JAGA JAZZIST – One Armed Bandit (2010)

Although not quite as unhinged as Estradasphere or some of the more berserk offerings from John Zorn, Jaga Jazzist have been, if nothing else, dependable sentinels of modern jazz. As an ensemble, they’ve fused their laid back (but nonetheless intense) compositions with everything from breakcore glitches to spacey guitar soundscapes to dance floor electronics. But unlike Estradsphere or John Zorn, these stylistic pairings are a means to an end; Jaga Jazzist aren’t interested in bending or subverting genres. They are, at the end of the day, a jazz ensemble: they still favor rhythm over melody, openness over structure, etc. If you’re used to listening to things like The Mars Volta, you might decry something as contemporary as Jaga Jazzist as “too disciplined” but it’s really the other way around. At their worst, The Mars Volta have one rule (“no rules”), which they’re only too quick follow into realms of mindless musical tedium. Jaga Jazzist, by contrast, don’t seem to be concerned with rules. They’re just here to play, thanks.

Such is the vibe one gets from One Armed Bandit, the band’s first album since 2005’s What We Must. They begin things with decidedly little fanfare (The Thing Introduces…, a thirty second garbled trumpet transmission), before launching into the album’s title track. While you might expect the album’s longer songs to outshine the shorter ones (if for no other reason than there’s more room and time for the band to roam around), the songs are pretty consistently intriguing in their depth, regardless of length. That being said, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that the nine minute Toccata is the best offering here; it’s a great take on the virtuoso model, one that’s surprisingly hypnotic in its minimalism. while we’re on the subject, minimalism isn’t a defining trait of One Armed Bandit; much of what’s here sounds like a free-form Tortoise working with a larger palette. Jaga Jazzist seem to favor that approach (the rhythmic perpetual motion machine) – they’re just working on a much bigger scale with it.

It’s worth stating again that if you’re looking for unabashed instrumental genre-defying weirdness, you should look elsewhere. Jaga Jazzist, even at their most unpredictable, don’t really fly off the handle, so to speak. And that’s what I like most about the band. For someone like me, someone who’s got such an unbelievably, otherworldly affinity for strange music, bands like Jaga Jazzist are kind of like the best of both worlds. They’re adventurous enough to satiate your appetite for the bizarre, and they’re grounded enough to keep you aware of the all the details (of which there are just the right amount). Hmmm. Apparently you can have your cake and eat it, too.

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