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Sunday, December 18, 2011

JAGA JAZZIST - ONE ARMED BANDIT

Ninja Tune (2010, Jan.)
Original U.K. pressing ZEN 152

Rating: 7.5/ A 

Category: Post-Prog-Fusion
Format: Vinyl (2 x 180g at 33 1/3 rpm)


Musicians:
  • Lars Horntveth - Clarinet, Flute, Guitar, Piano, Clarinet (Bass), Keyboards, Programming, Sax (Baritone), Sax (Soprano), Sax (Tenor), Lap Steel Guitar
  • Martin Horntveth - Percussion, Drums, Programming, Bells, Psaltery, Drum Machine, Temple - Blocks, Marxophone, Mandolin Harp
  • Mathias Eick - Piano, Trumpet, French Horn, Keyboards, Bass (Upright)
  • Line Horntveth - Flute, Percussion, Tuba, Glockenspiel, Vocals
  • Erik Johannessen - Trombone, Marxophone
  • Andreas Mjos - Guitar, Percussion, Glockenspiel, Marimba, Vibraphone
  • Øystein Moen - Organ, Synthesizer, Percussion, Piano
  • Even Ormestad - Bass, Percussion, Glockenspiel, Keyboards 
  • Stian Westerhus - Percussion, Guitar (Electric), Harp, Guitar (12 String), Effects, Guitar (Baritone)
  • All music written by Lars Horntveth
  • All music arranged by Jaga Jazzist and Jørgen Træen
  • Produced by Jørgen Træen and Jaga Jazzist
  • Recorded by Jørgen Træen in Cabin Recorders and Wallpaper, Oslo, December 2008
  • Assistant Engineering by Even Ormestad
  • Mixed by John McEntire in Soma Studios, April/May 2009
  • Additional Mixing by Mike Hartung and Chris Sansom in Propeller Music Division, August 2009
  • Mastered by Chris Sansom in Propeller Mastering, August 2009
  • Design by Yokoland 
  • Photography By – Morten Spaberg


There's fusion and then there is Fusion. Although the former is usually found in the company of jazz and rock; the latter is very rarely encountered or accomplished in music. Norwegian multi-talented nonet Jaga Jazzist tends to fall in the second clan. Having just played the 'Festival International de Jazz de Montréal' last July, the band still on the heels of their fifth album One-Armed Bandit,are at the top of their game.


Often considered the first jazz-rock fusion recording, Miles Davis' 1969 In a Silent Way (Columbia) certainly laid the groundwork for what would be the main creative jazz incarnation of the following decade - although hinted the year before on Miles in the Sky (Columbia). Without diminishing the importance and creative genius of Miles, we must not forget the earlier works of Gary Burton with Larry Coryell nor the psychedelic extended jams of Haight-Ashbury's Grateful Dead nor the 'nothing is sacred' experimentations of the Mothers of Invention.


In fact Frank Zappa is probably the most direct musical influence on One-Armed Bandit; add in a dash of Reich minimalism and sprinkle some more modern fare of the likes of Chicago's Tortoise, and you pretty much get the winning recipe. Interestingly, most of the album was mixed by John McEntire of Tortoise; with additional mixing by Mike Hartung and Chris Sansom, the latter responsible for the mastering.


Four different front covers representing the typical set of slot-machine symbols - grapes, bell, cherries, etc. - grace the LP's and CD's.


Although not a gatefold, the jacket is nonetheless nicely presented in a quality carton distinguished by its front visual simplicity with back artistic hues and tactile pleasure; the 'Warhol' look contrasting with the nature morte of Morten Spaberg.


 Inside there is a simple album-sized shiny insert sporting the 'slot' symbols on one side and numerous credits on black background on the flip side.


The LP's are housed in quality black paper sleeves with 'angled-cropped' corners, there is no protective liner so care must be taken not to scratch the surfaces during insertion. The labels feature the grapes, bell an orange symbols respectively on my copy while side D features 'KA-CHING' written in yellow on black The vinyl was flat, shiny and black with nice groove modulations for the eyes.  The 'groove width spread' is approx. 3 1/4 inches for side A and 3 1/8 inches for side B and C. D has no music content; instead it is visually quite special with the words 'BLAM', 'CRASH!', 'KA-CHING' and FWEEEEEE' inscribe across the vinyl. At no more than 20 minutes of music per side and 33 1/3 rpm, it should not present any problem for bandwidth and a medium cutting level. That said, spreading the ten tracks on all four sides instead of three would have been a wiser choice in sonic terms of course.

Place your bets!


The cutting level on side A lies at a moderate level, higher than the Cars on MoFi and lower than the Vex'd on Planet Mu. "The Thing Introduces...", opens with a gong followed by a crescendo of low cut bandpass-filtered brass ensemble and crash cymbal. Lasting a mere 23 seconds, it serves as a short intro to the title track of the album. A 'pinched sound' type keyboard which I presume is the marxophone leads the way, french horn, brass, raunchy guitar, drums and percussion build up track over track leading to a sound density close to distortion. There are 'Bond-esque' stylings to the musical arrangements and the french horns or brass share two musical themes. The sound somewhat veiled, is only fair.

"Bananfluer Overalt" starts with the drums; there is a slight doubling effect, an extremely short delay blended in, thickening the sound. The whole thing lacks airiness. The initial smooth tempo changes radically at the bridge, jumping into a hurried frenzy and later returning to the calmer main theme.

A complete change of ambience awaits us with the last track of side A. "220 V/Spektral" presents a delicate piano intro, bass follows, subtle bass clarinet or sax add their touch. Syncopated beats keep it interesting; the close mic’ing captures well the breathing of the sax. The sound is better, airier, less compressed and less thick. A distorted synth comes in and the rhythm is very complex. Unfortunately cymbals are dirty and confused. Up to now the pressing is perfect, not one tick or pop; the E.U., no doubt trying to redeem itself on that front.


Flipping to side B, there is a tiny pressing circular spot on track one. Also it seems cut just a bit lower. "Toccata" opens with an intro worthy of Steve Reich's groundbreaking pieces Drumming / Music for Mallet Instruments ...(Deutsche Grammophon) from 1974 and Music for 18 Musicians (ECM) from 1978. And like the Master of Minimalism himself, Jaga Jazzist juxtaposes organ with piano with marinba in a 6/4 meter heading towards another Bond-esque theme, this time recalling moments from John Barry's 1967 soundtrack of You Only Live Twice (United Artist). In a nutshell, think Philip Glass' 1983 The Photographer (CBS) meets brassy big band meets John Barry meets Reich - blended in one superb hook. The sound keeps getting better, cleaner and breathier. Best track up to now.

"Prognissekongen" has the markings of King Crimson's Robert Fripp doing the "Elephant Talk" / Discipline / Larks' Tongues in Aspic dance. Throw in some early 1970s syncopated Yes, an accelerando piano a la ELP, a snippet of prepared piano and the interplay of The Bad Plus with the blessing of Zappa; like the title implies this track is truly the king of heavy progressive. A close second to the previous one in sound.

The drum 'doubling delay' returns on "Book of Glass". Dribbling rhythm of bass and drums in a filtered murky sound give a hectic pace to this somewhat 1980s prog-fusion styling. In the background we hear a repetitive metronomic synth counting time. Further down the road the instrumental buildup distorts, losing both extremes of the spectrum; probably wanted for creative purposes, nevertheless it becomes bothersome up to a point. Back to average sound.


Moving on to side C, the pressing looks beautiful with nice groove 'etchings'. "Music! Dance! Drama!" displays veiled drums, artistically wanted no doubt. Some warbling synth accompanied by glockenspiel subliminally recall 'space music' heard in Star Trek's original pilot "The Cage"by Alexander Courage. Electric guitar, harp and brass contribute to a large buildup until a very syncopated break of brass augmented by abrasive guitar, culminate again in grandiose 'Bond-sound character'.

"Touch of Evil" gives a nod to Pink Floyd's The Wall (EMI Harvest) with a short helicopter intro. Heavy distorted bass goes down low, producing good weight plus fine details in the highs. A quick tempo 4/4 meter driving-kick followed by handclaps, background syncopated snare and trombone lead to some angular guitar riff 'taken right out' of a Shellac/Albini record. This is the best track music and sonic wise.

"Endless Galaxy" (which appears only on the LP version) is quite complex in rhythm. The break lets glockenspiel, percussion, bass and acoustic guitar share the intimate stage before a 4/4 syncopated beat adds the finishing touch.


Lastly, a comparison between the CD and LP versions revealed the former to gain a bit in the lower registers regarding weight while the latter easily came out on top in the treble airiness, with lesser compression and congestion in the oftentimes dense mix. The supplementary track combined with the excellent pressing quality and vastly superior artistic design make the vinyl LP the natural choice.

Summing up, owing more to the 'left cerebral hemisphere' than the 'right', Jaga Jazzist's One-Armed Bandit was still sufficiently enticing to tap my foot to their challenging music compositions, which is not always the case with most fusion.

Combining such diverse instruments as drum, percussion, bass, guitar, tuba, trombone, French horn, trumpet, clarinet, saxes, marxophone, piano, organ and many more plus odd meters used as the default time signature, it should delight any open minded Zappaesque enthusiast as well as the post-prog-fusion crowd.
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