Legions of dance producers have used jazz as a crutch, sampling crackly old Blue Note LPs to get just the right vibes for their productions (or occasionally even recruiting actual musicians to appear on tracks), but then paying little attention to how -- or, more importantly, if -- those elements work within their own creations. Leave it to Carl Craig, the most artistic, uncompromising techno producer around, to produce an album on par with the best recent work in either field. The beats are more upfront than on Craig's last solo record (More Songs About Food and Revolutionary Art), but this album has a very similar concept; it's a work of electronic music in the abstract that rejects the accepted standards of any style of music, whether it's techno, electronica, jazzy house, or recent fusion. As can be guessed from the title, Programmed is not an acoustic, band recording -- although several tracks feature the full Innerzone Orchestra (no more than four pieces), most are just as programmed as Craig's previous work. Still, percussionist Francisco Mora Catlett and keyboard player Craig Taborn do have a large presence on the album, from the sublime electro-jazz on "Basic Math" and "At Les" (a new version of the Carl Craig standard) to the gorgeous comping of Taborn over thick, frenetic acid lines on "Eruption."
Programmed is undoubtedly Craig's show, though, and more than anything else highlights his range of production talents. When he sets his sights on hip-hop for "The Beginning of the End" (with vocals by Lacksi-daisy-cal), Craig produces a startling track with impossibly deep, crisp beats that immediately separate the song from anything ever produced by rap juggernauts from Dr. Dre to Timbaland. The title track takes a hip-hop beat standard and turns it over and into itself, continually phased out of control over a set of oddly structured synth-stabs. Craig also gives nods to invisible soundtracks on "Manufactured Memories" and "Architecture" (the latter recorded with Richie Hawtin), reflecting the influence of Vangelis' 1982 soundtrack to Blade Runner. And on "People Make the World Go Round," he constructs a few well-placed strings as a folk-slanted framework for the soulful vocal. If Programmed can be faulted at all, it's for the sense that Craig is doing too much here, tackling too many different styles of music; the fact is, that feeling exists for only a short time until the album's many facets come together with surprising grace.