The late and lamented Derek Bailey has suggested that due to the current state of jazz"a comfortable reminder of the good old days was one of his more sympathetic characterizationsa complete separation of jazz and improvised music is in effect.
Aorta's sophomore effort, Janus, makes a good case for the validity of Bailey's point. The Swedish band, centered around NY-based guitarist Anders Nilsson, immediately presents in the opening "Operation: Janus" the elements which make up its music, none of which are considered jazz. There are streaks of '90s metal in the thematic material and structure of the compositions, which are riff-by-riff and theme-by-theme suite-like pieces, rather than chord-based song structures; you have those loud and obnoxious saxophone/guitar unisons that recall Dick Heckstall-Smith with prog-rock brontosaurus Colosseum, plus a good dose of Zappa-esque rhythmic spielerei. These elements are bundled into a vehicle for relentless improvising, in greater doses and with much more collective audacity than your everyday jazz release.
The older you get, the more you realize that the music you grew up with is the most important music in your life, whether you like it or not. Nilsson's carefully crafted compositions seem to dissect the music most closely ingrained in his and bandmates' collective subconscious. What comes out on Janus is something very '70s that smells of flea market record bins, utterly unfashionable and without any hint of campiness. Nilsson and his bandmates seem to say, "We looked, we found, and this is us. Artsometimes it's just that simple.
Nilsson has a very personal style and a guitar tone unlike any American jazz player I can think of: a hint of true twang in a mostly clean, but nonetheless very electric sound. Far from any lock-stock jazz or fusion guitar tone, his is closer to someone like Toy Caldwell from those staunch southern country rockers of yesteryear, the Marshall Tucker Band. Imagine Bill Frisell playing behind chicken wire in an Appalachian country bar after the locals stole all his pedals.
While Janus lacks the exuberance and happy-go-lucky disposition of the previous Blood, Aorta's music has gained a lot in depth, due to the more elaborate stylistic diffusion of the compositions and the broader emotional scope of the collective playing and improvising. Not everything worksthe bluesy tidbits in "Harlem Space" fall a bit flatbut the band creates a lot of excitement, and it should be tomorrow's festival act for an open-minded audience.
If you prefer "pretty" music, then you probably will want to skip this record, and it might take a few listenings before it really gets hold of you. But then Janus gets more and more captivating by revealing ever-changing shades of depth and wonder, bewilderment and moodsjust like, well, life itself. A small monument of brutal honesty from a band with a future.
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