Release Date: Jun 1, 2015
Record label: Ninja Tune
Genre(s): Electronic, Jazz
Norwegian space-jazz octet Jaga Jazzist are adept at making dynamic compositions, but new album Starfire really rides the interstellar surf. Recorded in an LA studio rather than their native Oslo, Starfire has a frenetic energy and a significant dose of digital-love, with keyboards and squelching synthesisers taking the front seat and pushed way up into the mix. By finessing their jazz and post-rock foundations with spiralling reels of glitch-electronics, Starfire is their most bombastic album yet and occasionally it needs to be turned down to be fully appreciated.
Growing in strength means shrinking the track list as the ever-evolving Jaga Jazzist begin to prefer suite-sized music on this 2015 LP. Two of the five cuts on Starfire pass the ten-minute mark, as the Norwegian ensemble blends jazz, space rock, and hippie-aimed trip-hop into one free-flowing mass of funk that deserves to stretch its legs. Consider it an earned exhale after the buttoned-up classicism of the previous album, Live with Britten Sinfonia, but whatever the reason, the highlights are the grooves that last the longest with "Big City Music," "Oban," and the title cut taking win, place, and show.
At its best, Norwegian experimental jazz ensemble Jaga Jazzist sounds like no other group in the world. Its complex ensemble arrangements hearken back to the halcyon swing of Duke and Count Basie, engaging in instrumental acrobatics that echo Heavy Weather-era fusion with a wild rock ’n’ roll heart. Starfire, the group’s sixth studio album and first since 2010’s decadent Live with Britten Sinfonia, finds founding brothers Lars and Martin Horntveth and their cadre of progressive European jazzbos continuing on their nearly two decade-long journey of re-shaping the sound of contemporary jazz.
Listening to Jaga Jazzist is like falling down the rabbit hole—you never know where you'll end up. Over five studio albums and one live recording with the Britten Sinfonia, the eight-piece troupe from Norway have pushed traditional and improvised jazz concepts into various unpredictable configurations, with elements of breaks, drum & bass, techno and IDM all included. The electronic flourishes made them a standout live ensemble, but you could say that they were at their best as a clearcut rock band.On What We Must, their 2005 Ninja Tune debut, proggy and post-rock undertones transformed their woozy watercolour signature into something terribly catchy and even singalong at times.
Jaga Jazzist, the Norwegian multi-instrumental boundary-busters, may occupy a niche, but it feels like an enduringly spacious and fertile one, where sounds that recall everything from Weather Report to big-band jazz, krautrock, Radiohead or even the Pat Metheny Group intertwine. Last year’s 20th anniversary retrospective was fascinatingly diverse, but Starfire – conceived in composer Lars Horntveth’s new Los Angeles home, rather than in Oslo – is a more densely layered and studio-dominated deployment of this band’s awesome resources. The title track is classic Jazzist: a sound like the Shadows driven by a marching-band thump skids through power-chord guitar hooks and Zappaesque melodic zigzags; the atmospheric Big City Music is a masterly balance of quickfire rhythm-section ingenuity and the instrumental diversity of guitars, keys and brass.
If you haven’t used the Visualizer in iTunes lately, do yourself a favor and throw it on while listening to Jaga Jazzist’s newest album, Starfire. There’s something about the pairing of swirling electric orbs and sawtooth synth solos that works very well, but there’s also something fitting about the traditions both media hint at but never fully capture: a time of liquid light shows and truly experimental electronic music. As far as the iTunes Visualizer is concerned, the algorithms are a little too precise, perfectly synced through the BPM analysis at the core of its coding.
Don’t let Starfire‘s brief tracklist fool you - though it arrives in the guise of an unassuming five-track EP, it is in fact the Norwegian octet’s seventh full-length album, stuffed with ever-shifting operatic movements that make the band’s plethora of six-minute priors seem sheepishly succinct. With an increased integration of electronic components and a thematic focus on the ceaseless skies, this is an album of lofty ambition. Thematically born out of primary songwriter Lars Hornveth's late-2012 move from Norway to LA, Starfire's focus is on the myriad lights of the city skies; from the blurred lamps, to each pinpoint starlight, to the ceaseless expanse of it all.