Judging by the sound of Jaga Jazzist, you wouldn't necessarily guess it was a big band. (That is, if ten players earn that classification. It works for me.) Sure, you've got your trumpet, vibes, tenor, flute, clarinet, trombone, bass, and drums. Stuff like that. But then you have to take into account the keyboards, electronics, and effects. And, yes indeed, a drum machine.
Now that all the hard-swinging old timers have left the room, let's get down to business. For about a decade, Jaga Jazzist has been snowballing in Norway, becoming one of that country's best-selling groups in the last couple years. That's a surprising and refreshing fact given the group's most unusual approach to music. (Good thing they don't have to compete with the Swedish pop machine, or it would have been all over long ago.)
The Stix is part symphonic composition, part instrumental jam, part electronic production, part outer beyond. Of course, the key is in how all these parts fit together, and the group manages to pull it off quite coherently. They owe a clear debt to post-rock, with its shifting polyrhythms, studio-tweaked group improvisation, and open-ended song form. The inclusion of so many live (real) instruments makes the overall effect quite organic, as the winding bass clarinet theme amply demonstrates on "Toxic Dart." When the horns come back with that theme bulked up in texture, the pieces fit into place.
Two distinctive features of Jaga's sound render it unique in its not overly crowded musical niche. First, the "composed" aspect of the pieces provides a great deal of over-arching structure in how instruments are voiced, how time and space are handled, and how dynamics evolve. This is no jam band. Second, the integration of live instruments with electronics reaches a high level here. Extra bonus points to Martin Morntveth, whose drill-n-bass styles pervade the record and provide a constantly provocative textural depth. The fact that much of this material is hard to resolve into discrete units is a credit to the overall integration of The Stix.
The music's one fault, at least to this pair of ears, is its lack of overt melodic flow. Melody, in its usual sense, needs a strong feeling of energy and momentummostly sacrificed here for the greater whole. That renders The Stix more a textural set than anything else, and on those terms it's a resounding success.