via guinnesscorkjazz.com
- GoGo Penguin, Everyman Friday October 28: The collective from Manchester mixes jazz, electronics, nu-jazz and ambient music.
- Brandee Younger, St Peter’s, North Main Street, Friday to Monday: the New York harpist draws on jazz, soul, funk and classical music. His LP Pretend has been hailed by Rolling Stone as “an elegant cross-genre chill out”.
- Portico Quartet, Everyman, Sunday: The Mercury Prize nominees build their ambient sound around the suspended steelpan-shaped drum.
- MåsExödus With Omar & Jeru the Damaja, Everyman, Saturday: A dream collaboration between Dubliners Mark Murphy and Max Zaska attracts heavyweight international guests. Omar is the British soul legend behind the classic There’s Nothing Like This; while New York rapper Jeru collaborated with Gang Starr.
- Amaro Freitas, Triskel, Saturday October 29: The famous Brazilian pianist adds the sounds of his native country to his contemporary jazz repertoire.