Radio Citizen, Berlin Serengeti

Michaelangelo Matos

By Michaelangelo Matos

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

Berlin Serengeti

Radio Citizen

"Jazzy" is almost as overused a word in club-based music as "downtempo," in part because the former is harder to pin down. Is a record jazzy because it uses horns? Because it sounds like it's sampled classic Blue Note records? Or is it just the hushed, atmospheric production draping it all? Since jazz tends to be about process as much as result, it's a misleading phrase, but sometimes a putatively downtempo act evokes the stuff well enough to make you forgive the pretense, like the Cinematic Orchestra or, more recently, Berlin 10-piece Radio Citizen.

Cinematic, jazzy downtempo that’s lush and haunting.

Led by multi-instrumentalist (he's credited with alto sax, regular and bass clarinet, percussion, keyboards, flute and more) and producer Niko Schabel, Radio Citizen is less a big band than a fleshed-out version of a rare-groove DJ's dream group. While there are another pair of horn players in addition to Schabel (baritone saxophonist Ian Ensslen and sax and flute player Wolfi Schlick), the low end is where Berlin Serengeti's deepest charms lie. The grooves, led by double bassists Klaus Janek and Marcel Jung, are brawny and sure-footed, especially when drummer Julian Waiblinger gets frisky: check his dynamically accented snare rolls all over "Voices" and "Black Forest," while the album's highlight, "Night II," gets most of its muscle from busy open toms and cymbal work. On six of these 16 tracks, a vocalist named Bajka takes center stage — she's reminiscent of funk-era jazz singers like Marlena Shaw, appealing in a strident, Afro-futurist sort of way. But even when she's on the mic, your attention is drawn to the rich sounds that ground her and send her aloft.