new music

Jaga Jazzist

Live with Britten Symphonia

[Ninja Tune]

Four stars

Most commonly described as an “experimental jazz band,” Norway’s Jaga Jazzist is in fact better labeled a contemporary music ensemble that acknowledges little in the way of musical barriers.

Certainly, elements of jazz appear in the group’s music, but just as often do classical motifs, rock instrumentation, glimmerings of the avant-garde, electronic dance music and whatever idiom one feels like stuffing the music of Steve Reich into. In short, the group is comprised of serious musicians who also happen to be seriously (and delightfully) twisted in their insistence on pushing boundaries, ignoring rules and stretching the envelope to accommodate both will and whim.

This new disc documents a recent performance in collaboration with England’s revered Britten Symphonia, and its nothing short of magnificent in terms of arrangement, execution and composition alike.

The disc opens with a riveting slow-build of a performance in the form of the title track from the group’s most recent studio album, “One Armed Bandit.” Beginning with an overture by the Symphonia, the members of Jaga Jazzist gradually fall into position in the ensemble, atop a pulsating bass motif. The tension built by the controlled increase in dramatic interplay as each instrument is added can be measured by the response of the crowd on the recording – when the full ensemble finally finds repose in a dynamic groove indulged in by both “rock band” and the Symphonia, the sense of relief and release is palpable.

The drama is ever-present in this weird and wonderful music, but there is more than enough room for light and shade, tension and release, sophistication and humor. You might find all of these in “For All You Happy People” or “Music! Dance! Drama!,” both of which are formal epics that allow for plenty of individual improvisation within their form. (That’s the “jazz” in Jazzist.)

It’s remarkable stuff, from start to finish, and has been immaculately recorded and lovingly mastered so that even in MP3 format, the concert sounds sublime.

Fans of Frank Zappa’s orchestral works, King Crimson, Snarky Puppy, Steve Reich and even Pink Floyd’s “Atom Heart Mother,” these notes are for you.

– Jeff Miers


Iggy & the Stooges

Ready To Die

[Fat Possum]

Three stars

Iggy Pop, James Williamson and Scott Asheton prove that you indeed can go home again. Even if you’ve largely stayed away from that home for some 40 years.

“Ready To Die” reunites most of the band that performed on the 1973 release “Raw Power,” the record held by many to be the crowning achievement of punk’s first wave, and the best album the Stooges ever made. (I disagree. The earlier “Fun House” gets my vote for top spot in the Stooges discography, but that’s a mere quibble. “Raw Power” is both raw and powerful, and it figures heavily in all heavy music that followed it.) Original guitarist Ron Asheton died in 2009, just as the Stooges were getting into the whole “reunion” thing. But Williamson, who has been working in Silicon Valley for decades, was persuaded to pick up his guitar, turn the distortion all the way up, and re-enter the fold. With the help of Mike Watt of the Minutemen, who adds some appropriately thunderous low-end here, the result is easily as delightfully sick as the Stooges prime period work.

What has changed? Not much, really. Williamson still excels at a disquieting form of electric guitar alchemy that is sometimes savage and sometimes refined and sometimes both at once. Pop is still an aural freak show, his voice as wiry and nimble as his seemingly made-of-rubber body. He indulges his baritone more effectively now than he did circa “Raw Power,” and his lyrics have become more cartoonish than frightening in the interim, but really, this is prime Iggy Pop.

What’s it all add up to? Well, it is not possible to re-create the milieu into which “Raw Power” was originally released, just as it is impossible to deny the fact that these guys are now all in their 60s. (With the exception of Watt, who is 55.) So “Ready To Die” cannot possibly change the world (for some of us, at least) the way “Raw Power” did. But so what? These guys already changed the world once. And as far as victory laps go, “Ready To Die” is a helluva fun one to partake in.

– J.M.

Pop jazz

Bobby McFerrin

Spirit You All

[SONY Masterworks]

Three and a half stars

It is a fact of American life that Bobby McFerrin can do no wrong. You can argue, if you like and say that’s a judgment call, not a fact. But ever since he emerged from a family of singers to become the most creative (and – no small thing – most entertaining) jazz singer of the past two decades, his charm has been total and his appeal has seemed utterly universal.

Oh sure, there may have been those who cast aspersions on the softheadedness of his greatest hit “Don’t Worry Be Happy” but to anyone who understood how sharp was the edge of his great reggae parody, he seemed in the great and diabolically clever territory of Fats Waller (than whom no more diabolically clever parodist of white mass cultural attitudes toward black culture ever lived).

All that musical impeccability, though, doesn’t mean that everything McFerrin does is uniformly great. His stints as classical conductor haven’t exactly been on the immortal level of his one-man condensation of the entire “Wizard of Oz.”

McFerrin’s new disc, the first in far too long a time, is meant to “honor the legacy” of his father Robert McFerrin Sr., the first African-American to sing a title role at the Metropolitan Opera (“Rigoletto”) and the voice of Sidney Poitier in Otto Preminger’s now-scarce version of “Porgy and Bess.” McFerrin Sr. was also famous for his renditions of spirituals, most notably on the 1957 LP “Deep River.”

Here, then, is his son in one of the most eagerly awaited discs in a long time – a very basic and extraordinary American musical repertoire performed by a singer whose originality and musicality are on the highest level.

While it’s true that as his co-producer and arranger Gil Goldstein said, that McFerrin “can take material we’ve heard 10 million times and filter it in such a way that we hear it fresh,” that doesn’t mean there aren’t trivializing moments here, too. What he does, though, to “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” and “He’s Got the Whole World” is both irrepressible and delightful.

“I like to play games. I like to have fun. I like to loosen them up,” he’s quoted in the notes. That doesn’t mean every song here needed to be loosened that much. Its very opening – “Every Time I Feel The Spirit,” sung with one of his two bassists, the estimable Esperanza Spalding – demeans it. On the other hand, what he does with “Psalm 15” is stunning. (“It’s got dirt set in it,” he explains. “It feels like it’s from the soul.” I’ll say.)

The freshness he brings to that modern spiritual, Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” as well as “Wade in the Water” helps epitomize the joyful virtuosity of what he does at his best. Wait until you year him alternate his falsetto and his ordinary voice on every other word of “Wade’s” outchorus. “The reverent vaudeville” of “When I Lay My Burden Down” is a little bit gospel choir, a little bit Grand Old Opry, a little bit 52nd Street bebop and all American, a joyous feast for the ears.

At this point, he’s a towering American musical figure who, for the most part here, takes very seriously how much of a responsibility that is – and he does it with the lightest of hearts.

– Jeff Simon