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Jaga Jazzist: Jaga Jazzist: Live with Britten Sinfonia

John Kelman By

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Norway's Jaga Jazzist has always been difficult to pigeonhole. Despite the word "jazz" in the nonet's moniker, its principle writer, multi-instrumentalist Lars Horntveth, has cited everyone from Steve Reich, Rick Wakeman, Dungen and Spirit to Fela Kuti, King Crimson, MGMT and Air as influences on the group's last studio record, One-Armed Bandit (Ninja Tune, 2010). Horntveth is also a fan of jazz arrangers/composers like Gil Evans, so it's not that Jaga Jazzist doesn't have jazz in its DNA; it's just so deeply buried amidst everything from classical music to progressive rock that finding a way to describe the group's music has always been something of a challenge. Live with Britten Sinfonia, culled from one of two 2012 performances to marry the group with the UK's intrepid contemporary classical ensemble Britten Sinfonia, does little to clear the waters; if anything, the addition of a 26-piece chamber orchestra only serves to muddy them further, but in the case of Jaga Jazzist, that's not a bad thing—it's a very, very good thing.

The album was recorded at Oslo's Rockefeller club, where Jaga delivered the closing show of the 2012 Ultima Festival, a new music festival that has increasingly blurred its own stylistic boundaries. It was also the last show of Conexions's first season, a series curated by the host of BBC Radio 3's Late Junction, Fiona Talkington, that brings together musicians from Norway and Great Britain to explore what might happen—and that usually means something magical, as drummer Thomas Strønen's Time is a Blind Guide performance also demonstrated earlier this year, the second show of Coexions' second season. Teaming with Jaga with Britten was fortuitous, given the orchestral nature of a group that, amongst its nine members, includes over 20 instruments and whose stage normally looks like the shop window for a second-hand music store. The addition of a string section, more horns, woodwinds and percussion only make pieces like "Toccata," from One-Armed Bandit—very much a reflection of Horntveth's interest in minimalism—all the more impressive, its various interlocking parts even more expansive, even as they're driven with a rock edge by Even Ormestad's pulsing bass and Horntveth sibling Martin's thundering drum kit.

Live's nine pieces may largely be culled from One-Armed Bandit, but there are tracks drawn from across a near 20-year career that's all the more surprising given that the mean age amongst the group is early thirties. "Kitty Wu," from The Stix (Warner International, 2003), gets a facelift, as do the darker tone poem "For All You Happy People" and brighter closer, "Oslo Skyline," both from What We Must (Ninja Tune, 2005).

With orchestrations largely written by Lars Horntveth—assisted by Erik Johannessen on the opening "Overture," where the trombonist also takes an extended solo—the material provides extra solo space throughout, with a brief but unexpectedly visceral saxophone solo from Horntveth near the end of "One-Armed Bandit," in addition to giving the tunes more room to breathe and expand compositionally. During the floating intro to "Bananfluer Overalt," Horntveth also makes a clear reference—both in its arrangement and with Mathias Eick's trumpet solo—to Gil Evans' classic collaboration with trumpeter Miles Davis on Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960), in one of the album's more beautiful moments.

But for fans of the more ear-splitting side of Jaga, there's plenty of electrified energy on tracks like "Prungen," the only new piece on the recording, and one the epitomizes Jaga Jazzist's approach to composition: complex and episodic, with knotty instrumental counterpoint often interfacing with otherworldly electronics, yet with ever-singable melodies still soaring over relentlessly shifting meters.

That Jaga Jazzist now has an orchestral book means that it can perform this material with other chamber orchestras, and has three dates booked with different ensembles throughout 2013. But it all started with Britten Sinfonia and this September, 2012 show—the second of two performances, the first taking place three months earlier in England, and if the audiences in attendance at these Conexions series performances were considering themselves lucky to be experiencing what, at the time, seemed like it would be a one-time (well, two-time) deal, Jaga Jazzist fans around the world can now feel grateful that the Rockefeller show was so meticulously recorded and mixed.

That Live with Britten Sinfonia was an album not necessarily intended to happen at the time of the recording only makes its release all the sweeter. This 35-piece marriage of Jaga Jazzist and Britten Sinfonia is capable of everything from earth-shattering power to refined beauty. With Britten conducted by the world-renowned Christian Eggen, Live with Britten Sinfonia is the vital document of an opportunity that no longer need feel missed by so many Jaga fans around the world—an album that, transcending their already significant accomplishments, demonstrates even greater potential for Lars Horntveth's writing and Jaga Jazzist's effortless (and faultless) performances.

Track Listing: Overture/One-Armed Bandit; Kitty Wu; Prungen; Bananfluer Overalt; For All You Happy People; Toccata; Music! Dance! Drama!; Oslo Skyline.

Personnel: Marcus Forsgren: electric guitar, effects; Andreas Mjøs: vibraphone, guitar, Korg MS10, percussion; Martin Horntveth: drums; Lars Horntveth: guitars, Bb & bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, flute, Roland SH-2, piano and lap steel guitar; Line Horntveth: tuba, flute, percussion, glockenspiel, vocals; Even Ormestad: bass, keyboards; Erik Johannessen: trombone, percussion, vocals; Mathias Eick: trumpet, upright bass, keyboards, piano, vibraphone; Øystein Moen: synthesizers, piano; Thomas Gould: first violin; Beatrix Lovejoy: first violin; Katherine Shave: first violin; Gillon Cameron: first violin; Alexandra Reid: second violin; Anna Bradley: second violin; Marcus Broome: second violin; Judith Kelly: second violin; Clare Finnimore: viola; Bridget Carey: viola; Tom Hankey: viola; Caroline Dearnley: cello; Ben Chappell: cello; Joy Hawley: cello; Roger Linley: double bass; Emer McDonough: flute, piccolo, alto flute; Chris O’Neal: oboe; Joy Farrall: clarinet, bass clarinet; Elizabeth Trigg: bassoon; Pip Eastop: horns; Ed Mills: horns; Jon Stokes: trombone; David Eaglestone: bass trombone; David Powell: tuba; Toby Kearney: percussion; Tony Bedewi: percussion; Christian Eggen: conductor.

Title: Jaga Jazzist: Live with Britten Sinfonia | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: Ninja Tune


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