Music Park: Jaga Jazzist @ Black Cat — 6/21/15

Jaga Jazzist & Sinfonia Rotterdam @ Motel Mozaique 2013
Martin Horntveth performs in Rotterdam in 2013. (Photo by Marcel van Leeuwen)

Jaga Jazzist, the eight-piece nu jazz group from Norway, closed their set at the Black Cat Sunday night with a tranquil piece of music called “Washington, DC Skyline.”

Well, it was actually called “Oslo Skyline,” but the group’s composer Lars Horntveth has been redubbing it after each city in which his collective performs as they have embarked on a U.S. tour in support of their new album, Starfire, released June 2.

Running over a leisurely 5 minutes, “Oslo Skyline” is a snappy, brassy jazz tune that might not be unlike the end result of a composition by Henry Mancini in the ’60s had he been armed with a synthesizer. The track appeared on the band’s 2005 album, What We Must, which was released just after the band’s last DC appearance 11 years ago.

And so it was a rare treat indeed for an ardent group of enthusiasts to bring the Cat to half capacity Sunday and to listen intently to compositions from the new album, which run anywhere from 7 to 14 minutes roughly. With numbers generally running that long, Lars and company managed to fit in about 10 compositions in about 90 minutes of stage time, performing three out of five selections on the new album and revisiting past favorites, particularly from What We Must and 2010’s One-Armed Bandit.

The band opened their set with the sweeping “Starfire,” the title track from the new album, clocking in at about 9 minutes. In so doing, Jaga Jazzist set the tone for a sparkling instrumental cascade of resplendent horns and guitars.

Watch Jaga Jazzist perform “Starfire” for KCRW on June 16, 2015:

When watching their performance, their concentration is striking. Some standout contributions come from Lars on guitar and Erik Johannessen on trombone — but the opening number definitely belongs to drummer Martin Horntveth, who founded the band together with Lars initially in 1994. Watching Martin time his drums is an absolutely pleasure, and you almost get the sense that he’s showing off just a little when he snaps at them madly. Those of us who saw the movie “Whiplash” with Miles Teller last year may have a heightened sensitivity to just how good Martin plays. He’s the sort of improvisational jazz drummer instructor J.K. Simmons sought in that movie.

Later, for the well-regarded “One-Armed Bandit,” Lars switches to saxophone and sets a sexier but more forlorn tone. It’s a pleasant interlude before the band closes the set with the much more dynamic “Oban,” also from the new album.

While everyone in the band does a fine job, particularly Martin on those amazing drums again, I want to take a brief opportunity to focus on the contributions of Øystein Moen on the synthesizer. Yes, the synthesizer. Clad in a Joy Division t-shirt and jeans, Øystein looked exactly how you would imagine the appearance of a musician who specializes in experimental jazz electronics. The intricate, almost mystic nature, of Jaga Jazzist provide the substance to classify them as “progressive jazz” or “post-rock” most surely, but they would not be fully committed to either of those banners without a solid synth player, and Øystein delivered nicely. Adding a synthesizer component to a jazz ensemble is by itself a new way to listen to and thereby think of a highly esteemed genre of music, and watching Øystein sway at his synthesizer as he’s captured in the groove of compositions like “Oban” is a delight within itself.

Jaga Jazzist continue their tour tonight in Chicago, a city sure to receive them warmly, before playing tomorrow night at Electric Forest in Michigan. They play through the next week in Canada before returning to Norway unfortunately! Expand your mind with a Jaga Jazzist show next time they are in your city (or at your festival, Electric Forest and Montreal Jazz Festival).

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