Jaga Jazzist emerged as one of the leaders of the Scandinavian-spearheaded ‘nu-jazz’ movement in the late nineties, their vibrant style blending the energy and multi-instrumentation of improvised jazz with Warp-influenced electronics and indie-rock melodic sensibilities. With the precocious vision of Lars Horntveth at their centre, the sprawling collective have, either directly or indirectly, made contributions to many of Norway’s most innovative musical efforts over the last decade or so: former or current members playing with Shining, Lama, Motorpsycho, Susanna & the Magical Orchestra, Turbonegro and Adjagas, among many notable others. This shifting and evolving melange of blazing creativity has ensured that, over the course of their three full-length releases in the first half of the 2000’s, Jaga Jazzist increasingly blended genre barriers and pushed their distinctive sound into uncharted waters. Thus A Livingroom Hush offered airy pop hooks, The Stix toyed progressively with glitchy electronic percussion, and 2005’s What We Must, the band’s last effort, opted for full-on post-rock epic structures.
So how the band would sound on this long-awaited studio return was understandably a burning question. Sure enough, Horntveth has claimed that ‘everything fell into place’ when a late-night listen to Nigerian legend Fela Kuti spawned the titular flagship single ‘One Armed Bandit’. That track, the first proper one on an album opened by a crackly intro sampling Smalltown Supersound-signed Scandinavian free-jazz trio The Thing, does indeed represent a welcome sonic shift. Irresistible afrobeat horns writhe over breathless percussion and chiming keyboards that immediately evoke and justify the delightful slot-machine album artwork. It is a cheery, addictive and alluringly danceable opening salvo, which also sounds unmistakeably like Jaga Jazzist. But if afrobeat provided the creative impetus for the record, it is a shame that its influence is largely absent from the remaining songs – the vitalising festivity and humour of the title track swapped for more familiar sounds here on in, follow-up ‘Bananfluer Overalt’ sapping the momentum with its (admittedly agreeable) proggy downtempo.
If One-Armed Bandit largely fails to blaze a revelatory new direction though, Jaga Jazzist on default setting still represents an eminently listenable and intriguing musical proposition. Driven throughout by Even Ormestad’s brooding bass, the album takes in punky soul (‘220 V / Spektral’) funky grandeur (‘Music! Dance! Drama!’) and looping classical-tinged swells (‘Toccata’). It is left to closer ‘Touch of Evil’, however, to remind us of how vital Jaga can be when they are truly on full throttle, the industrial horns and glistening chatter building to bursts of thrilling guitar menace and a swaying storm of gothic organ, shaking the listener out of a stupor we hadn’t known we were in.
Admittedly all of Jaga Jazzist’s attributes are on show on this record: their superb musicianship, lack of respect for traditional genre boundaries – which is accompanied by an enviable knowledge of how these seemingly disparate strands can best be meshed, their ear for a catchy melody that never begs out for vocal accompaniment, and their general effervescence. But if One-Armed Bandit is an enjoyable listen, a fine album, it is not the one to take them to the next level, either musically or in terms of popular appeal. Despite the album name and artwork, Jaga Jazzist don’t take enough of a gamble.
First published on nomusicmedia.com, 2010