Have you ever felt that modern house music is missing something important? If so, there’s a chance that what you’re longing for is the presence of flutes and other organic instruments. Back in late ’80s and early-to-mid ’90s, sampling technology allowed producers to inject their tracks with these sounds, which in many cases provided that distinctly jazz-like feeling that many have come to associate with the house tracks—particularly from New York—from that era.
Here at TEB we’re pro-flute, which is why we’ve enlisted noted record collector and dance music scholar Finn Johannsen to assemble this list of exemplary flute house cuts. See his previous guides to disco house, Berlin club Ostgut and oddball house label Sex Tags Mania.
At the end of the ‘80s, house music lightened up. Seminal artists like Larry Heard, Marshall Jefferson and Virgo Four abandoned the track-dominated sound palette and introduced musicianship to a genre that was then better known for dance floor functionality. But it was from 1990 on that the vibe really spread and developed, particularly in New York City.
I first heard the term “flute house”—what some people also call “ambient house” or “mellow house”—when Roger Sanchez released “Luv Dancin‘“ by Underground Solution. This music wasn’t just made for home listening purposes. DJs started to use this gentle genre as a soft introduction, a moment of regeneration during peak time, or as the best possible way to ease the crowd out into the early morning. A lot of these tracks had enough kicks to keep dancers working at any given time. But they simultaneously seemed to be created for singularly unique dance floor moments: closed eyes, embraces, disbelief evoked by sheer beauty.
The artists making flute house liked to display their ability to establish a mood. They knew how to write a melody, they knew how to arrange their layers and instruments, they were determined to sound as good as their means would allow. By the time Frankie Knuckles‘ “Whistle Song” was released in 1991, the flutes, vibraphones, saxophones and similar instruments were already beginning to fall out of fashion, but the sound had come to stay. This playlist gathers some classic moments that paved the way for this chill moment in music.
Logic, “The Final Frontier (Acoustic Mix)” (Strictly Rhythm 1990)
Wayne Gardiner took Larry Heard’s gentle elegance—the bassline is lifted from Fingers Inc.’s deep house blueprint “Can You Feel It”—and added the archetypical swing of early ‘90s New York City house. His back catalogue is filled with sublime grandeur. But this track is structured like a jazz band taking turns on their respective instruments, steadily building tension and drama in the process. The result is still peerless.
Freedom Authority, “Expressions (Flute Groove)” (XL Recordings 1990)
That Bobby Konders (a.k.a. Freedom Authority) quit producing house music for a career in dancehall and dub when he was capable of track like this is still an irreparable trauma for many. As with many of his tunes, this can completely zone you out. It’s eight blissful minutes of relentless flutiness accompanied by a dubbed-out bassline and eerie strings. A psychedelic masterpiece.
The Vision, “Shardé” (Nu Groove 1991)
Eddie Maduro was an accomplice of Wayne Gardiner’s—they co-wrote Logic‘s “The Warning“ and supplied its seminal vocal introduction. And this is one of his finest moments. It’s named after his daughter, and I’m very convinced that the world would be a better place if such a beautiful piece of music would be composed for every child.
The Nick Jones Experience, “Wake Up People” (Massive B 1991)
“Wake Up People” comes from New Jersey DJ and producer Nick Jones. It’s a total gem that came out on Bobby Konders‘ Massive B imprint with some help from Satoshi Tomiie. It’s not your typical house groove, but it will forever remain a track for special moments on the dance floor. If chosen wisely, it can elevate mundane experiences into something else completely, be it in the club or somewhere on your own.
Beautiful People, “I Got The Rhythm (Club Mix)” (Cabaret 1991)
I assume this collaboration between Joey Longo (a.k.a. Pal Joey), Manabu Nagayama and Toshihiko Mori came into being when King Street Sounds label head Hisa Ishioka introduced American and Japanese producers to each other in the early ‘90s. This track bears the trademark Pal Joey mixture of hip-hop roughness with deeper sounds, but it’s way longer and more complex in structure. It even adds a steady breakbeat to fine effect. Beautiful people indeed, and they sure got the rhythm to boot.
New Deep Society, “A Better Day (4 On The Floor A Better Dawn)” (House Jam 1991)
This is Billy “Jack” Williams’ other lasting moment in music—apart from the anthemic “Warehouse (Days Of Glory)”. The original is a fine vocal house tune, but this mix is where the magic really happens. It combines flutes, strings and bird calls in perfect unison.
Dee Dee Brave, “Can’t Get Over It (Untitled Mix 4)” (Champion 1991)
This is an early Kerri Chandler production, and already the beats kick harder here than in most of the competition in this field. The rest is very blissful, though. Flutes and dubbed garage vocals meet Larry Heard‘s bassline from “Can You Feel It“, and the latter, as you may have noticed by now, never fails.
Sound Waves, “I Wanna Feel The Music (Smooth Mix)” (Strictly Rhythm 1991)
Andrew Richardson and Gijo Rosario are at the controls here. Both this track and the equally gorgeous flipside, “Gotta Have You“, come with a version justifiably labelled “Smooth Mix”. As with Richardson‘s gem “Waterfalls”, this is among the pinnacles of the very mellow side of the early ‘90s New York City house legacy. Flawless.
Helen Sharpe, “Got 2 Have Your Love (Jazz Rave Mix)” (Strobe Records 1991)
Strobe Records, the label run by producers Ron Allen and Hayden A. Brown, put Canada firmly on the map with a string of classic releases that balanced Detroit-influenced, gently spaced-out techno and deep house bliss effortlessly. There are many legendary tunes to choose from at Strobe headquarters, but this one is particularly wonderful—especially this instrumental version as well as the “Sweet Soul“ vocal mix. There’s nothing actually flutey in here, but you won’t care. Also, please spare a moment of respect for Helen Sharpe, whose classy voice sadly never graced another record, which is both a mystery and a shame.
Aphrodisiac, “Just Before The Dawn” (Nu Groove Records 1991)
The contributions of the Burrell twins to their slightly enigmatic homebase Nu Groove and the mellow house (and beyond) canon cannot really be overestimated. This Ronald Burrell produced gem is the sound of pure dance floor sophistication, and it has one of the best credits ever (“Finger Snap coordinators: Rheji Burrell & Judy Russell“). You can guess the best time to play this.
Never On Sunday, “Memories Of You” (430 West 1992)
Early Detroit techno is not necessarily known for weighty examples of the sound playlisted here, but the way the Burden brothers let the flutes reign is supreme. Hypnotic melodies meet their hometown sound‘s own bittersweet quality.
Mr. Fingers, “Children At Play” (MCA 1992)
This playlist could not do without a Larry Heard production for very obvious reasons. This track from the bonus 12“ of his Introduction album is just one of so many brilliant examples why. Heard‘s first record is from 1985, and he still felt the need to introduce himself seven years and many eternal classic later. Bona fide ingenuity is not always this modest.
Jazz-N-Groove, “Do Ya (Marcs Lunch Pale Mix)” (E-SA Records 1993)
By 1993, most house productions had become more muscular. And as with the clubs, the music played became a lot bigger. Beefed-up bass and beats had a strong tradition in the house sound of Florida (see Murk territory), but they could still be in harmony with a vibe that was decidedly deep. The E-SA imprint had a few releases mastering that task, and this was arguably one of their finest releases in that aspect
SNK, “Samurai Remix (Summer Is Gone, Winter Is Here)” (Nite Grooves 1995)
Mood II Swing show all their class on this remix, merging one of their catchy melodies with one of their impeccably jumpy rhythms. The tribal percussion obligations of the NYC scene at that time are there, but only subtly. And there’s always that melody, which you know it will come back.
Freestyle Man, “Love Story” (Puu 1997)
This is a tune so delicate, pure and wonderful that you need a crowd you can trust not to break it. And you can build that trust if you treat your DJ job with some respect. Maybe you should even aim for it.