Jaga Jazzist is huge in Norway, where, one could argue, it’s easier to stick out than in America. Every album the schizophrenic nine-piece instrumental ensemble makes cracks the nationwide top ten, and they play to thousands of people in Oslo and, indeed, all over Europe. They are a case study in Scandinavian bipolarity—for every Europop sensation like Robyn, there’s an equal and opposite act of deep artistry and complexity like Jaga Jazzist.
But Jaga Jazzist are not as well-known in the States. On Wednesday night, at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, they played to roughly 350 people. The venue even had to close the balcony so the floor would seem full.
To fans of the band, this is a tragedy. Within two minutes of the group’s members taking the very, very cluttered stage, it was vividly apparent that something incredibly special was happening, and far too many people were missing it in favor of America’s Next Top Model. Along with vibes, guitar, electric bass, tuba, trumpet, trombone, upright bass, Korg synthesizer, flute, bass clarinet, triangle, tambourine and other instruments I’m sure I’m forgetting, the band was anchored (and constantly uprooted, then anchored again) by the miraculous drumming of Martin Horntveth, whose dynamic replication of laptop programming on a live drum kit would have any other drummer in tears.
In the past, I’ve been fooled by Horntveth’s drumming. I initially thought the band’s wonderful 2003 album The Stix, for example, was the product of electronics instead of a live band. The nearly two-hour set skewed heavy on the band’s latest, One-Armed Bandit, which is probably the most organic and “live-band” sounding record in their canon—it’s more King Crimson and Frank Zappa than Aphex Twin. But the record does not do it justice. Seeing these songs live, with complex melodies, jagged time signatures, and variegated arrangements—it’s a head-spinning experience like no other.
Jaga Jazzist are playing a few more dates in America, and to those in New York and Chicago: Get thyself to see them, pronto. They’ve gotta be losing so much money on this tour, with a huge bus and a trailer to carry all the members and their equipment. It’s been seven years since they came here; who knows when they’ll return.