Somnambule - Writing About Music

Jaga Jazzist ~ To Jazz Or Not To Jazz

The strikingly named Jaga Jazzist are a Norwegian 10 piece group whose youthful energy and openness to all sorts of music outside the immediate sphere of the jazz mainstream embodies the energetic impulse of Norway’s recent riptide of new musical forms. Jaga Jazzist began in Tonsberg in 1994, cohering out of a group of “10 good friends and schoolmates wanting to have a large band to play all kinds of music in and write crazy stuff for”. Lars states that “I listen to all kinds of music and a lot to jazz. Many of my latest favourite concerts have been free-jazz gigs. I hear a lot of jazz in the music of Jaga but all sorts of other stuff as well. I don´t feel that it is a problem.” The group’s biography claims an enormous list of influences from Justin Timberlake to The Carpenters, Radiohead to Todd Rundgren. Their music is almost a genre in itself and ultimately defies easy description. As if to underline their outsider status Lars declares that “[when we formed] we were part of a scene but ... most of the other bands were indiepop bands, we were the outsiders (musically).” However, certain ingredients that make up the Jaga Jazzist sound are clearly identifiable: big band jazz, contemporary production values, classic 60’s film soundtracks, shades of easygoing lounge music and, most recently, rock guitar. Whatever its form, what makes the group’s music stand out is its striking sincerity and warmth: this isn’t another case of clever ironists with trigger-happy fingers hovering over their samplers, but a group of ten highly skilled musicians playing their hearts out, busily working towards a state of blissfully noisy nirvana.

The four track EP Magazine arrived in 1998 and revealed much that would later become identifiable with the mature Jaga Jazzist sound. Apart from the wistful folksong Seems To Me that concluded the release, tracks like Swedish Take-Away (Live), with its Fender Rhodes chords and swaying horn section, allowed soloists to stretch out at enjoyable length. A Livingroom Hush followed in 2001 and proved to be the group’s breakthrough, aided greatly by their deal with London dance label NinjaTune. First track, Animal Chin set the scene with hyperspeed breakbeats, the warm patter of glockenspiel and an utterly infectious melody. Paired with an animated Monty Python-style video which depicted musicians’ heads atop the bodies of stampeding animals, it was pretty much irresistible. 2003’s The Stix was a continuation of its predecessor’s sound, but with a greater emphasis upon electronica-derived rhythms. The group’s new album, What We Must, aims to capture more of the excitement of Jaga Jazzist live, as well as foregrounding guitars in the mix and taking the music closer to rock than ever before. Whether this new direction is a response to the recent popularity of the likes of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, White Stripes and their compatriots or an emphasis upon themes already present in their music, the new sound retains clearly discernible elements of the Jaga Jazzist sound.

Asked whether they feel like they’re part of a scene, Lars replies that “... the Oslo scene around the club Bla is absolutely a scene that we feel a big part of.” Given the number of side projects that the group have spawned, it could be claimed that Jaga are a scene in themselves. Drummer Martin Horntveth has released two EPs of breakbeat propelled electronica; last year Lars released the gorgeous, string-drenched Pooka; In The Fishtank was a co-venture between Norwegian rockers Motorpsycho and the Jaga Jazzist horns while recent departees Jørgen Munkeby and Morten Qvenild have just released the ambiguously titled In The Kingdom Of Kitsch You Will Be A Monster as Shining. That’s just a few of the projects associated with the band.

It’s clear that Jaga Jazzist don’t want to be pigeon-holed as jazzers, but that’s not to say their music doesn’t bear many of the hallmarks of a music that’s a byword for the marriage of experimentation and soul. Close your eyes and pick pretty much any Jaga track at random and you’ll discover intricate unison lines, hummable melodies, succinct solos, sumptuous arrangements and rhythms that might just tempt you onto the dancefloor. Thus described, Jaga aren’t a million miles from the swing bands that were so popular in the 1930s, except that theirs is very much a contemporary sound with due emphasis upon rich production values. A change in fashion coupled with the cost of supporting so many musicians sounded the death knell for the big bands of that era. It’s to be hoped that Jaga can survive similar challenges. Asked what it’s like to run a 10 piece band in 2005 Lars replies: “It’s almost impossible. But we are very idealistic and try to keep it together as long as it is interesting musically. The social aspect is also extremely important for us, it must be fun to keep going.”

Asked where they want to take their music next Lars answers “Have no clue and I love it. That´s the way it should be. We are very satisfied with the direction we have gone now but the most pleasing and inspiring moment is when you try to do something completely different than last time and hopefully end up somewhere else.” Informed by such patent enthusiasm, Jaga Jazzist make for a wonderfully life-affirming and hopefully long-lived anomaly.
Colin Buttimer
May 2005
Published by Jazzwise magazine