"Jazz music," writes the French novelist Françoise Sagan, "is an intensified feeling of nonchalance." While this amusing little paradox might be contestable when applied broadly across the genreisn't Coltrane's convulsive, rapturous later work the direct opposite of nonchalance?it is certainly apparent throughout Okno, the third album from the Amsterdam-based outfit Man Bites Dog.
On Okno, MBD rarely bullies the listener into paying attention, but rather engages him by subtle meansthat compelling intensity behind the casual detachment. "Strijklicht," for example, issues sonic clues for the listener to assemble. Vocalist Sylvia de Hartog sporadically delivers tuneful clusters of "ba-ba-ba's;" guitarist Damien Cluzel and reed player Tobias Klein echo these clusters, morph them, call out among themselves, and drift for a while, but they invariably follow a faintly detectable line that gives the song its shape and drive, and perhaps most importantly, the listener something to grab hold of.
There are overt fusion elements on songs like "It's Back." The rapport between Cluzel and electric bassist Mark Haanstra, further enhanced by Klein, calls to mind loose comparisons to the Hellborg/Lane Trio, though Cluzel's playing is nowhere near as expansive and orgasmic as that of the late Shawn Lane. "L'astragale" is, after a slow build, a groove-heavy chart. Once again, the band offers its melody in short bursts, usually with one instrument toiling in the background to draw out and embellish the melodic line, something akin to connecting the dots. Haanstra's rock solid bass line undergirds the whole effort. Maybe his necessity on tracks like this will spur him to sign on as a permanent member of MBD.
"Secret Name" takes its lyrics from Norman Mailer's novel Ancient Evenings. Although it sounds at times as if it were extracted from a drug-induced musical, it seems to be a closer cousin of Schoenberg's Sprechstimme than avant-garde Broadway fare. Eventually de Hartog breaks out into a lot of primal, cathartic nonsense, the point of which is elusive if not altogether absent. This is one instance where self-control goes out the window, a childish ploy to attract notice.
Okno comes as close as possible to the cutting edge of modern jazz without falling off. It largely avoids the self-consciousness that weighs so heavily on the music of likeminded groups; it is serious without being dull, fun without being trite, earnest without being amateurish. The experimentation often works, and even when it doesn't, it's possible to recognize and appreciate the motive. Because the musicians build on a robust base of influences and do so intelligently, there are touchstones galore for listeners from across the music spectrum: rock, jazz, world, contemporary classical (another amusing little paradox), and even punk and ska. It marks Man Bites Dog as a band to watch, even if their intense nonchalance wouldn't allow them to admit as much.