ALBUM REVIEW: Jaga Jazzist – ‘Pyramid’: graceful, off-world jazz suites remind us how 2020 should be

JAZZ is back in a big way on these shores, with The Comet is Coming, BCUK, Nubia Garcia all absolutely tearing it up with triumphant, high-profile shows – at least until it descended. (Shows: they were a thing, right?)

But over at labels like the eternally cool and crisp British breaks imprint Ninja Tune, jazz has never gone away; there’s the well, um … cinematic brilliance of the Cinematic Orchestra; and until recently a resident there, and maintaining friendly connections whilst forging on over the Pond with Flying Lotus’s Brainfreeze, there’s the white-hot furnace of idea fission and fusion, Jaga Jazzist.

Jaga Jazzist, who it should always be noted with a certain awe, first took their steps into the world when core members, brothers Lars and Martin Horntveth, were in their teens – Lars just 14 – take strands from all over the wide tapestry of contemporary music with which to knot new meshes of sound. Listen in, you’ll get classic Blue Note melodies, Weather Report fusion, Tortoise’s post-rock angularity, Stereolab’s futurism – and more.

And this Friday they’re releasing their ninth album, Pyramid, and their debut for Brainfeeder: just four tracks, a side apiece for those of us who like wax, all wrapped in a beautiful, irradiated red sleeve of design simplicity. Pyramid roots itself firmly in the cosmic – with Flying Lotus now in loco parentis, and that amazing sleeve – how could it be other? 

As well as the influences cited above, there’s subtle nods to fellow astral travellers such as Norwegian synth guru Ståle Storløkken, synth-psych general Tame Impala, the deep filter tech-scapes of Jon Hopkins; me, I’m even getting the space-age disco optimism of Meco.

The album set out deliberately on a different road to 2015’s Starfire, which evolved painstakingly over two years of studio experiments; instead Pyramid came together in a fortnight’s seclusion in Sweden, the band putting in 12-hour days on its creation. 

“The most important thing is that we didn’t want to over-analyze every musical idea,” says co-founder and drummer Martin Horntveth. “We wanted to follow the first and original idea and keep the freshness.” 

It’s self-produced too, which is a first.  “It was hard but felt natural to do ourselves, as five of us are producers and make records for a living,” Martin confirmed.

Like Nordic Egyptologists then, let us find the chambers in which treasure may be buried.

Pyramid opens with its longest track, “Tomita” offered in titular tribute to the Japanese classical composer and electronica experimentalist. We took a look at the four-minute single edit not so many days ago – it’s worth popping over to see the excellent little accompanying animation.

“Tomita” comes in on a mournful, beautiful Blue Note-style brass motif, all autumn days; there’s a more, sssh …. prog touch in the spacey electronics and electric piano. There’s plenty of time for the theme to unfold, gain new harmonic heft and swell, be joined by other instruments wandering past, feeling the melodic love; stopping off. It shifts through a more staccato, percussive, although still-brass led passage, before the percussion phases and filters and suddenly you’re gliding down through another landscape, your vehicle warm, caressed and shimmering guitars. It’s like that moment when you crest a hill and you freewheel effortlessly, consciousness fully at the beck of your surroundings.

So, hang on: that was just the first track …

“Spiral Era” we’ve also taken a look at before here at Backseat Mafia – in the incarnation of the pretty goddam wonderful Prinz Thomas astral disco remix. Even without Prinz’s deft dancefloor touches, there’s no denying the giant, otherworldly orchestral groove herein. Those thereminesque touches, those backing vocals, coming through with a mood from the end of “Tomita”. The drumming and burbling sequencers give a background rhythmic business which in no way overwhelms the graceful, fluvial flow of the main melodies. Brass rises, distant keys give the horizon an absolute depth. Once in a while it all smoothly slides down a semi-tone, a little tickle to the senses. 

If 2020 were how it was supposed to be – beautiful linen, twin suns, white living pods, an eight-track player on your rugged Martian landcruiser playing this  … well, let’s at least be thankful we have this. The crisp guitar funk coda strips back and leads us firmly out.

“The Shrine” is named for Fela Kuti’s legendary venue, salon, space for happenings in Lagos, Nigeria. Things get really, really interesting on this track, as that lush astral grace, established now as a harmonic and sonic keynote of the album, comes into fusion with busier Afrojazz percussion and bass, trilling and chopping, reining the brass and keys into a tight-as-hell insistence. Now you have to exclaim, and move. Sometimes it feels like that widescreen, shifting shimmer has won the day, is breaking the troposphere, only for the African elements to pull it back for a building call and response. It’s so many things: Nigeria 1975, Norway 2020, Space 1999.

The final building block of the pyramid comes in “Apex”: the sharp summit, then. Four tracks; there’s been so many musics already, in the first three. Lars Horntveth confirms the intention: “I felt that this album is a small symphony, each part containing its own rooms to explore.”. He ain’t wrong, Mac: there’s chamber upon chamber ever deeper into the pyramidal interior.

“Apex” has simple designs on your soul, although its methods are nuanced: it’s far-reaching, retro-futuristic space disko. It’s the most electronic-sheened of all the tracks so far, seeming to reach deep into the pocket of Ash Ra Tempel to pluck forth motorik and synth washes; everything rests on this huge, reverbed guitar chime.

…. You think. Until it breaks down into muted synth oscillation, cymbal play, and almost Aphex Twin, edgy synth figures begin to bite, bark, distort, generally own you. Which you might think you can resist until everything fires back in up above: the haunting sweeps and washes, subtle key changes; in your mind’s eyes a terrible and beautiful gridscape of geometric shapes. It’s gorgeous and at once so intense. But it breaks, melts, washes down; leaves you ashore gasping for more.

Superlatives are kinda redundant here. Pyramid is out above, where you have to give in, trust the zero-gravity. It’s a whole other world which isn’t without its precipices – but it looks more beautiful, more exotic, safer, than here right now. Buy.

Jaga Jazzist’s Pyramid is released by Brainfeeder this Friday, August 7th, on mp3, 16-bit WAV, CD and clear vinyl. It’s groovy as hell. Place your order here.

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1 Comment

  1. […] melodic. Oh, and how could I forget the space-prog-disco of Jaga Jazzist’s offworld odyssey, Pyramid? Properly […]

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