Starfire by Jaga Jazzist (Ninja Tune)
Jaga Jazzist is a band that has never done the same thing twice. Each album is thematically different while containing some trademark sounds like the horns, winds and Martin Horntveth’s distinctive percussion. The Norwegian band’s last studio album was One Armed Bandit from 2010, a more performance-heavy album after the smooth jazz fusion of What We Must and the drum and bass referencing of The Stix. A few years back Jaga released Live With Britten Sinfonia which placed the already undefinable group into a classical context.
The songs on Starfire are, perhaps influenced by the classical treatment, even more expansive than on previous albums. Working from his home in Los Angeles, multi-instrumentalist and main songwriter Lars Horntveth crafted the framework for the songs and then went back to Norway to record it with the band. The title song moves from mysterious twangy guitars to staring up at the stars in awe as keyboards and winds drift in, then handclaps and vibes present a new mood. Starfire gets rocking with the introduction of jagged keys, a harder drum beat, squelching synths building tension until a high synth melody enters like the clouds parting to reveal a sunny sky. At just under nine minutes there’s more ideas presented in this one track than many bands can pull of in a full album.
Big City Music starts off with chiming and echoing synth patterns that run forward and back over Martin Horntveth’s always inventive drums. While most drummers are beatkeepers, Martin paints each song with splashes of color, busy but never distracting from the song as a whole. Various other members also add their own percussive touches throughout the songs but it is Martin that exemplifies Jaga Jazzist. Big City Music could be your score to driving through the streets of the city, seeing the stars and movie screens of Hollywood, the decadent nightlife of Beverly Hills or Downtown, diving into a chancy local bar, ending your journey at the coast, toes in the sand as the sun rises into another day of adventure.
Shinkasen reminds you that you’re hearing music from a band of performers. The song opens slowly with strummed acoustic guitar, swirling keyboards, light wind instruments blowing a melody, joined by distant horns, breathy saxophone, and more all coalescing together. Then a mirror ball drops, a disco beat kicks in with winding synths and echoing sounds and the song becomes a dance-floor filler with marching drums.
While the other three tracks on Starfire are inventive and enjoyable, the strongest track overall is Oban. You could listen to this twenty times and not catch all the ingredients. The various presentations of the recurring keyboard melody represents vocals in a way and you’ll just melt when the beat drops out for a tingly saxophone and piano break. The main drive of Oban is Martin’s propulsive drum patterns guiding the listener from one movement to the next, from smooth jazz saxophone to chewy techno to sweeping strings to the 4/4 beat and sleek electronic dance music finale that will have your hands in the air.
Complex, rhythmic, smart and visceral, the four tracks on Starfire are jazz, rock, techno, fusion, avant garde and are definitely Jaga Jazzist, a band like no other.
(Review by Bret Miller)