It has been four years since we heard from the band that perhaps more than any has defined the contemporary Norwegian music scene in the intersecting landscapes of jazz, pop and electronica. Jaga Jazzist has been referred to as a ten-headed chimera; a sweet sounding powerhouse of swaggering horns, feline jazz, clever electronics and subtle rock; an instrumental panoply brought together in travels along lush melodic ridges or pooled into cascades of catchy music. Now a new record is nearing completion, but this time around the ten heads have been replaced with another image; that of the one-armed bandit.
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-All of a sudden many of the tunes started exhibiting these arpeggio tendencies, says Lars Horntveth, musical leader of Jaga. And so the notion of the slot machine and the arpeggio element became a kind of guiding concept for the whole record. What often happens when we work is that we take hold of some elements that stand out, often things that are not preconceived, and make these our clue to an overall character for the record.
Along with his equally prolific brother Martin and their sister Line, the Horntveths make up half of the core of the group that emerged from the marching band movement in their hometown of Tønsberg fifteen years ago. Jaga is an extended family; they are many and they are tight. However, making music with nine or ten people is a challenge, needless to say. Especially when there is a strong desire to try something new every time, both in terms of expression and regarding the actual work process.
-On our previous record (2005’s What we must) we worked more or less like a rock band, says Horntveth. Nothing was written down and we rehearsed all the music just by ear and interplay. This time around the approach was the complete opposite. The music is fairly complex and therefore I had written everything down. The rehearsal process was quite challenging and for a long time it was all about reading sheets. In Jaga we have always wanted to be able to use both approaches when we work with new music so the principle of strictly playing off sheets is not something new really. But for our two new members, who are used to playing “free music”, it was a bit of a cultural chock.
The new members are Stian Westerhus and Øystein Moen. There have been some departures and replacements up trough the years, but Jaga is not a loose constellation where people come and go.
-Six of us have been in the band from the start, fifteen years ago, says Lars. It is really kind of a family thing, or a mothership, if you like. Now we all have so much going on besides Jaga - solo careers taking off everywhere you look - but Jaga is something like a musical home: We share references and taste and in a way we always know what is right for us to do together. The long pause has been good for us, I think, and I really felt that there was a lot of energy stored up when we got together again. Everyone draws lots of inspiration from their own projects and the good thing is that we reach a point where we want to put that inspiration and energy back into Jaga: there is always so much more to be done within the Jaga format, and that is a great feeling.
Preliminary work on the upcoming record started last summer when the collective rented a country house with an adjoining community assembly building somewhere in the woods of Sweden. For a week they just rehearsed and got back into the distinct Jaga mode.
-We played wild prog for days on end. It was great to see how well it worked right from the start and some of that intensity made its way to the record. It is funny, because we have always been compared to Zappa, and I have never been much of a Zappa fan really. But on this record I think there is some truth to it, for the first time.
Lars has written all the music on the upcoming album, the name of which he refuses to reveal. (He likes it though, judging by his secretive smile) It was unusually hard work, because the roadmap for the process was decided before the music was written. After the week of jamming in Sweden a strict schedule was made for the autumn, with a recording deadline in December.
-I started in august and had to work really hard to have something new to present every week. Having a set weekly deadline to work against is exhausting but productive. For me it is really not very fruitful to focus on inspiration and being in the right mood. I just have to keep up momentum and keep working. I say with Stravinsky: Fuck inspiration, give me a deadline!
There is always more than one project going on anyway, so ideas shift between the different things I’m working on all the time. It is a process where music engenders music, which means that the problem is not inspiration but rather that there is too much material in orbit. On this record we had to be pretty selective in choosing songs. However, I have a low threshold when it comes to discarding tunes so it is not like it’s a painful process. If songs don’t work when we try them out in the studio, out they go. On the other hand, to really test the music in this way, we have to prepare thoroughly. That is why we insisted on really tough sheet rehearsals this time.
Towards the end of mixing they experienced a major setback. Their mixer Jørgen “Sir Duperman” Træen fell ill, and had to cancel all further work.
-It was really a bit of a crisis says Lars, because we were deep into the mixing, and that is a very difficult stage to bring in new people. It is vital for us to have a producer and mixer who intuitively understands what we are after, because it is simply too expensive for us to spend a lot of time in the studio. That is the downside of being so many, everything is so incredibly expensive. We never make any money and in that respect long tours become quite a strain.
But they were in luck, and found a replacement from the top shelf.
-Three of us went over to John McEntire in Chicago. Of course we’re big fans of Tortoise, but this record sounds nothing like that: it would have been corny to show up there with Tortoise- inspired music. We chose John because we trust his taste and knew that he would understand what we wanted.
Now all that remains is mastering and finding the right order of the songs.
-It is pretty intense stuff, says, Lars, so the right order is very important, if not the songs will just annihilate each other. All nine songs are pretty long; it’s about an hour of music. There is a tribute song to Steve Reich and there is one with a distinct Fela Kuti flare. But it is the concept of the slot machine, i.e. the arpeggio feel, that sort of permeates the album. I think people will be surprised; at the same time there are certain elements which are very familiar. It is definitely Jaga. Our concept has always been to make catchy jazz. This definition is wide though, and as we are so many - and since we are all multi instrumentalists- the possibilities are almost unlimited. We have this great privilege of being able to find the “vocalist”, i.e. the melodic lead, anywhere, with any instrument or constellation of instruments. The great thing with Jaga is that there is no pride involved as to who plays what and who plays the lead.
Horntveth describes Jaga as a musical family and a mothership, but it is also an ongoing process, a living entity, as it were.
-It takes a real effort to avoid retreating to old concepts and solutions. But we want the band to be born anew every time, you know, that is why we have this very strict musical discipline in the group. The great thing is that even though it can be very draining, with all the logistics and the hard work, not to mention the non-existing economic surplus, there is still a lot of energy in the band. The few on-off gigs we have done during this long break have really confirmed that something special happens when we get together.
The secretly titled record will be released in the fall. And grand scale touring will ensue. But before that the new material will be presented at some select summer festivals in Norway, namely Molde Jazz, Øya and Pstereo.
Over the years Jaga Jazzist has grown into a unique entity on the international jazz scene, their records have put Norway on the map and given globalization a good name, as one critic put it. So come autumn, the many on stage will most likely be warmly welcomed by many many more on the stands.
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Jaga Jazzist's Last.fm site