Mentioning the words "jazz-electronic hybrid" is enough to scare fans of both genres. Computers make jazzers modern, horns provide knob-twiddlers with retro cool, yet often the result is a groundless mish-mash rather than a fresh sound. Norway's Jaga Jazzist are one of the few ensembles to create a blistering amalgam of jazz and experimental electronics.
Raw and unpredictable, but schooled in jazz traditions, the 10-person band fuses sly horn work and a towering keyboard sound with knee-wobbling bass and a hail of drums, both electronic and live. Composition-ally, Jaga Jazzist turn out complex, multi-layered dance floor anthems as well as chilling ballads.
Though still relatively unknown in the States, the members of Jaga Jazzist are among Norway's most lauded musicians. As engineers, producers and performers, they've had their hands in the most challenging music to emerge from that country over the last decade.
The group formed in 1994 in Tonsberg, a small suburb of Oslo. Founder, guitarist, saxophonist, clarinetist and primary songwriter Lars Horntveth -- only 14 years old at the time -- trolled for band mates among friends, family and acquaintances. Soon the act was one of Norway's best-kept secrets, drawing large crowds to its genre-bending shows. Though near-legends on the concert circuit, Jaga took nearly a decade to release their debut recording, 2001's A Livingroom Hush.
Released on the Oslo imprint Smalltown Supersound, the disc drew rave reviews from critics and fans, selling 15,000 copies in Norway alone. The record was a brilliant recreation of the band's live sound, and it quickly caught the ear of many listeners on both sides of the jazz/electronic divide. A year later, it was picked up by avant-hip-hop label Ninja Tune and released internationally.
Meanwhile, the group released a second full-length, entitled The Stix. A remarkable convergence of man and machine, it was an instant success. Loping grooves and elastic bass lines, touches of glitchy electronics and walls of horns further demonstrated the band's unique, head-turning style.
This summer, Jaga Jazzist are on their debut tour of the U.S. and Canada, which includes a stop at Burlington's Club Metronome next Monday, July 5. Coinciding with the event is the release of Day, an eight-tune mini-album. The title track, one of the strongest from The Stix, pits minimal piano plinking and melodic guitar fills against crackling drum 'n' bass. Horns enter in, smooth and lovely, before an explosion of synths leads the song to a screaming climax. And that's just the first two minutes.
In "Two Things," a new, unreleased track, the band delves further into electronica, creating a spitting, cut-up beat that's smoothed occasionally by a gauzy, melodic hook. It's a massive track, and an excellent example of how nimbly the band toys with genre lines.
Two remixes follow -- a stretched, gussied-up version of "Day" courtesy of laptop star Matthew Hebert, and electro-funk pranksters Dat Politics' mix of "Reminders."
The album closes with a batch of live tracks that lay to rest any fears of the group's sound being merely a studio creation. The 23 or so minutes of music -- versions of "Kitty Wu," "Day/Another Day" and "Suomi Finland" -- are in some ways stronger than the album material. In "Kitty Wu," the horns commingle with sputtering electronics and a flurry of vibes. Elsewhere, the band soars on extended horn and keyboard jams, breaks down into pulsing fits of electronic percussion, and swings with classic cool. Possibly the best moment occurs in "Kitty Wu": with the group
at full throttle, the bottom falls out to leave just the slow tug of a saxophone, thick, snaky bass and the steady click of a digital drum.
Far from meandering experimentalists, Jaga Jazzist are true sound artists, bridging the gap between new and old, electronica and jazz with an endlessly inventive, forward-looking approach. Whichever genre you favor, this band deserves a listen. Besides, how often does a 10-piece Norwegian band come to town?