Jaga Jazzist – Pyramid
(Brainfeeder Records – BF099/BFCD099/BFDNL099 Review by Graham Spry)
For nearly two decades, the Norwegian band Jaga Jazzist have continued to sound somehow ahead of everyone else and still like no other band, even in the context of the impressively creative and diverse Scandinavian music scene. The band is an octet led by multi-instrumentalist Lars Horntveth and includes his brother Martin Horntveth on horns and his sister Line Horntveth on horns and vocals. Jaga Jazzist was a favourite of Fiona Talkington when she was a regular presenter of Late Junction on BBC Radio 3 and they hit an early peak in their career when the BBC named their second album, A Livingroom Hush, the best jazz album of 2002.
Almost the first question a record buyer might ask regarding the new album Pyramid is why a Norwegian band like Jaga Jazzist should have their latest album released on a Los Angeles based record label, especially one like Brainfeeder. Most other artists on the label come from LA’s vibrant music scene. However, the label founder, Steven Ellison (more commonly known as Flying Lotus) has shown very little regard for musical genre, as can be heard on his own records. But amongst Jaga Jazzist’s label-mates are not only Tokimonsta, Georgia Anne Mulder and Lapalux, but musicians far more familiar to British jazz fans such as Thundercat and the all-conquering Kamasi Washington.
However, it isn’t only that the label founder has eclectic taste (as might be expected from a grand-nephew of the late jazz pianist Alice Coltrane), but that Jaga Jazzist’s style of music goes well with the general mood and feel of the record label. It’s not as if the band’s music hasn’t been released on record labels not normally associated with jazz before. Their previous record label was the similarly diverse Ninja Tune, where they rubbed shoulders with Coldcut, Bicep and Bonobo, but Jaga Jazzist’s cinematic, experimental and often danceable sound is a natural fit to the Brainfeeder catalogue.
Pyramid is the first album by Jaga Jazzist since 2015 and the first that they produced themselves. It represents a further step in the band’s evolution from the short, almost quirky, tunes of their earlier music to something they describe as ‘cosmic’. There are four tracks on the album, each around ten minutes long, which are so structured as to grow and develop, encompassing a wide range of moods and tempi. In terms of structure and ambition, the album resembles recent recordings from musicians outside of jazz such as Tame Impala, Todd Terje and Jon Hopkins where the music has a nearly symphonic feel and in which a solid, often hummable, melody is never far away. It is also an album that took only two weeks to record in a secluded woodland studio in neighbouring Sweden, and this is evident in the uniform atmosphere and freshness of the music.
The album opens with Tomita, whose title alludes to the pioneering Japanese electronic composer, Isao Tomita, and builds up gradually from a reflective ambience in which the saxophone is in the foreground to a more synth-led crescendo, at times accompanied by wordless vocals and a rolling bass. The second track, Spiral Era, similarly varies in mood and tempo, perhaps in a way evocative of the spiral in the title, going through passages of quietude with just bass and vocalese and then more frenetic passages where percussion takes the lead. The Shrine is a tribute to the club in Lagos where Fela Kuti performed and perhaps not surprisingly is the most percussive track on the album. At times it settles into a chugging rhythm where, like most songs inspired by Afro-Beat, could have been where the music remained, but typically for Jaga Jazzist is only part of the song’s journey. The album concludes with Apex, a clear reference to the album’s title, and is the song on the album with the most persistent underlying beat.
This is an excellent album that will appeal to as many listeners outside the world of jazz as it does to those inside this big tent who are interested in seeing how the revived interest in spiritual jazz is developing and who pay attention to creative contemporary jazz that uses synths and electronic guitars without succumbing to the clichés of fusion jazz or jazz rock.