The name Jaga Jazzist has pretty much always been a bit of a misnomer, or at least a slightly-ironic misdirect. From the statement that was 2001’s A Livingroom Hush all the way through their previous studio album, 2010’s One-Armed Bandit, and even their 2013 live collaboration album Live With Britten Sinfonia, the Norwegian mega-ensemble (currently an eight-piece) have constantly existed on the edges of jazz. They’ve chosen instead to filter jazz sensibilities and musicianship through the lenses of post-rock, IDM, prog, lounge, grand Wagner-esque classical, minimalist composition and other modern classical forms, and much more. The result has been an eclectic body of work that is at once progressive and often cerebral but just as often very accessible and thrilling.
Perhaps sensing a need to thoroughly shake things up once again though, Jaga mastermind Lars Horntveth picked up himself — as well as his studio — and moved it all into an apartment in Los Angeles. Doubling down on the more complex and puzzle-like qualities to the labyrinthine One-Armed Bandit, Horntveth decided to conceive and produce the follow-up as a literal puzzle, composing long-form pieces that fuse disparate elements of live instrumentation (recorded piece-by-piece by one or two members visiting from Oslo at a time) and sampled electronics into a dizzying kaleidoscopic display. The result, Starfire, is a meticulously-crafted masterpiece that somehow manages to feel like a remix of the band’s 20 years of existence while also being the most forward-thinking and downright enjoyable package of music the band have put out to date.
It cannot be overstated how much influence the physical location of where this album was birthed appears to have played in its overall sound. Los Angeles is undeniably the locus of some of the most important trends and developments in popular music currently, with electronic music being near the forefront. There’s no getting around it on this one — even more so than The Stix was, Starfire is an album of electronic music that happens to be produced and performed by jazz musicians. Listening to the opening title track one cannot avoid hearing echoes of LA beatmaster Flying Lotus‘s cosmic energy (appropriately enough the track was premiered during one of FlyLo’s residency shows on BBC Radio). Nor can one deny hearing the chunky synths and squiggly riffs of “Big City Music,” “Oban,” and “Prungen” and not hear the hallmark sounds of the burgeoning retro-wave movement.
Starfire is not only reflective of all that, but it also feels like an album whose entire shape and sound is a sonic mirror of the city and area itself. “Big City Music” is the more manic and imposing sequel to “Oslo Skyline” off of What We Must — this time an ode to a much bigger and complex city. The trance marathon that is “Oban” is dripping with neon-tinted imagery providing a retro-futuristic 3am tour through the heart of the city. And though “Shinkansen” and “Prungen” were arguably inspired by locations far off from LA (“Shinkansen” refers to the Japanese bullet train line, and “Prungen” was originally written at least a few years ago as it made its first appearance on Live With Britten Sinfonia), the sounds of the sun-bleached and scorched surroundings of the city into the hills and desert filter through. These sounds aren’t wholly unfamiliar to the Jaga canon, but they provide the perfect variations on a theme that Lars and crew harness to turn their sound into the funkiest rave you’ll experience.
Fans of the band’s proggier brand of jazz/rock fusion may be taken aback initially by the more brazen dance-crazed touches, but fear not, for Starfire is firmly grounded in the hallmarks of Jaga’s sound through the years. “Starfire” the track is in pretty much every way a compilation of every sound the band have thrown out there, albeit one that was subsequently tossed into a centrifuge and transformed into a slinky, kaleidoscopic light show. “Oban” in many ways feels like a larger-scale version of The Stix‘s glitchier and grander pieces (the main melody even bears some resemblance to “Toxic Dart”) combined with an utterly transcendent and swelling string-filled climax not heard since A Livingroom Hush‘s “Lithuania.” “Big City Music”‘s huge melodic (and vocal) hooks call to mind the big post-rock hitters of What We Must, and the quieter “Shinkansen” that breaks up the two epics north of 10 minutes is the sweetest and most nostalgia-filled piece the band have put out since “For All You Happy People” off of the same album. Ironically, the one track that should have felt most familiar due to its previous live recorded appearance, “Prungen,” is perhaps the most surprising of the bunch. The melodies and structure from Live With Britten Sinfonia are there, but it’s placed in an entirely new context — a Dune-like desert space opera — in which strings and wobbly synth runs intermingle and are driven to an abrupt climax.
As with all of the band’s work, the production and performances present are simply stellar. Like One-Armed Bandit, there is just so much sound and so many different sonic elements happening at any given time that making every single piece of it sing with crystal clarity presents a mammoth challenge. Starfire is a perfect album for both headphones and huge speakers though, and every ounce of each sound is sussed precisely to allow for acoustic instruments to shine through while giving those big-ass moments of electronic bass and squelches the proper space to be loud and proud. Despite the fact that the album was pieced together brick-by-brick, instrument-by-instrument, it certainly does not sound like it. Starfire for sure is not as technically-demanding as some of the burners on One-Armed Bandit, but it’s a testament to the composition skills of Lars and the musicianship of the group as a whole that they could assemble the thing as such and have it still sound so utterly loose and spontaneous. As always, much of that is thanks to the brilliant drumwork of Martin Horntveth, whose rhythmic pocket is as deep and vast as the Grand Canyon.
In the end though, the reason why Starfire is such a rousing success — and the reason why you’ll want to keep revisiting it over and over — is because it’s just a goddamn addicting album of music. If the band has faltered at times in the past, it’s been in their ability to put together a package of music that’s consistently great front-to-back and also singular in theme and intent. The 5 tracks that form the approximately 50 minutes of Starfire, however, are superb through and through. Each track by far earns its extended runtime, and the entire thing feels like it goes by in an instant. Starfire will fit neatly into the band’s live repertoire for years to come, but this album belongs in a special place above the rest.
Jaga Jazzist’s Starfire gets…