Earlier this year when the Barbican announced their contemporary music series for 2012 it featured four shows that involved the Britten Sinfonia playing alongside other artists. The list of collaborators included the likes of Nico Muhly and Sufjan Stevens but it was tonight’s show with Norwegian progressive jazz outfit Jaga Jazzist that seemed one of the best fits and likely to yield the greatest results.
The first half of the concert saw the two ensembles unite for a performance of Kaleidoscopic, Jaga Jazzist frontman Lars Horntveth’s extended, predominantly orchestral piece from 2009. It was to showcase the Britten Sinfonia’s versatility as they mapped out the discreet arcs and contours of the piece adeptly.
The opening half in particular sounded like a musical representation of the geography and landscape of Scandinavia, the pristine strings acting like some kind of sonic mirror to the natural beauty of the region. As it progressed the band assumed a more prominent role, laying foundations that were subtly promoted and expanded over the rest of the piece via harp, vibraphone, electric guitars, saxophone, keyboards and brushed percussion. Eventually it fell to Horntveth to usher the piece out quietly on acoustic guitar, before the coda revealed the inner framework of the piece in beautiful, spectral style.
For second half we return to the hall to find the stage decorated with the iconography of the fruit machine. Most obviously it’s a reference to the title of their last album – 2010′s excellent One-Armed Bandit – but it also indirectly prompts thoughts of concepts such as chance and unpredictability, and specifically their place within music. Such notions can certainly be detected in the origins of Jaga Jazzist’s music, andespecially in the unexpected directions it so often takes (even if tonight’s performance itself was a skilfully planned and rehearsed event).
That the second half began with an orchestral overture reaffirmed how this wasn’t any regular Jaga Jazzist show. The first track to be performed – One-Armed Bandit – initially seemed to suffer slightly in comparison, the sound not quite matching the electrifying, marauding nature of the record. Yet, the inner-dynamic of the track ultimately pulled it through and it was clear that the orchestral backing was adding a new dimension.
A similar situation would ensue later with Bananfluer Overalt. Initially the sound seemed a little more transparent than expected but this was soon put to one side and the moments of idyllic melody were fully conveyed extremely well. It also demonstrated how the contribution of the Britten Sinfonia helped reveal the latent cinematic qualities of their last album. Horntveth breaks off to admit he’s “having so much fun”, a reminder of another quality of their music – playful and never overly serious or weighed down.
Further proof comes when they play the suitably named Music! Dance! Drama! – a track that sees a succession of giddy sonic bursts pushed up close against each other in dazzling fashion. It’s also indicative of the sense of extroverted bombast that runs through much of the performance. The same could be said of Toccata which more than justifies its classically-inferred title with a series of accelerated sequences played over vibraphone, percussion and strings. It ends up sounding like what a composition by Philip Glass would sound like if released on Ninja Tune.
They do go beyond the confines of their last album, most notably by debuting a new track, Prungen. It becomes immediately clear that it will sit comfortably within the Jaga Jazzist canon, boasting a swaggering groove aided by some burgeoning saxophone from Horntveth. They also play Kitty Wu from 2003′s The Stix album – the widescreen, looming quality of the original being supplemented tonight with intricate orchestral adornments. 2005′s What We Must album is also represented with the vast expanse of Oslo Skyline.
Late in the show Horntveth reveals that the show is being recorded for possible future release. Live albums may have a mixed reputation but if it materialises this will be one worthy of investigation. They return to play two encores, finishing with a particularly trailblazing version of Book Of Glass. It can be difficult for special, collaborative shows like this to strike the correct balance between orchestra and band but tonight Jaga Jazzist and the Britten Sinfonia nailed it.