“Norwegians haven’t really had much international success – well, most of the time – and I think that’s quite true of the rest of the country as well. Norwegians haven’t really had much international success, so we try to make… not more advanced, but maybe more unique music that is not supposed to be played on the radio. It’s more niche.”
– Lars Horntveth to Wyndham Wallace of The Quietus, 2011
In the mid 1990’s, a handful of Norwegian groups set out to create an unlikely fusion- a combination of electronica and jazz that would eventually became “future jazz”, a stylistic facet to the more general “nu jazz” label and perhaps the most easily recognizable of its parent genre. Though it sounds a bit hard to swallow on the surface- the pastel creativity of jazz combining with calculated, rhythmic electronic music is a bit strange to wrap your head around I admit- nu jazz took off in several underground scenes around the world. While it’s true that artists like Nils Petter Molvaer and Buggie Wesseltoft gained a fair amount of traction in their respective niches, the Tønsberg group Jaga Jazzist trump much of their peers in terms of popularity and legacy.
This popularity didn’t emerge right away following their formation, in fact it took a whole five years after their very independent 1996 debut released the obscure and likely defunct Thug Records for them to sign to WMG’s Norweigan division and release a new record. What followed, 2001’s A Livingroom Hush, was a creative breakthrough for Jaga and the international versions from both Smalltown Supersound (the version I own) and especially the oft-beloved Ninja Tune that came a year after its initial release pushed them comfortably into cult status. It was good enough to earn the honor of being BBC’s best jazz album of the year in 2002, at any rate.
Listening to A Livingroom Hush is a bit like watching a robot feel emotions for the first time. Repetitive, looping drum lines underlay guitars and horns that sound almost synthetic in their delivery, like they have little to no connection to their vibrant 20’s counterparts. This is all backed by a spectrum of electronic infusions, like wispy keyboard synth, static and the occasional audio-glitch sounds thrown in here and there. Such a sound is bound to turn off some looking for the heartiness of what is more conventionally considered jazz, and I will admit that at times Jaga gets a bit too sterile and robotic for my tastes and I end up wishing for a bit more swing in the whole thing.
Yet, even though Jaga’s music sounds almost calculated at times, out of all of this artificiality is birthed a sound of inhuman emotion. The epic ‘Lithuania’ is a eight-and-a-half minute beast that builds from a simple keyboard intro into a gradual and colossal storm of what I can only describe as melodic noise and tonal color, with seemingly every instrument and gadget Jaga Jazzist have at their disposal joining in the fray for a single spectacular minute. But at reaching this apex, the song simply…stops. Abruptly, in fact. Like a computer halting its functioning suddenly and without warning, it yields an almost startling and, in this context, a unique end to a great piece . ‘Cinematic’ is comprised mainly of a beautiful piano loop sandwiched delicately in between a variety of mechanical noises like radio static, droning, and aggressive metallic crashing, and gives a sort of a beautiful nature to such a set of normally unpleasant sounds.
Jaga does show a bit of its hot-blooded jazz roots at times though. ‘Low Battery’ for instance is a lackadaisical trot driven by a crisp bass-line and backed by the extremely talented Jaga horn section. Both ‘Real Racecars Have Doors’ and ‘Midget’ are jazzier picks from the record, the former being a more guitar-oriented groove and the latter being a short-but-sweet (no pun intended), fast paced romp through fusion territory. Jaga, with their semi-sterile electronic-infused style, dip occasionally the territory of cool jazz with tracks like ‘Airborne’ and ‘Going Down’ with their slick production and utilization of musical negative space to deliver a more impactful musical delivery like with the tender brass work. Though they do tend to build to greater climaxes later on in the songs, like the sax and string break towards the latter half of ‘Airborne’, which is actually more entertaining I think then if they had simply kept going with a bashful tone for the entirety of the song’s runtime.
It was with the release of A Livingroom Hush that Jaga found a semblance of popularity, but what the album did more than anything was create a structure on which to build. Five more years down the line would find the group engaging much more with the likes of post-rock on What We Must in 2005 and jazz-rock/progressive rock with 2010’s One-Armed Bandit. These albums not only differed in sound from their major-label debut, but they also differed in success, as it was undeniable that they earned a much more refined status among music communities. Thus, the electronica-infused jazz sound that A Livingroom Hush utilized was left, for the most part, for greener pastures.
Even though A Livingroom Hush is delegated today mainly to the annals of Jaga Jazzist and nu jazz history, it still remains a creative and ambitious release that remains unique amongst the crowd of the many latter-day jazz albums from around the globe.