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Various Artists: Verve Remixed

I don’t think there’s ever been an electronica album that features this many stone-cold jazz legends. Such is the benefit of having Verve greenlight this project in-house instead of licensing tracks willy-nilly to a hodge-podge of outside albums. CD producers Dahlia Ambach Caplin and Jason Olaine also had the smarts to encourage the remixers to take on tunes like “Strange Fruit” rather than the standard fodder of ’60s and ’70s soul-jazz.

But the appeal of Verve/Remixed has less to do with the music-though some of these reinterpretations of classic jazz are musically excellent-and more to do with the surprise of hearing timeless voices like Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, Shirley Horn, Sarah Vaughan, Astrud Gilberto and, especially, Billie Holiday in modern-day contexts.

Nina Simone’s “Feelin’ Good” remix by Joe Claussell, for example, is staid, R&B’d electronica, but Jesus it’s a joy to hear her sing in this framework; my mind raced with tantalizing notions of what it would be like to hear her sing with, say, the Chemical Brothers or Fatboy Slim. Like “Feelin’ Good,” De-Phazz’s smooth-jazzing of Ella Fitzgerald’s “Wait Till You See Him” and Dzihan & Kamien’s overly busy “Don’t Explain,” which collides with Billie Holiday’s languid phrasing, are compelling despite themselves, but most of the other tunes are more thoroughly compelling. MJ Cole’s “How Long Has This Been Going On?” puts Carmen McRae in a carefree discofied setting. The snare-and-cowbell groove of “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?” with stuttering bass lines and a detached, sexy vocal by Dinah Washington, is a hypnotic treat-though it surely works better as a trance-inducer on the dance floor; it’s a bit of an ennui-inducer on headphones.

Mark De Clive-Lowe places Shirley Horn’s smoky voice in a setting she was born to sing over on “Return to Paradise”: busy but light percussion frames the song’s choppy cadence and lounge-piano backing. Sarah Vaughan sounds entirely natural on UFO’s beautiful and Latin percussiony “Summertime” remix, where the sliding strings seem like they are on an endless ascension to heaven.

Richard Dorfmeister’s version of Willie Bobo’s “Spanish Grease,” King Britt’s take on Tony Scott’s “Hare Krishna” and Masters at Work’s subtle tweaking of Nina Simone’s “See-Line Woman”-already an inspired trance groove before the remix-retain the spirit and sounds of the originals while pumping up the bass for the dance floor.

The best tracks, though, completely revamp the songs rather than just remix them. Thievery Corporation cut out everything save Astrud Gilberto’s voice on the chilled-out dub “Who Needs Forever?” which was originally a rinky-dink outtake from her and Walter Wanderley’s 1966 album A Certain Smile, A Certain Sadness. The duo adds layered preprogrammed rhythms and live bass and guitar, recasting the somewhat kitschy song as a post-Portishead moodsetter.

Tricky’s take on Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” must be heard, not only for how timeless (or is it modern?) Holiday’s voice sounds in this context, but how natural, how edgy, how ethereal it is. Horns blare intermittently; slow, off-kilter rhythms creep alongside a bass line that slithers around, behind and in front of the beat; stabs of metal guitar puncture the thick air, which feels haunted by the spirits of those dead that Holiday sings of-their souls have been translated into music. Tricky’s take on “Strange Fruit” is underdeveloped in a sense-it has no bridge, no chorus, just an ongoing sense of creeping death and an ominously slow fade, ending at 3 minutes, 18 seconds. But it’s much too short. It should have gone on forever.

Originally Published