Jazz, not as a static corpus but a growing and developing genre, is in a strange place. For a few years now, some have been lamenting the death of jazz. Its decline in popularity is certainly evident. The average consumer of contemporary music would be hard-pressed to name a currently practicing musician who wasn’t Kamasi Washington, despite the fact labels such as Clean Feed and NoBusiness have been releasing exhilarating, modern jazz for years. So does that mean jazz is truly dying? Not necessarily. Like many forms of thought and expression that are in danger of becoming outmoded, jazz simply adapts and insinuates itself into new postures. It distributes itself into hip hop or metal or whatever genre will have its freeform, expressive stylings. Or, in the case of Jaga Jazzist on their newest release, it will lend itself to a large-scale fusion of jazz, rock, and electronic music. A wide-ranging and dense exploration into what jazz could look like in today’s music scene, Starfire sees the group probing the outer reaches of already out-there composition.
Jaga Jazzist—the name’s on the tin—is a Norwegian octet known for combining a jazz mentality with a diversity of instruments and techniques. Their last few albums, such as 2010’s One-Armed Bandit and 2005’s excellent What We Must, saw the group incorporate post-rock and progressive electronic elements into their repertoire, and Starfire expands upon that development, giving more real estate to the guitar and electronic components. The self-titled track, for example, opens with a guitar and drum shuffle as haunting electronics drift in. It isn’t until the two-minute mark that we hear a sound (other than the drum kit, of course) most people would associate with a jazz ensemble, and that’s a bare woodwind part. This is all before the song completely shifts gears into this pulsing, electronic-driven number. There are highly progressive elements to the pieces on this album as they shift into new forms, sometimes slyly and other times announcing stentorian their new form.
When playing with such a large ensemble, especially one containing such a heterogeneous set of elements, there is often difficulty managing each player; on previous albums, that issue certainly surfaced, but on Starfire the main thematic is cohesion. Though washed-out guitar and sparking electronics are most consistently at the fore, each player is consonant with the whole, and during the best parts of the album, it’s difficult to tell which is the strongest voice. “Oban” sounds like the score to an '80s sci-fi flick when all the instruments kick in and the ensemble interlocks into a grand cinematic swell. For every second of its twelve minute run-time, it moves through new and diverse territories of sound, reenacting, in different setting and style, the exploration of not only progressive electronic, but of jazz.
The shorter tracks, “Shinkansen” and “Prungen” switch foci, shining the spotlight on the analogue instruments, especially the flutes and woodwinds. The former, named after the Japanese bullet train system, bears no relationship to the speed and power of its namesake, and instead meditates on its elegance. Airy and bright, the song is driven by a ringing guitar line and the fluttering of the flute. It’s an appropriate cool down following the heady “Big City Music,” and demonstrates the versatility of the ensemble, putting on display their ability to switch register at the drop of a hat. “Prungen” which begins as a tense, eerie track, slowly morphs into a melting, prog-rock monstrosity, propelled by a pummeling riff, acid-drenched electronics, and the frenetic cymbal-smashing of Martin Horntveth. It’s an exhausting exercise that drains as much energy from the listener as the performer.
For only five songs, Starfire is an immense album, but the length is completely secondary to the sheer amount of sonic topography the octet explores. If anything, it’s surprisingly short. The music we stuff into little boxes labeled "genre" is so often much more expansive and much more expressive than any convenient tag we might devise. So when we say jazz is dying, we can only be referencing some specific manifestation of a jazz, not jazz itself. Not to point to any sort of un-jazz, but more than a specific sound—something which can surely go extinct—jazz is a methodology or, even more abstract, simply an approach. It cross-pollinates and mongrelizes and mutates until the outward appearance of an original has all but faded away, but still beneath is the essential core, the spirit of the thing. Jaga Jazzist, over its twenty-year history, has always engaged in this genre-damaged jazz and, out of respect for the form and an interest in seeing it flourish, has proliferated their movement towards the new, towards the jazz minus jazz. It’s a fascinating concept, and one that Starfire, in all its grandiosity, advances admirably, pushing the sound into further sonic territories, places that mount a challenge not only to the listener, but also the devices we use to organize our sounds.