Wednesday, November 25, 2009

#35. Jaga Jazzist - What We Must (Smalltown Supersound, 2005)

There's no question I dread more than the inevitable 'what kind of music do you like?' inquiries that pop up in small talk. It's frustrating to explain that when I say that I generally like a wide range of stuff I really mean that I will flit quite happily from death metal to free jazz to modern classical to pop to folk to drone without a second thought. It seems to confuse people if I say that I'm musically omnivorous or eclectic to a fault, and if I do the whole 'lots of stuff, you probably wouldn't know much of it' I sound like a dick and I hate doing that. I almost wish there was a certain band I could direct people to to get an idea of all my musical likes, but chances are that theoretical band would suck, because while girl-group harmonies, complex arrangements and time signatures and post rock dynamics all work well on their own I can't imagine them all coexisting peacefully in the same song, let alone if you were to add in some free jazz, fluid acoustic guitar playing, dark atmosphere and abstract hip hop to the mix.

The point of this long-winded (me? long-winded? never!) introductory spiel is that any time I find a band that ticks at least three of the boxes I have in my mental list of 'things that make music awesome' I get a little more excited than usual. The more boxes it ticks off, the more excited I get, and even if the music isn't great it gets something of a boost in my estimations by virtue of it fulfilling so many of those requirements. I'm not just talking about the big three - passion, passion and passion - but the smaller sonic touches and genre signifiers that tickle my fancy. Hell I even will occasionally make the list of all the things that a certain album has going for it as it ticks off more and more of the boxes even if I immediately negate it with a much more prevalent criticism. The times that nothing seems to work against the multiple positives are the times I reserve a slot on my decade-end lists for the album.

What We Must ticked off at least a half a dozen of those boxes by the time its first track, the absolutely stunning "All I Know Is Tonight" was half over. The band had passion in spades, skill to match, were playing jazz with post-rock structures and dynamics, allowed for multiple levels of interplay without getting sloppy, had immaculate production and ethereal, almost unnoticeable female vocals wafting in and out of the mix. By the time the song ground to halt for a miniature vibraphone solo I was in a sort of musical heaven that few songs could take me to, and when the whole ensemble rushed back in right after that it was the sort of rush few other bands could provide. I'd been a fan of Jaga Jazzist before, the jazz/IDM hybrid of their first two albums was fun and well played by all involved, but from the first track of What We Must on I became more than a fan, I was enthralled. The minor adjustments to their sound, renewed focus on live drumming vs programmed, more of a collective approach to the main themes as opposed to the more solo-oriented sound of The Stix, the sheer force of the whole ten-person ensemble playing together without becoming overpowering and most of all the extended songs that took advantage of all of those adjustments took them from being a good band to a great one in the space of just less than eight minutes.

Even if the remaining six tracks never quite reach the heights of "All I Know Is Tonight," and really that's a given for any album with an opening cut as strong as that, What We Must still stands as one of the most exciting jazz-adjacent releases of the decade. The ensemble's focus and power shines through on all the cuts, from the choppy rhythms of "Stardust Hotel" to the brooding menace of "I Have a Ghost, Now What?" there's always a healthy bit of ensemble playing that puts so many other jazz groups to shame. Martin Horntveth's return to playing live drums for the most part gives the songs a much more human feeling, its probably the most noticeable departure from the ir previous album and it suits the tighter, more dynamic and expansive sound of this release perfectly. It doesn't hurt that it seems all ten members of the line up at this point are at or near the top of their game on their respective instruments as well, making their group and solo playing that much more electric and exciting.

Really, even if the only thing this offered to me was "All I Know Is Tonight" it would have been a shoo-in for one of my favorites of the decade, but the fact that it doesn't let up that much for the 38 or so minutes after that - it runs just over 45 minutes on the whole, pretty concise for such a sprawling album - is a nice bonus. I may not get quite as much out of the other six tracks but the whole thing has me more than excited for the next step that the collective takes.

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