Billed by member Lars Horntveth and Ninja Tune as a Fela Kuti/Frank Zappa/progressive rock hybrid, Jaga Jazzist’s latest is even more expansive and inclusive than that description suggests. Unpredictable smatterings of funky bass, over-driven guitar solos, synth jams, Steve Reich-ian hypno-patterns, pleasing stylistic jumps, and a much appreciated sense of humor are all present on One-Armed Bandit and without a single instance of forced splicing or embarrassing posturing.
Jaga Jazzist draw from so many influences that accurately pinning down the sound on their latest album is an almost impossible task. References to Steve Reich make just as much sense as allusions to Janko Nilovic, Fela Kuti, or any one of the fusion-era jazz powerhouses, like Miles Davis or Mahavishnu Orchestra. So, calling it something like a rock-jazz hybrid is about as helpful as saying it has lots of notes, often played in rapid succession. What Jaga Jazzist have done so well on this record is blend all of their influences to the point of complete synthesis: they not only play killer jazz and classical licks, they own them and blend them as if it were the most natural thing in the world. This is easily demonstrable: just listen to the dark and brooding rock of “220 V/Spektral” and witness how effortlessly it segues into the looping organs, towering horns, and skittering drum ‘n’ bass rhythms of “Toccata.” At first blush these tunes don’t seem reconcilable, but Jaga draws them together flawlessly, connecting the dots between their own electronic past, library music, jazz, and progressive rock, sometimes on the same song.
But One-Armed Bandit isn’t a great record thanks to its showy virtuosity and seamless blending alone. Each of the album’s nine songs features a strong melodic or rhythmic center and a whole smörgåsbord of unusual diversions and thematic shifts that entertain directly and viscerally. One-Armed Bandit isn’t a difficult or complex-for-complexity’s-sake record. There are as many tight and memorable hooks as there are impressive solos or complex passages. And much of its success in this regards stems from the band’s ability to laugh at themselves. The album’s artwork, which is centered on casino imagery, finds its analog on the album’s first song, which quickly demonstrates that this isn’t going to be simply a wank-fest for technique-obsessed musicians. While keeping things tight and forward moving, Jaga Jazzist toss together sax solos and horn sections, thick-as-concrete bass lines with enough funk to liberate most asses, guitar leads that would make almost anyone contort their face in Van Halen-like glory, and a percussion performance with energy enough to make Buddy Rich proud. In other words, the song kicks ass in the first two minutes, generating enough energy to power the Starship Enterprise for the duration of The Next Generation. They then throw in flutes, xylophones, any number of keyboards, and other miscellaneous accompaniment before breaking out a weirdo surprise in the middle: an orchestra of slot machines erupting in unison, like a symphony of gamblers diving into a sea of arpeggios and victoriously flashing lights. It’s a dizzying moment, especially since the band manages to bounce the rhythm around like a skipping record, and it illustrates very well the spirit of the rest of the record.
Without even a hint of choppiness or awkwardness, Jaga Jazzist fill One-Armed Bandit up with all manner of surprises and killer tunes, and they completely out-do themselves on each and every song, showing off their songwriting chops and technical ability at once. I have probably listened to this record more than any other this year and I’m finding that it continues to grow on me nearly six months after its release.