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Jaga Jazzist - What We Must

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Artist: Jaga Jazzist

Album: What We Must

Label: Smalltown Supersound

Review date: Apr. 19, 2005

In the liner notes to What We Must, Jaga Jazzist said they wanted a “new direction” for their third album. Gone are the drum machines and overt post-production; in are the densely detailed strata of guitars, synths, horns and percussion. The 10-member Norwegian unit traded in technology for technique, and now fly solo through shifting time signatures and vacuum-sealed arrangements sans CPUs, building a towering critical mass that borders on triumphant, even Romantic.

Multi-instrumentalist (they are all multi-instrumentalists) Lars Horntveth wrote or co-wrote six of the disc’s seven finely wrought pieces. These are erudite, elegant structures, more architecture and graceful interior design than composition. Stout bass pillars and graceful vibraphone picture windows share space with luxurious synth curtains. Deep coats of tuba, bass clarinet and trombone blend with bright trumpet highlights and angelic voices.

Eschewing lengthy solos and improvisation to focus on the whole, Jaga keeps the music from collapsing under its own weight by packing all their ideas into compact song structures. At the core of "All I Know is Tonight" and "Oslo Skyline" are bright soaring melodies. Strip away the ornate arrangements, the stop-time breaks and diffuse interludes and one finds radio-ready anthems. ("All I know is Tonight" is, in fact, the album's first single, complete with a video.)

On The Stix, Jaga had the grand scale of an orchestra, but not the patience. Pieces like “Swedenborgske Rom” show that in the two years since, they've learned how to wait. On this eight-minute mini-epic, the ensemble uses the first six minutes to lay out separate themes: first, a gentle grouping of horns circles adorned by feathery synth; second, a soft chorus prodded by spare, pedaling piano. Next, ragged strands of guitar emerge out of the calm, bind all the themes together in an escalating, accelerating peak, and finally melt into the placid calm of the outro. “For All You Happy People” progresses through contrasting, but seamlessly linked movements. A broken dialogue between bass clarinet and hypnotic fragments of keyboards becomes a more engaged dance involving chiming acoustic guitars, keyboards and tuba. The rhythmic tuba ostinato gives way to a brief bout of 4/4 drumming before finally slipping back to recapitulate the off-balance wobble of the intro.

The limited edition version contains a four-track bonus disc of demos and rough mixes, The Spydeberg Session, that maps out Jaga’s long and winding method of composition in the raw. The mournful horn counterpoint of “Swedenborgske Rom” comes to the fore, Jaga swinging with the stylish aplomb of a big band. “Mikado”’s rough-and-tumble drum intro reveals a hard-rock heart. Passages of “All I Know is Tonight” become a stripped-down version of My Bloody Valentine’s monolithic sonic wall.

A further comparison to Kevin Sheilds' grandiose guitar experiments elucidates what Jaga does so well. They build big things on simple ideas, grounding listeners in the familiar while simultaneously aiming higher. Assigning any one genre, or picking through the album to highlight individual contributions would reduce the music to pieces less than its whole. What We Must merges Jaga's diverse voices and influences so thoroughly that it seems they all flow from a single, irreducible source.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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