On its 20th anniversary, Andrew Ryce looks back at a landmark in smooth house music.
It's 2002, and I'm 12 years old, flipping through the CD collection of my latest step-mom, who had moved into my dad's house so quickly I barely had time to meet her. One night I stayed up late to see what kind of music was in her collection. There was an enormous amount of cool, late-'90s electronic music I had only heard about before. Acid jazz like Medeski, Martin & Wood, stuff like Meat Beat Manifesto. St. Germain's Tourist, one of the most successful house albums of all time, caught my eye. The bright colours and timetable on the front cover seemed urbane and impossibly cool. When I first put it on, I felt classy listening to it, like I was living some elegant fantasy life far beyond my years and means.
Fast forward to 2020 and putting on Tourist is to transport back what feels like an incredibly specific time. Nightclubs had been chased out of New York by Giuliani's decree, as part of an overall whitewashing of the city, but house music—ever more tasteful, melodic and hip—was everywhere you looked. Not just in New York, but in London, Toronto, Los Angeles and Paris, too. At every nice restaurant, at every cocktail lounge, all over TV shows like Sex & The City. Fusion-restaurant house was ubiquitous, and French producer Ludovic Navarre's second LP was king of them all.
It's easy to deride this kind of music as derivative. And a lot of it is. But not Tourist. The album is the culmination of a successful dance music career, a nearly instrumental album that sold more than four million copies. It laid the foundations for a style that still rules the places where you can sip a $16 martini and lounge on leather cushions, a sound that still signifies some notion of taste and class for a certain subset of the world.
Tourist is revered and lampooned for the same reason: its unironic sincerity, its knack for going there. This is a record that kicks off with "Rose Rouge," a house tune built around the rhythm section from Dave Brubeck's "Take Five." And why not? "Take Five," after all, is one of the best songs of all time, and the sound of the piano and brushed drums is a shortcut to another era. Complete it with the husky vocal from a 1970s Marlene Shaw performance and a trumpet solo from Pascal Ohsé, and you start to feel like you're at a bar you can't afford, or a party you're not swanky enough to attend.
The album takes you on a trip through the sixth arrondissement neighbourhood that gave Ludovic Navarre his artist name, and through Paris beyond it. St. Germain was famous for its lively post-war jazz scene: "Rose Rouge" was the name of a cabaret; "Pont Des Arts" is a bridge that connects the sixth and first arrondissements across the Seine; "Latin Note" is a nod to the city's famous Latin Quarter, another cultural hub, next to St. Germain, while "La Guotte D'or" refers to an African neighbourhood in the 18th arrondissement.
It's also, as much of Navarre's career has been, a blend of musical styles. Tourist is discussed in the context of acid jazz or lounge house, but aside from the choice of instruments, it's much more than that. The LP touches on blues, Chicago house and, particularly, dub, an important part of the album whose influence usually goes overlooked.
Dub runs through the pulse of the best tracks on the album. "Land Of..." is one of Navarre's most accomplished tracks, effortlessly switching tack from dub to jazz rhythms—check out the piano break in the middle, which sounds like Duke Ellington's "In A Sentimental Mood"—on top of a relaxed breakbeat. This is turn-of-the-millennium dance music genre alchemy. And the Scientist-sampling "Montego Bay Spleen" features the incredible playing from Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin, who plucks and strums in languid circles around Navarre's calm dub beat. It's truly remarkable playing, not just an aesthetic gimmick.
The musicianship is another misunderstood part of Tourist. Navarre isn't simply putting down beats under jazz tracks or cutting up saxophone players from the '60s—most of the tracks feature solos laid down live by contemporary musicians, transforming Tourist from jazz-hop pastiche to a true jazz record, albeit one with a different kind of rhythm section (It even came out on the legendary jazz label Blue Note, which was dipping its toes into electronic music.) The live musicianship is what gives Tourist its panache and its most arresting details, like how the vibraphone shimmers across the stereo spectrum in glorious detail on "Latin Note."
Not that Navarre wasn't good at sampling: he takes a '90s-era collaboration between John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis and makes it the foundation for "Sure Thing," a laid-back jam that lets Hooker's guitar and voice do the talking. Hooker's angelic notes glide across the track, sounding almost inhumanly perfect at times, weaving and dipping through melodic figures in a way you'd never get on a quantized grid. Tracks like "Sure Thing" remind you that no matter the context, or how it was put together, you can't deny the soul of Tourist, which is more than the sum of its parts.
Soul is what sets Tourist apart from everything else that sounds like it. It's hard to divorce it from the clichés it helped inspire, but in this album you can hear the groundwork for musical adventures like Mala In Cuba, or the long-running Verve jazz remix series. Navarre took a glossy style often reduced to anonymity and infused it with personality.
Before he conquered the world with Tourist, touring so long that he ended up tired of the music (and not releasing anything else for almost 15 years after), Navarre was a credible club producer. He was first signed to Laurent Garnier's F Communications, and under aliases like Nuages and Deepside, he made earthy house, jacking techno and styles that would hint at the revolution to come with Tourist. (The Chicago tribute "Jack On The Groove," released as D.S., is an essential track you can hear on the From Detroit To St. Germain compilation.) So when he released Tourist he wasn't so much cashing in on a trend as fleshing out the jazzy sound he started, standing in opposition to the glitzy disco mania of French house at the time.
Ending up a mainstream success and bringing house music to the masses once again, Tourist was eyed suspiciously by hardcore enthusiasts on either side of the jazz-dance divide. (A notorious Village Voice review called it "NPR techno.") But it's a wonderful time capsule with sensibilities that still ring true today: great drum programming, heartfelt jazz playing and a stylistic range palatable to both electronic music haters and club dance floors alike. ("Pont Des Arts" is a lost organ house anthem.) Navarre has since moved on to working with West African artists and musical styles, but Tourist casts a long shadow over everything else under the St. Germain name. Sure, it's not perfect—the dated "So Flute" is better forgotten—but Tourist deserves its place in the house music pantheon, creating a sound that, for a time, seemed to be pretty much everywhere.