Record stores are stuffed with glorified homemade mix CDs, assembled by rock stars and DJs and packaged up nicely by independent labels looking to trade on a famous name. But not every DJ can be Gilles Peterson, a crate-digger supreme whose dual claims to fame are co-founding the Acid Jazz dance music label and hosting a weekly BBC Radio show. Peterson's famous for finding amazing records that few have heard—and even fewer remember—and assembling them into a kind of alternate history of popular music.
The compilation Gilles Peterson Digs America: Brownswood U.S.A. brings together some of the songs that Peterson plays in the "Brownswood Basement" portion of his show: American jazz and R&B tracks that have never appeared on CD before now. It's not that Peterson has discovered great songs that should've been monster hits. It's more that a song like Darondo's sensual soul ballad "Didn't I"—with its semi-awkward mix of slowed-down funk guitar, see-saw organ, intermittent flute and strings, and cooing vocals—helps explain what was great about early '70s soul in the first place. Peterson recognizes Darondo's earnest evocation of the mood of urban radio, in an era where the reclamation of Afro roots music warred with the old-fashioned desire to craft a killer make-out cut.
Other impossibly fine Digs America tracks include Lonnie Hewlett's voodoo-gumbo jazz chant "Ya Ya Cha Cha," Jon Lucien's sweeping, string-saturated "Search For The Inner Self," Bobby Cole's percussive, joyful piano piece "A Perfect Day," Baaska & Scavelli's brief, skewed avant-showtune "Get Off The Ground," and Caroline Peyton's warm, free-roaming, Joni Mitchell-styled ballad "Just As We." Peterson's mix leans heavy on syncopation, pounding piano, smooth voices and fearless orchestration. It's the collective sound of American music rediscovering itself in the wake of the rock revolution, and finding something passionate and real in every wing of pop, from the roadhouse to the concert hall to the airport lounge.