At its best, Norwegian experimental jazz ensemble Jaga Jazzist sounds like no other group in the world. Its complex ensemble arrangements hearken back to the halcyon swing of Duke and Count Basie, engaging in instrumental acrobatics that echo Heavy Weather-era fusion with a wild rock ’n’ roll heart. Starfire, the group’s sixth studio album and first since 2010’s decadent Live with Britten Sinfonia, finds founding brothers Lars and Martin Horntveth and their cadre of progressive European jazzbos continuing on their nearly two decade-long journey of re-shaping the sound of contemporary jazz. This album, though, feels like Jaga Jazzist is drawing loose circles around an ultimate purpose, rather than driving toward it in a straight line.
The group wastes no time ripping open the fabric of jazz-time and exposing its riotous inner workings with the opening title track. The scuffed, uptempo guitar riff and casually strummed chords that begin and end the song are mere suggestions of the outrageousness they bookend. For three relatively tame minutes, the band plays on a theme, twisting roundabout movements toward a predictable crescendo. Suddenly, synth rises out of the mix and the rhythm section seems to have a momentary seizure. The five minutes that follow demonstrate the band’s fearless will to explode boundaries. This is the Jaga Jazzist formula: Songs regularly run 7 minutes or more and fill to the brim with more movements, tempo changes, and melodic eruptions than one can easily track.
Drummer Martin Horntveth and bassist Even Ormestad provide a backbone that works to keep from getting lost in the complex compositions. No matter how histrionic the high end, the rhythm section is almost mechanically precise. Martin’s drumming is a particular delight; it’s exhausting to follow how often he must stop, start, and suddenly erupt. Moving from backbeat to spotlight, on “Big City Music” the rhythm section gets several opportunities to lay back in the groove and interact solely with, in turns, guitar, synth, and a ripping tuba line.
Jaga Jazzist has always had a populist leaning, and the ability to weave engaging tunes into otherwise scurrilous compositions is essential to the group’s success outside the jazz world. On “Starfire”, this aesthetic is asserted throughout, almost to the point of distraction. The strummed guitar chords that open and close “Shinkansen” could be third-rate Pink Floyd or even Radiohead. Familiarity breeds indifference and the songs’ lightest moments don’t seem do justice to their mind-bending components.
It was true in the 1920s and it remains true today: The best jazz is steeped in chaotic impulse, always threatening to explode. But, in reality, it tends to be so tightly metered and bound by rules of its own design that it operates like clockwork. Jaga Jazzist tread this line very well, but on Starfire, they lean too heavily on technical ambition and end up choking the life out of their own tunes. Maybe they should loosen their grip and let the chaos breathe a little deeper.
Essential Tracks: “Starfire”, “Big City Music”, and “Oban”