fusion and then there is Fusion. Although the former is usually found in the
company of jazz and rock; the latter is very rarely encountered or accomplished
in music. Norwegian multi-talented nonet Jaga Jazzist tends to fall in the
second clan. Having just played the 'Festival International de Jazz de Montréal'
last July, the band still on the heels of their fifth album One-Armed
Bandit,are at the top of their game.
Often considered the first jazz-rock fusion recording, Miles Davis' 1969 In a Silent Way (Columbia) certainly laid the groundwork for what would be the main creative jazz incarnation of the following decade - although hinted the year before on Miles in the Sky (Columbia). Without diminishing the importance and creative genius of Miles, we must not forget the earlier works of Gary Burton with Larry Coryell nor the psychedelic extended jams of Haight-Ashbury's Grateful Dead nor the 'nothing is sacred' experimentations of the Mothers of Invention. In fact Frank Zappa is probably the most direct musical influence on One-Armed Bandit; add in a dash of Reich minimalism and sprinkle some more modern fare of the likes of Chicago's Tortoise, and you pretty much get the winning recipe. Interestingly, most of the album was mixed by John McEntire of Tortoise; with additional mixing by Mike Hartung and Chris Sansom, the latter responsible for the mastering.
Four different front covers representing the
typical set of slot-machine symbols - grapes, bell, cherries, etc. - grace the
LP's and CD's. Although not a gatefold, the jacket is nonetheless nicely
presented in a quality carton distinguished by its front visual simplicity with
back artistic hues and tactile pleasure; the 'Warhol' look contrasting with the
nature morte of Morten Spaberg. Inside there is a simple album-sized shiny
insert sporting the 'slot' symbols on one side and numerous credits on black
background on the flip side. The LP's are housed in quality black paper sleeves
with 'angled-cropped' corners, there is no protective liner so care must be
taken not to scratch the surfaces during insertion. The labels feature the
grapes, bell an orange symbols respectively on my copy while side D features
'KA-CHING' written in yellow on black The vinyl was flat, shiny and black with
nice groove modulations for the eyes. The 'groove width spread' is approx.
3 1/4 inches for side A and 3 1/8 inches for side B and C. D has no music
content; instead it is visually quite special with the words 'BLAM', 'CRASH!',
'KA-CHING' and FWEEEEEE' inscribe across the vinyl. At no more than 20 minutes
of music per side and 33 1/3 rpm, it should not present any problem for
bandwidth and a medium cutting level. That said, spreading the ten tracks on all
four sides instead of three would have been a wiser choice in sonic terms of
Place your bets!
The cutting level on side A lies at a moderate
level, higher than the Cars on MoFi and lower than the Vex'd on Planet Mu.
"The Thing Introduces...", opens with a gong followed by a crescendo
of low cut bandpass-filtered brass ensemble and crash cymbal. Lasting a mere 23
seconds, it serves as a short intro to the title track of the album. A 'pinched
sound' type keyboard which I presume is the marxophone leads the way, french
horn, brass, raunchy guitar, drums and percussion build up track over track
leading to a sound density close to distortion. There are 'Bond-esque' stylings
to the musical arrangements and the french horns or brass share two musical
themes. The sound somewhat veiled, is only fair.
"Bananfluer Overalt" starts with the
drums; there is a slight doubling effect, an extremely short delay blended in,
thickening the sound. The whole thing lacks airiness. The initial smooth tempo
changes radically at the bridge, jumping into a hurried frenzy and later
returning to the calmer main theme.
A complete change of ambience awaits us with the
last track of side A. "220 V/Spektral" presents a delicate piano
intro, bass follows, subtle bass clarinet or sax add their touch. Syncopated
beats keep it interesting; the close mic’ing captures well the breathing of
the sax. The sound is better, airier, less compressed and less thick. A
distorted synth comes in and the rhythm is very complex. Unfortunately cymbals
are dirty and confused. Up to now the pressing is perfect, not one tick or pop;
the E.U., no doubt trying to redeem itself on that front.
Flipping to side B, there is a tiny pressing
circular spot on track one. Also it seems cut just a bit lower.
"Toccata" opens with an intro worthy of Steve Reich's groundbreaking
pieces Drumming / Music for Mallet
Instruments ...(Deutsche Grammophon) from 1974 and Music
for 18 Musicians (ECM) from 1978. And like the Master of Minimalism
himself, Jaga Jazzist juxtaposes organ with piano with marinba in a 6/4 meter
heading towards another Bond-esque theme, this time recalling moments from John
Barry's 1967 soundtrack of You Only Live
Twice (United Artist). In a nutshell, think Philip Glass' 1983 The
Photographer (CBS) meets brassy big band meets John Barry meets Reich
- blended in one superb hook. The sound keeps getting better, cleaner and
breathier. Best track up to now.
"Prognissekongen" has the markings of
King Crimson's Robert Fripp doing the "Elephant Talk" / Discipline
/ Larks' Tongues in Aspic dance.
Throw in some early 1970s syncopated Yes, an accelerando piano a la ELP, a
snippet of prepared piano and the interplay of The Bad Plus with the blessing of
Zappa; like the title implies this track is truly the king of heavy progressive.
A close second to the previous one in sound.
The drum 'doubling delay' returns on "Book
of Glass". Dribbling rhythm of bass and drums in a filtered murky sound
give a hectic pace to this somewhat 1980s prog-fusion styling. In the background
we hear a repetitive metronomic synth counting time. Further down the road the
instrumental buildup distorts, losing both extremes of the spectrum; probably
wanted for creative purposes, nevertheless it becomes bothersome up to a point.
Back to average sound.
Moving on to side C, the pressing looks beautiful
with nice groove 'etchings'. "Music! Dance! Drama!" displays veiled
drums, artistically wanted no doubt. Some warbling synth accompanied by
glockenspiel subliminally recall 'space music' heard in Star
Trek's original pilot "The Cage"by Alexander Courage.
Electric guitar, harp and brass contribute to a large buildup until a very
syncopated break of brass augmented by abrasive guitar, culminate again in
grandiose 'Bond-sound character'.
"Touch of Evil" gives a nod to Pink
Floyd's The Wall (EMI Harvest)
with a short helicopter intro. Heavy distorted bass goes down low, producing
good weight plus fine details in the highs. A quick tempo 4/4 meter driving-kick
followed by handclaps, background syncopated snare and trombone lead to some
angular guitar riff 'taken right out' of a Shellac/Albini record. This is the
best track music and sonic wise.
"Endless Galaxy" (which appears only on
the LP version) is quite complex in rhythm. The break lets glockenspiel,
percussion, bass and acoustic guitar share the intimate stage before a 4/4
syncopated beat adds the finishing touch.
Lastly, a comparison between the CD and LP
versions revealed the former to gain a bit in the lower registers regarding
weight while the latter easily came out on top in the treble airiness, with
lesser compression and congestion in the oftentimes dense mix. The supplementary
track combined with the excellent pressing quality and vastly superior artistic
design make the vinyl LP the natural choice.
Summing up, owing more to the 'left cerebral
hemisphere' than the 'right', Jaga Jazzist's One-Armed
Bandit was still sufficiently enticing to tap my foot to their
challenging music compositions, which is not always the case with most fusion.
Combining such diverse instruments as drum, percussion, bass, guitar, tuba, trombone, French horn, trumpet, clarinet, saxes, marxophone, piano, organ and many more plus odd meters used as the default time signature, it should delight any open minded Zappaesque enthusiast as well as the post-prog-fusion crowd.
Sound Quality: (variable)