Jaga Jazzist One-Armed Bandit

[Ninja Tune; 2010]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: jazz, progressive jazz, fusion, progressive rock
Others: Fela Kuti, Tortoise, Wagner, Pat Metheny, The Flaming Lips

The first thought I had after firing up Jaga Jazzist’s new album One-Armed Bandit was, “Oh, this is supposed to be a masterpiece.” Somehow, the scent of aspiring mastery I detected didn’t reek of ego. This baffled me. If you were leading a 10-piece instrumental jazz band, how would you avoid stinking up the room with ego? Would you take several years off between albums, so that the band had no choice but to adopt side projects or day jobs? Would you accept payment for gigs in food and hugs to avoid having to divide your money 10 ways? Would do you spend several months writing out all the charts by hand, revealing it to the band piece by piece, keeping them in the dark, like American voters, making them blind accomplices in an ingenious master plan?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. As it turns out, there’s a lot I don’t know; I thought history rendered albums like this impossible. I can only think of two possible antecedents to this sort of thing. The first is albums from guys like Squarepusher, the electronica/jazz hybrids that have been coming out in Europe on Ninja Tune for the last decade and a half. The second is stuff from guys like Chick Corea and Pat Metheny, the sort of self-consciously progressive jazz fusion that was born in the 70s and died with disco. These days, American jazz has too much of an identity complex to attempt anything of this breadth or scope. Nobody in the states writes anything this ambitious without being drunk on either his own ego or high on the fumes of a phony, rhetoric-infused idea of jazz (except maybe Pat Metheny). And nobody in Europe has been able to work effectively on this scale without being a one-man band.

Jaga Jazzist is far from being a one-man band. Not because the ensemble is bursting with “personality,” but because any of the players is as likely to step into the foreground and carry a melody as they are to step back and take their place as one of the gears of counterpoint. And there is a ton of counterpoint going on, so many tracks to mix that it gave the first engineer a case of tinnitus and they had to send it all the way to John McEntire in Chicago. Between all the different horns, guitars, and synthesizers, it is a miracle that it sounds so damn transparent. This music is light on its feet, like a boxer. It packs a punch, from the assured and swaggering melodic work to Martin Horntveth’s muscular drumming, which, at its best, one-ups Steven Drozd. But besides a punch, it also packs a healthy sense of responsibility. 2005’s What We Must was beautiful and bigger-sounding, but what One-Armed Bandit forfeits in romance, it gains in subtlety and balance.

Then again, the opener “One-Armed Bandit” has tonal shifts that are jarring enough to remind the listener that subtlety was probably not one of this band’s goals. This is music you feel in your head; there is a definite prog bent to the way it is put together, which is even more noticeable now that the stylistic leftovers from UK jungle and state-side sample-based hip-hop have faded far into the background. There are a lot of heavy and complex moments on this album, such as the Wagnerian grandeur that peaks four minutes into “Toccata,” or the stubbornly un-head-noddable and FX-heavy buildup that occupies center stage in “Music! Dance! Drama!” — and the arrangements prepare the listener for them, when necessary. At heart, they do not feel pretentious or needlessly impenetrable, but a mindfuck is a mindfuck, no matter how polite and well-mannered it is.

Don’t let yourself be lulled by the fact that “Book of Glass” sounds like a friendly indie rock song for a little while. Don’t get startled or upset by the blatant foreshadowing in “Touch of Evil.” Through all the heady displays of technique, try to keep your cool. Don’t forget the feeling you got during the first track, when it suddenly turned from a fusion jam to something that sounded like slot machines, and then brought the first melodic theme back, in a different key, with a new set of accompaniments, like a man doing magic tricks with a straight face. It is no accident; Jaga Jazzist is trying to blow your mind. It is supposed to feel like a masterpiece.

Links: Jaga Jazzist - Ninja Tune

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