Jaga Jazzist: Maximalistic


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A Norwegian nonet that rocks 35 instruments onstage and smashes Afrobeat, prog, film music, cheesy fanfares and Steve Reich arpeggios together against a backdrop of gigantic slot machine fruit? The odds of that happening are "No friggin way!" But as it turns out, one such nonet does exist. What's even more shocking is that Jaga Jazzist (pronounced "yaga yazzist") has made this demented formula supremely successful.

Over its 17-year career, Jaga Jazzist has garnered international and critical acclaim, played countless rock, jazz and electronic music festivals, and received praise from music luminaries, including The Mars Volta and Flying Lotus. The group's first album, A Livingroom Hush (Warner Music Norway, 2001), was named the best jazz album of 2002 on BBC.com. Yet, how is it that so few Americans know about them?

During its lengthy existence, Jaga has only played six shows in the U.S., and its upcoming North American tour that begins on June 21, is only its second in the States. Wily mastermind and principal composer Lars Horntveth, 31, says Jaga has remained largely unknown in the U.S. because of the band's "no bullshit" and "maximalistic" modus operandi.

"What Jaga represents is a complex, melodic and no bullshit attitude, not being as commercial as so many other people are," he says. "I guess we represent some kind of alternative scene in Norway. It's an attitude of not making things simple or selling out."

The term "maximalistic" is Horntveth's personal antonym for "minimalist." It refers to his goal of making each Jaga song as complex and energetic as possible, yet still euphonious. Manically shifting among as many as five time signatures in one song, the band's members often seem to want to challenge the listener as much as their own technical skills.

Other times the nine instrumentalists offer an unusual orchestral experience via stunning crescendos played from their rock/jazz/electronic/progressive perspective. In "Toccata" from the band's 2010 album, One-Armed Bandit (Ninja Tune), they accomplish this with trumpet, tuba, trombone, double-bass, lap steel, Fender Rhodes, church organ, drums and vibraphone.

With its non-mainstream music, the ensemble simply hasn't had the funds to tour extensively and build a massive following in the States. Jaga, as its members like to say, is largely a nonprofit group that creates art for art's sake. Finances have been so slim in the past that band members have had to maintain other jobs in the health care industry, or as album producers and band members for other well-known Norwegian groups such as Turbonegro and Motorpsycho.

Nevertheless, the nonet has powered through 17 years, about 30 band members, six albums and three EPs for two main reasons—friendship and passion for music. Six members have been with the band since the beginning. In the mid-'90s, they all grew up as teenage friends in the quiet, Oslo suburb of Tonsberg. Its core members have been Horntveth, who founded the group at age 14, his older brother Martin and older sister Line. The age range of the band is now 29 to 35.

Over the years, Horntveth never received formal musical training, but several other members are trained jazz musicians. Still, as a self-taught musician, Horntveth has produced numerous albums for other top Norwegian acts and composed music for theater, film and radio.

As a film composer, Horntveth cites Bernard Herrmann's dizzying theme song for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) as a major influence. That largely explains the often dramatic, supremely restless quality of Jaga compositions. We can imagine a superhero flying across the ends of the earth to save mankind from a nefarious villain or an Aston Martin speeding down a highway in some spy flick.

His film composing experience came in handy for One-Armed Bandit, as he painstakingly scored music for every instrument on each track. With all that sheet music, the album took an entire year to complete. This was just another example of the band's "maximalistic" approach, the most intriguing aspect of which is perhaps Horntveth's more idiosyncratic method of songwriting.

In order to create novel sounds, he will often begin with a sound he finds extraordinarily unpleasant and spend several hours attempting to make it palatable. That's how he came up with the concept behind One-Armed Bandit, an album inspired greatly by the sound of slot machines.

"I was sitting in my studio in Oslo, and suddenly I started making this 'barump barump' sound, that kind of fanfare, arpeggio thing," says Horntveth. "I thought, 'okay this is so stupid, I have to make more of this idiotic-sounding stuff.' That's what I'm trying to do many times is make music that makes me a bit embarrassed at first, but then try to do it in a way that makes it really cool."

Photo Credit
John Kelman

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