The Multi-layered Sound of Music

  7 minute read

Electronic Jazz from Jaga Jazzist

Jaga Jazzist (picture courtesy of Wallpaperscraft)

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Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art? It is a question that has been debated intensely. Perhaps, art needs the constituents of life to be authentic, but life too needs the idealisation of art to aspire to. It is not much different with music. Music is made from sound, but it is also repurposed back as sound, serving all manner of non musical purposes, like tones for public announcements, chimes and beeps for alarms and notifications, and even musical rumble strips1 which keep vehicle drivers alert. Of course, not all sound is music. A single note may be just sound, but the qualities of that sound are very important, shaping the music that emerges out of those sounds. Like most musicians, I am sure Jaga Jazzist cares deeply about the sound of their music. And while “multi-layered” may be a term more apt for describing a story or a movie, the music of Jaga Jazzist evokes precisely that kind of impression — of hearing the multi-layered sound of music.

The first song of Jaga Jazzist (pronounced “Yaa-gaa Yaa-zist”) that I heard was “Lithuania” from their album “A Livingroom Hush”. It was the first song in a playlist shared with me by a fellow music-loving friend. I had asked him if he had any listening suggestions for electronic music, when we had worked together, for a drums and percussion workshop. As you probably know or guessed, electronic music is made using electronic rather than acoustic instruments. But more importantly, it aims to sound distinct from regular musicians playing music, by incorporating repetitive loops, sound effects and programming. So we chatted a bit about electronic music, on which he has expressed some very interesting views2. Some time later, he sent me what was the snapshot of the Jazztronica playlist on Spotify at the time. Jaga Jazzist opened with Lithuania and I was hooked. Thanks to the permanence of digital media, I can even quote my immediate reactions as I heard it for the first few times — “Smooth, engaging, loopy, hypnotic even!” I had texted back enthusiastically.

Being an album kind of guy3, I promptly had A Livingroom Hush on rotation. Lithuania starts with a catchy loop of electronic tones and real instruments, and soon proceeds to add layer upon layer of new loops, but somehow managing to make the end result sound like a bona fide arrangement of jazz music. It’s a Chemical Brothers meet Weather Report kind of vibe, and it really works! I have never gotten much into mainstream electronica, preferring jazz or rock music more. But I have a soft spot for music that blurs genre boundaries and creates a new kind of sound. I remember Jeff Beck’s album “Who Else!” where Beck uses the electronica sound as a contemporary backdrop against which he plays his usual, soulful rock guitar. But Jaga Jazzist go much further with A Livingroom Hush. Here is a nine piece band which mixes live music play with synthesised loops in jazzy scales, but is always resolutely committed to a big picture sound where the part should not overwhelm the whole.

Jaga Jazzist hail from Norway, and they first achieved critical acclaim when BBC listeners voted “A Livingroom Hush” as the jazz album of the year 2002. But their story started much earlier when the band was formed in 1994 with brothers Martin and Lars Horntveth and Ivar Christian Johansen. In an interview from 2006, Martin Horntveth talks about the early days of the band, “The idea was to just have a very big band, which is quite normal in the jazz tradition, but, playing not that jazzy music, [but] more music influenced by rock, hip-hop, drum n’ bass, all kinds of music, [specifically] electronic music.” So they got together a bunch of musicians from different backgrounds including rock, jazz and European classical music, and “just started rehearsing every Tuesday”. Their first album Jaevla Jazzist Grete Stitz was supposedly a mixture of “playful jazz and touches of rap”, while it was their second outing titled “Magazine” which saw younger brother Lars Horntveth emerge as the de-facto composer for Jaga Jazzist.

Lars Horntveth in several interviews for Jaga Jazzist has cited a wide array of musicians as his inspiration. Depending on the music you listen to, you might hear your favourite artists among those cited by Horntveth, in Jaga Jazzist. For example, I can hear the fusion sound from Miles Davis’ albums “In a Silent Way” and “Bitches Brew”, where he experimented with larger bands, even including two drummers, with his focus being more on the overall collective sound. There is a bit of Charles MingusBig Band sound, and maybe even Concierto de Aranjuez, which Horntveth has said he would like to be played at his funeral. Steve Reich is also an influence — I heard him first in the process of writing this review — for his clean minimalistic arrangement of sounds again emphasising the collective rather than the individual. But Horntveth also says lightheartedly that his influences keep changing all the time! Influences aside, I think Jaga Jazzist have managed to create their own signature sound which you can hear in albums recorded as far apart as A Livingroom Hush (released in 2001) and Starfire (released in 2015).

For me, the two big highlights on the Livingroom Hush album are Airborne and Lithuania. Airborne starts off with a flowing passage punctuated by the drums and a percussion track which sounds like radio static, with the melody played by a baritone saxophone, before launching into a jaunty, stuttering tune in 7/8 rhythm. It slowly but progressively keeps gaining in intensity with a short pop-friendly solo to round it off, before receding back into the passage from the beginning. It is a great example of Jaga Jazzist’s ability to meld electronic samples and a jazzy scale into an almost danceable number (read this if you dig a technical dissection). Lithuania follows a similar pattern of adding layer upon layer of music till the song bursts out in crescendo. There is a certain feeling of quiet in the song (the hush of the living room, perhaps) which is modulated so smoothly in intensity that the listener may well wonder at the crescendo — now just when did this song get this loud? To me, this is a worthy electronica successor to Miles Davis’ Shh/Peaceful.

Despite having heard the band for only about a year, I have really enjoyed Jaga Jazzist’s music. So does art imitate life? Someone pointed out to me how the phone icon on a smartphone imitates an old life — a landline telephone receiver — while the icon of Uber is not just a stylised “U” but imitates a new life, symbolising their network and the “manipulation of bits and atoms4. Like digital imagery, digital sounds too are no longer abstractions of analog sounds, but synthetic tones we accept as bona fide originals. Now, of course, icons and tones are less art and more utilitarian. But with Jaga Jazzist, behind the sheen of electronica, past the multi-layered sound of their music, there is art imitating the sounds of today’s life and creating a fascinating world of music. Go, give it a listen!

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  1. A Living Room Hush, Jaga Jazzist, 2001. Band members:
    • Mathias Eick - trumpet, keyboards, double bass
    • Lars Horntveth - tenor & barytone saxophone, flute, bass-clarinet, acoustic, highstring guitar, keyboards
    • Lars Wabø - trombone, Line Horntveth - tuba
    • Andreas Mjøs - vibraphone, marimba, percussions, drums, keyboards
    • Jørgen Munkeby - flute, tenor saxophone, bass-clarinet, keyboards
    • Harald Frøland - guitar, effects, synthesizer
    • Morten Qvenild - keyboards
    • Ivar Chr. Johansen - keyboards
    • Even Ormestad - bass, keyboards
    • Martin Horntveth - drums, drum programming (drum-machines), percussion, keyboards
    • Jørgen Træen - electronics, keyboards, percussion, synthesizer (Ms-20 Ghost).
  1. The idea of a musical road is sheer genius! Using an ordinary rumble strip to rouse the inattentive or sleepy driver, is one thing. But it is a much more sophisticated and artistic nudge to the driver, to carefully engineer grooves in the road so as to produce a recognisable musical tune through the vibration and sounds induced in a crossing car! 

  2. Prateek Sharma writes at Medium why EDM is the music for today. Sharma argues that digital or electronic sounds and tones have become such a ubiquitous part of our lives that music built using those kinds of sounds is bound to feel natural and contemporary. 

  3. It maybe almost a retro thing, but I am an album kind of guy. I believe in the concept of an album as a valid unit of musical work. Not to be overly philosophical, but music reflects the state of being of the artists. So songs produced in the same confines of space and time share the artists’ state of being, as of that time, making the album a cohesive unit of musical work. 

  4. Jessi Hempel at Wired writes about the “inside story” behind Uber’s new iconography as of 2016. The so-called mood boards for the Uber icon in different countries represent a fascinating fusion of a general design language with a signature shape associated with each specific country. Tiling that shape creates a pattern which in a subtle way cues the identity of that country. 

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