With most electronic producers, instrumental virtuosity isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you imagine their creative process. More likely, we have an image of the bedroom beatmaker, a disheveled guy stored away in his home studio, programming beats on his computer software or slaving over some obscure sample on his drum pad. Michigan native Zach Saginaw, however, is one exception.
Prior to 2013, Saginaw — who writes and records electronic jazz under the moniker Shigeto — was best known for his abilities behind a drum set. Although his music hadn’t yet achieved a quality distinctive enough to separate him from longer-standing peers like Daedelus or Flying Lotus, it was Shigeto’s live shows that brought him to attention for many. Scan Youtube and you’ll find dozens of videos that display his versatility as a live performer, with periods that switch between live sequencing on an MPD and bouts of extended thrashing behind a five-piece drum set. In a form that’s been derided for being full of barely-there button-pushers, Shigeto stood out for making the tools of his craft very clear.
This year stands to be one in which Shigeto’s reputation as a performer is finally overshadowed by an exceptional full-length record. Recorded after Saginaw’s move to urban Detroit — a city renowned for vanguard electronic music and prized by Saginaw for its cheap apartment rates — “No Better Time Than Now” diverges from Shigeto’s oeuvre of trippy, hip-hop “beats,” favoring instead a meditative take on electronic jazz recorded mostly with live instrumentation.
Although Flying Lotus’ connections to the Coltrane line often make him the first electronic artist mentioned in conversations about new age jazz, Shigeto’s past tenure as a London jazz student helps color our understanding of how his music is approached. Using a palette of soft-timbred synths, including a Rhodes keyboard and several analog devices, Shigeto builds tracks that seem to be, like jazz, much more intent on groove, atmosphere, and color than they are on rigid structure.
“Detroit, Part 1″ opens its scene with a building series of glitchy keyboard sounds, characteristic of producers like Eprom or Gaslamp Killer; an 808 kick thumps along while Shigeto lays down some dark synth chords. The song seems content to convey a certain noir stylishness, sepia-toned synths echoing over a gurgling stream of glitch. It’s nice, but the album really seems to announce itself in the track’s second half, when a Kalimba emerges into view with a stalking, deeply beautiful riff. Set against the contrast of the song’s first act, the African mallets stand clear and bright in the mix, displaying a wandering melody that seems to hit every note in truest jazz fashion.
Elsewhere, Shigeto pares down the composition, selecting his pieces wisely along the way. “Ritual Howl” can’t be built off of more than eight or nine individual components—an ambient synth expands the stereo field wide, and a barely-there bass moves us through a chord change amid hypnotic chimes.
“Silver Lining,” the album’s last track, feels homespun and kindly, the product of what sounds like bits of recorded rain mixed over a lullaby midi melody. Shigeto even offers his own voice into the albums closing, offering gentle harmonic shouts similar to those employed by Mount Kimbie on their latest record.
These are songs that feel organic and human, despite their delicate sound design—Shigeto, despite his virtuoso performances and impressive gear collection, is really most at home when making music in real time. Saginaw commented to XLR8R last month about this album’s authentic recording process.
“For this album,” he said, “I wanted to record tracks that were more like a band. I wanted to play the bassline, and the drums, and mix it all together, and I decided I wasn’t going to brickwall compress it—I was going to actually try to have songs whose waveforms don’t just look like a big, fat rectangle but have peaks and valleys and little city skylines. That was the goal of using live audio—I wanted to make an electronic-music album that was recorded like a band, just because I’m so much more comfortable sitting down at an instrument and jamming out on it, and composing from there. The whole album itself is geared towards letting the audio have its space.”
It’s this sense of space and compositional harmony that makes “No Better Time Than Now” the beat album most likely to please even the stodgiest grandma at your Thanksgiving dinner, and the album is truly a pleasure to enjoy while making dinner or doing laundry. It’s electronic listening music in the truest sense.
Elements come in and out of the frame, some tracks are stuffed with as many as three different segments (“Detroit, Part 1”), and Shigeto even challenges the listener by allowing drum tracks to fall out of time at one point (“Perfect Crime”) — all the while, Saginaw seems to have found a sonic space that he could call home for years to come without repeating himself.
That an album so inspired would come from Detroit in 2013 says something interesting, and perhaps its pretty album cover might communicate more than just tonal contrast. In a city long regarded as having been left for dead, an artist stows himself away from the stage to record something elemental, unique, and brave, marrying jazz’s immediacy with hip-hop’s sense of no-rules creatively. And, in that, a little bloom of color sprouts up from a dark place.