Review: Jaga Jazzist – One-Armed Bandit

It is official; the world has gone topsy-turvy. Chickens are hatching into eggs, horses are riding on the backs of jockeys, the sun is orbiting the earth. Don’t believe me? Here’s the proof – bands seeking a wider audience are going prog. Chicago avant-rock legends Cheer-Accident did it back in 2009 by toning down their eclectic, anything-goes attitude and churning out a relentless slab of pure avant-prog for their first record on Cuneiform* and won themselves countless new fans in the process.

And then, almost exactly a year ago Jaga Jazzist, (you know, those Norwegian guys with the electronica-meets-jazz schtick which has done them very nicely for more than a decade) went and released a progressive rock album. A progressive rock album which has won them widespread critical acclaim and plenty of new admirers, no less. The message seems to be loud and clear – all you aging experimentalists, get out there and lay down some out-and-proud progressive rock and spend the weeks and months after its release bathing in a river of plaudits, backslapping and adoring new fans.

But let’s not forget that this is a review. The question here is has Jaga Jazzist’s transition from post-rock/electronica/nu jazz noodling to grand arrangements, indulgent solos and wonky time signatures resulted in a decent album? Well, the answer is yes, though to our ears at least, it is sometimes surprisingly hard to notice.

No doubt, there’s something interesting going on in this record. The mix of ambient, swirling synths and processed beats slotting in with odd chord progressions and chunks of mangled jazz all comes off with surprising ease. Almost too much ease, in fact; unless I force my ears to sit up and pay attention, a lot of the subtleties and complexities just trickle by unnoticed and these truly accomplished compositions become unfairly relegated to the level of background noise.

But once we slip on the headphones this record truly comes alive, bursting with depth, ambition and surprise. Jaga Jazzist’s transformation into a progressive rock act is not altogether surprising (certain proggers have been touting them enthusiastically for years) but the enthusiasm with which they have adopted the trappings of prog on this record is truly remarkable. Tracks such as the knotty, unpredictable “Prognissekongen” or the restless title track with its Zappa-esque main theme and Yes-like slide guitar were a constant source of delight for me throughout 2010. Here’s hoping their next offering is a triple concept album about… beekeeping, or something. Or maybe not.

*If Hemulism was around in 2009 Fear Draws Misfortune would have unquestionably topped our annual best of list. That album is well wizard.

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4 Responses to “Review: Jaga Jazzist – One-Armed Bandit”
  1. Snardbafulator says:

    Trying to listen to “Prognissekongen” again, but am waiting for YouTube to buffer again at 480p … I love that opening section. In fact, I love a great deal of I’ve heard from this band so far. There we go! (Hoping it doesn’t get stuck again.) It’s the low brass that really gets me here (how cool is it that they have a tuba? I thought only Carla Bley had a tuba in a jazz-rock band … ) The low brass that prompts all the comparisons to Waka/Jawaka-era Zappa. You’re right, though, that this is really artifact-based (recording-based) music as opposed to performance-based (which some argue, including myself, is the proper definition of jazz as opposed to pop or rock, or to classical of any era, which is score-based). Love that sax-brass melody. Am less sure about the spacier sections.

    Now onto “Book of Glass” which has a dynamite chord progression at the beginning, now into a dialogue between the bass and guitar, now a call-and-response between brass and drums over insistent keyboard chords, now back into the progression. This is nicely structured. Now it falls out save guitar and vibes — here we go, more insistent chords, drums flailing against it and a theme building up from the brass … and once again into the progression, colored with electronics, the melody taken by guitar, great counterpoint in the bass and low brass, the keys continue to pulsate … we’re into some kind of tutti with bells doubling the melody, heavily textured. Now a break from the rhythm section … brooding along with the effects … now silence. Nice. Bravo!

    Here’s “Music! Dance! Drama!” and you see where jazz aficionados might get annoyed, because this music isn’t jazz. Electronic percussion, nicely offbeat, swelling melody in horns with reverb guitar, high tuned percussion obligato. Now into a thickly composed contrasting section with dissonant guitar in threes after a three-note horn figure, okay back to the earlier section, let’s see where it goes … some kind of harpish flourish and we’re back into the thick section, pretty much a straight repeat. Here we go, new section, horn and drums in odd rhythmic pulses, building tension, this is good, distorted, processed guitar comes on board, climbs — here come horn stabs backed with snare blasts, great!, new horn melody, modulates nicely, still all over the odd pulses, now we’re adding the first theme in superimposition, and again we’re back into the thick contrasting section, probably signaling the coda soon, here’s the third repeat and …. indeed, coda. Good call, there Baffy šŸ™‚ I like this tune a lot.

    Alright, ’nuff said. Lemme leave you (if I’m guessing the HTML syntax correctly) a number by a killer math-jazz group from my stomping grounds, The Bad Plus. Just a traditional piano jazz trio, upright bass, but with chops out the wazoo and a deranged love of covering Led Zeppelin and Nirvana just to, you know, pad the tip jar. (They have great original titles like “Cheney Pinata”). This one’s called The Empire Strikes Backwards. And it’s a subdivided barn-burner.

    Enjoy!

    Baffles

  2. Snardbafulator says:

    Damn, the URL didn’t take. Here it is in text: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mbqoMbHTTUQ&feature=related

    Copy it ‘n’ stick it in your browser. I guarantee you you won’t be disappointed šŸ™‚

    Bob

    • thehemulen says:

      Crikey! Great stuff, Bob – thanks for the tip-off!

      • Snardbafulator says:

        Apparently they do a lot of free jazz on that DVD, too. The guy who uploaded “Iron Man” can’t be bothered uploading it, though. I’d love to see/hear these guys free improvise …

        Heh. Figures.

        Bob

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