[sic] Magazine

Jaga Jazzist – One-Armed Bandit

Prior to the release of One-Armed Bandit, I read an interview with leader Lars Hornveth that made me wary. He mentioned that the music had all been written by him rather than collectively composed, and there would be a prevalence of arpeggios and a unified theme to the album. After sampling the radio edit of the title track I started to panic. A concept album about the flashing lights and empty thrills of playing fruit machines?! The band that made the majestic What We Must (2005) have gone off the rails…

The album starts off well enough. After a short introduction from jazz trio The Thing, we’re launched into the colourful cascades of the title track, which sounds much better in its full version, where the different sections manage to hang together a lot more convincingly than the radio edit. There’s still a lot of fancy skittering around, which brings to mind the theme tune to a news bulletin or a video game. The band seem to be showing off their jazz chops rather than serving the song (which is a problem for the album as a whole), but there’s also plenty to like: elegant melodies played on a ton of different instruments, some fat fuzz bass, some lovely pedal steel. The lovely pedal steel continues on the first part of ‘Bananfluer Overalt’, which is probably one of the album standouts. Each section seems to develop naturally from the one that precedes it, and there are some really emotional melodies and deft playing throughout.

Unfortunately, on track four Jaga simply lose the plot (the clue is in the terrible title). ‘220 V / Speaktral’ starts off OK with some pretty piano plinking, before the floor falls away and the listener is plunged into a wanky dub-funk cave, from which the song never recovers. No matter how many instruments and effects the song piles on, it’s a fucking mess and should never have made the cut. In contrast, centrepiece ‘Toccata’ couples lovely Reichian repetition on marimba, organ and piano with some dramatic John Williams-esque brass. It doesn’t deserve to stick around for 10 minutes, have quite so many drum fills or such a long trumpet solo, but it’s nice enough.

Some fleetingly brilliant moments aside, the bulk of the second half is pretty wretched, bogged down with fussy arrangements and dozens of different sections that make no sense. Thankfully the second half does feature the majestic ‘Book Of Glass’, one of Jaga’s best songs to date, in which the teeming array of instruments locks into a song cycle that makes a direct emotional connection for the duration of its running time.

So, what the hell happened? Once I read more about the gestation of One-Armed Bandit, I found stories of their producer/mixer falling ill, which doesn’t surprise me. The album sounds like a compromise, and one that has yielded some surprisingly unlikeable music for such a talented band. And I also learned that Norwegians drink the most coffee per capita than any other race. These guys need to get off the caffeine!