Jaga Jazzist brings the sound of Oslo to Tokyo Jazz Festival

by Sean Smith

Special To The Japan Times

Trying to slot artists into specific trends, genres and an ever-expanding number of subgenres is a constant obsession for meticulous music fans looking to define what they’re listening to. Journalists categorize, sometimes to the dismay of the bands they’re covering, to make things simpler for their readers. But some acts defy easy classification.

One such act is Norway’s Jaga Jazzist, who will be appearing at this weekend’s Tokyo Jazz Festival for its second time.

Since the eight-piece band started in 1994, its music has been described as nu-jazz, experimental jazz, electronic jazz, post-rock, prog rock and no doubt any number of cool-sounding word strings, and while each of those labels may describe part of Jaga Jazzist’s sound, none seems to really encapsulate it.

Bandleader and spokesperson Lars Horntveth cites influences as wide-ranging as Public Enemy, Steve Reich, Radiohead and Flying Lotus, as well as Norwegian jazz acts Elephant9 and Jon Balke. No wonder the band’s sound is hard to pin down.

“Our goal has always been to hide our influences and inspirations as best as we can and to try to make music that is exciting and complex both for ourselves and our audience,” Horntveth tells The Japan Times. “If we have to define our music, I guess an easy way to label us would be electronic jazz-rock.”

Jaga Jazzist and the aforementioned Elephant9, who appeared at last year’s Tokyo Jazz Festival, represent part of a fertile and innovative scene that has been germinating primarily in Oslo in recent years.

“I think Nikolai Eilertsen (the bassist for Elephant9) is a very influential person who has taken the Norwegian jazz scene more in a 1970s rock and prog direction,” Horntveth explains. “This happened maybe seven or eight years ago when he quit his main band, Bigbang, and started to play jazz again.

“The scene in Norway is very tight, everyone knows each other basically. I guess this current movement just evolved from mostly electronic and noise music and (John) Coltrane jazz into a more rock-oriented direction.”

This Saturday, Jaga Jazzist is the first act on the bill at the 5,000-seat Tokyo International Forum Hall A — quite a different setting from its 2012 appearance, in which the band played two shows — one at the nearby Cotton Club and one outdoors at the Plaza stage.

This makes Jaga Jazzist the first act to have played on all three main stages in the festival’s current format, but the hall is quite different to the other jazz festival stages in terms of size and ambience. That fact doesn’t hold any particular concern for the way the band is approaching this year’s performance, though.

“The size of the venue doesn’t really change much, to be honest,” Horntveth says. “We are lucky to be able to play for many different audiences of different sizes. It’s a lot of fun playing for thousands of people, but it can be great to play smaller venues with a more intimate relation to the audience as well.”

One thing the band won’t have to worry about at Hall A is the amount of space available on stage. With all of its members being multi-instrumentalists, and often switching between instruments mid-tune, a Jaga Jazzist gig is a rather entertaining spectacle. From double bass to pedal steel guitar and tuba to glockenspiel, the stage tends to resemble a bunch of people running amok in a music shop. Getting around and setting up must be a nightmare for roadies and sound engineers. Horntveth says the band can counter any possible problems, though.

“We have developed a way to be extremely efficient with sound checks,” he says. “It’s all about knowing exactly what every person is supposed to do. So most times our sound checks are super fast and much faster than other bands.

“We basically hate to wait around, so we try our best to make (the checks) as fast as possible. When we fly in to gigs, we hire as many of the instruments as we can,” he continues. “But we always have to bring loads of instruments with us. If they don’t arrive, we have a big problem.”

This year marks 20 years since the band was formed by the then-teenage Horntveth and his older brother, drummer Martin. (Their sister Line plays tuba, flute and percussion in the band.)

“It’s quite amazing to have had this band for 20 years already,” says Horntveth. “But I think it gets better and more fun for every year.”

In addition to its shows in Japan (the band played a show on Thursday in Osaka as a part of the Osaka Jazz festival), Jaga Jazzist has been busy writing new material.

“We have been working on a new album for almost two years now, and hope to release it early next year,” Horntveth says.

The band’s last two albums have seen it working with different collaborators — producer John McEntire (of Tortoise and The Sea and Cake fame) for 2010′s “One-Armed Bandit,” and a full orchestra for last year’s “Live With Britten Sinfonia.” This time around it is taking a slightly different approach.

“We are basically producing ourselves in collaboration with long time Jaga producer Jorgen Traen,” Horntveth says. “The album has been recorded mostly in Los Angeles and Oslo. We’ll finish it in Bergen, Norway, in a couple of months and we’ll be playing a couple of new songs at the Tokyo Jazz Festival for sure.”

Jaga Jazzist plays Tokyo International Forum’s Hall A at 12:30 p.m. on Sept. 6 as part of the 13th Tokyo Jazz Festival. The festival runs from Sept. 5 to 7 at the Tokyo International Forum and the Cotton Club in Chiyoda-ku. For more information, visit www.tokyo-jazz.com. Osaka Jazz 2014 runs through Sept. 8. For details, visit www.kyodo-osaka.co.jp.