It has been more than four years since we heard from the band that perhaps more than any has defined the contemporary Norwegian music scene in the intersecting landscapes of jazz, pop and electronica. Jaga Jazzist has been referred to as a ten-headed chimera; a sweet sounding powerhouse of swaggering horns, feline jazz, clever electronics and subtle rock; an instrumental panoply brought together in travels along lush melodic ridges or pooled into cascades of catchy music. Now a new record, One Armed Bandit, is bestowed with critical acclaim at home and abroad.
The process leading up to the album and its fitting title has been a long one: -All of a sudden many of the tunes started exhibiting these arpeggio tendencies, says Lars Horntveth, musical leader of Jaga. And so the notion of the slot machine and the arpeggio element became a kind of guiding concept for the whole record. What often happens when we work is that we take hold of some elements that stand out, often things that are not preconceived, and make these our clue to an overall character for the record.
Along with his equally prolific brother Martin and their sister Line, the Horntveths make up half of the core of the group that emerged from the marching band movement in their hometown of Třnsberg fifteen years ago. Jaga is an extended family; they are many and they are tight. However, making music with nine or ten people is a challenge, needless to say. Especially when there is a strong desire to try something new every time, both in terms of expression and regarding the actual work process.
-On our previous record (2005’s What we must) we worked more or less like a rock band, says Horntveth. Nothing was written down and we rehearsed all the music just by ear and interplay. This time around the approach was the complete opposite. The music is fairly complex and therefore I had written everything down. The rehearsal process was quite challenging and for a long time it was all about reading sheets. In Jaga we have always wanted to be able to use both approaches when we work with new music so the principle of strictly playing off sheets is not something new really.
-Six of us have been in the band from the start, fifteen years ago, says Lars. It is really kind of a family thing, or a mothership, if you like. Now we all have so much going on besides Jaga - solo careers taking off everywhere you look - but Jaga is something like a musical home: We share references and taste and in a way we always know what is right for us to do together. The long pause has been good for us, I think, and I really felt that there was a lot of energy stored up when we got together again. Everyone draws lots of inspiration from their own projects and the good thing is that we reach a point where we want to put that inspiration and energy back into Jaga: there is always so much more to be done within the Jaga format, and that is a great feeling.
One Armed Bandit is the final result of an intensive rehearsal session held deep in the dark woods of Sweden. The collective rehearsed extensively for a week to get back into the trademark Jaga mode: -We played wild prog for days on end. It was great to see how well it worked right from the start and some of that intensity made its way to the record. It is funny, because we have always been compared to Zappa, and I have never been much of a Zappa fan really. But on this record I think there is some truth to it, for the first time.
After the Swedish jams, the collective headed for the studio in December to cut the tracks that now make up One Armed Bandit, all of which were penned by Lars Horntvedt:
-I started in august and had to work really hard to have something new to present every week. Having a set weekly deadline to work against is exhausting but productive. For me it is really not very fruitful to focus on inspiration and being in the right mood. I just have to keep up momentum and keep working. I say with Stravinsky: Fuck inspiration, give me a deadline!
Jaga’s longstanding partner, Tortoise’s John McEntire, resumed the bond with the Norwegian collective last year: -Three of us went over to John McEntire in Chicago. Of course we’re big fans of Tortoise, but this record sounds nothing like that: it would have been corny to show up there with Tortoise- inspired music. We chose John because we trust his taste and knew that he would understand what we wanted.
Horntveth describes Jaga as a musical family and a mothership, but it is also an ongoing process, a living entity, as it were.
-It takes a real effort to avoid retreating to old concepts and solutions. But we want the band to be born anew every time, you know, that is why we have this very strict musical discipline in the group. The great thing is that even though it can be very draining, with all the logistics and the hard work, not to mention the non-existing economic surplus, there is still a lot of energy in the band. The few on-off gigs we have done during this long break have really confirmed that something special happens when we get together.
Released in mid-January, One Armed Bandit(Smalltown Supersound/Ninja Tune), has been rewarded with a number of strong reviews at home and abroad. A few excerpts:
The Times (4/5):
"The nine-strong Nordic pranksters bustle energetically between instrumental jazz and prog rock, never letting complexity obscure a good pop tune. The ghost of Frank Zappa’s Peaches en Regalia hangs over the title track, with its skittering keyboards and horns, and Toccata is rocked-up Steve Reich. But mostly Lars Horntveth, writer of these nine tunes, is inventively his own man. After tubas, church organs and electro beats, Touch of Evil brings the album to a suitably dramatic close." - John Bungey. Full review.
According to Jaga Jazzist mainman Lars Horntveth, the ten members of his Wu-Tang-like jazz clan have left their mark on some 300 different records, producing, arranging and playing on albums by Adjágas, Susanna and the Magical Orchestra and assorted Scandinavian acts. It’s further proof, if any were needed, that these are musicians whose ambidextrous talent lets them change direction at the drop of a hat, something they’ve done once again on their latest thriller, One-Armed Bandit. It’s difficult to imagine where on Earth they could go after this. - Chris Parkin
Clash Magazine (8/10):
In the wrong hands, jazz-fusion and prog can be dangerous musical fodder, but when undertaken by Norwegian alt-musos Jaga Jazzist, the result can be spectacular. While 2005's "What We Must" explored post-rocky Sigur Rós territory with mixed result, "One-Armed Bandit" sees them back to the electronic wonk-jazz that they do so well. Big layers of instruments dual with and complement each other via weird time signatures, and inspired, complex riffs that sound like they're scoring a car chase from a cult Seventies film, mixed with bursts of electronic futurism - perhaps best displayed on the album's title track - a manic, brilliant piece of instrumental songwriting that shows Jaga Jazzist to be at the top of their game
Dazzling comeback after five years away by the Norwegian nonet.
Jaga Jazzist's main composer and multi-instrumentalist, Lars Horntveth, has described One-Armed Bandit as influenced by Fela Kuti, Frank Zappa, Wagner and the tunes produced by arcade machines. You can hear them all in the mix: even Bayreuth's baddest in some of the heavyweight horn lines. This is more tightly composed than 2005's rockier What We Must, although it carries the Jaga trademark of long ensemble melody lines over shifting rhythmic elements. There is a pinch of prog too, manifested in kaleidoscopic intricacy rather than anything unnecessarily tricksy - their sound remains muscular and funky. Toccata, with it's seesawing piano figures, and staccato horns, adds Philip Glass and Steve Reich to the influences list. Prognisse swaggers with dancing guitar themes, some flamboyant unison passages and a killer tuba solo from Line Horntveth. - Mike Barnes
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Lars Horntveth, Saxophonist, guitarist, composer