The Java Quartet Rejavanation, distributed by Vitamin Records
CD review by Des Cowley
In an era of short attention spans, when musicians seem to coalesce into new ensembles every other week, The Java Quartet, with more than fifteen years under its belt, seems something of an exception. While there’s been the occasional line-up change since their first EP Slumber for Nordic Wonder in 1994, founder and bassist Michael Galeazzi, pianist Greg Coffin, and drummer Mike Quigley have been main-stays since the band’s second recording Glow in 1996. The most dramatic change has been in the saxophone chair, with current NZ tenor player Mathew Ottignon having come on board for the band’s previous album Deep Blue Sea (2005).
The title of the new CD, Rejavanation, with its clear overtones of renewal, seems a particularly apt one for band wanting to stave off the onset of middle-age. Galeazzi has admitted to a long-term interest in the modal music of Miles Davis and Coltrane – though not without some quirky side-trips (Nordic Slumber, after all, was reputedly a tribute to Bjork) – and the new album is both a consolidation of this interest, as well as a radical departure.
Rejavanation emerged out of Galeazzi’s post-graduate research into the relationships between modal music and other forms of trance-inducing music, from Indian ragas through to contemporary dance electronica. The idea was to re-imagine and re-interpret material from the Quartet’s back-catalogue, combined with new pieces, via an eclectic blending of samples, beats, trip hop, and electro-jazz. While its genesis as ‘post-graduate research’ could have led to the project being scarily academic, the resulting music, thankfully, is anything but.
For the recording, the Quartet swelled their line-up with a raft of guests, including Bobby Singh on tabla, Adrian McNeil on sarod, Linda Janssen on vocals, and local hip hop artist Morganics. Each of the album’s seven tracks is playfully designated by a stylistic label: trance, ambient dub, euro trash, nu soul, drum ‘n’ bass. The opener ‘Wedding Song’ begins with the beautiful, gentle strains of Galeazzi’s bass, before exploding into a flurry of rhythmic percussion and beats, overlaid by a repetitive, hypnotic saxophone motif. ‘Nursery Crimes’ is an evocative and minimalist piece, all texture and colour, featuring Greg Coffin’s haunting piano, along with ex-Java Quartet member Richard Maegraith on sax. ‘Yeah Man’, one of the album’s stand-out tracks, fuses Indian rhythms with Morganics’ beatbox and rapping, in a way that’s reminiscent of Bill Laswell’s dub experiments on his Axiom label.
The album shifts gear a little mid-way, nudging more commercial territory. ‘Shadow Dancing’ is a catchy, melodic piece that wouldn’t be out of place on a mid-period Moby album. Linda Janssen’s vocal track on ‘Only You’ feels like it could have been lifted off any number of dance compilations. Thankfully, things get back on track with the album’s most adventurous piece, ‘Little Boy’, which highlights Ottignon’s breathy, barely audible, sax over an ambient mix of static, bleeps, and pops. The final track, ‘In the Swim’, cranks it up a notch. Mike Quigley lays down a merciless percussive rhythm, joined by Galeazzi’s agile bass – classic drum ‘n’ bass; and Ottignon finally gets the opportunity to cut loose, showing what an exciting player he can be.
As bandleader and composer, Galeazzi has earned the right to re-interpret his earlier compositions. After all, Ornette Coleman did something of the same with his brilliant double-album In All Languages, which saw him revisit the sound of his classic quartet, and then radically deconstruct the same compositions with his new band Prime Time. Rejavanation is very much Galeazzi’s project, and his compositional stamp is all over it. But where it lets itself down is in overplaying its hand when it comes to stylistic diversity. I suspect it might have been enough to pick one or two of these pieces – particularly those drawing upon Indian music – and explore them more fully over the course of the album. Certainly artists like Erick Truffaz and Nils Petter Molvaer have experimented with jazz and beats in a more consistent fashion on their albums.
Rejavanation begs the question: is it jazz? In the end, it doesn’t matter. Jazz has always been a mongrel music, capable of plundering what it needs from other musical forms – whether it be classical, world, pop or electronica – to re-vitalize and renew itself. Are the Necks jazz? Is Joseph Tawadros improvising with John Abercrombie and Jack Dejohnette jazz? If nothing else, Galeazzi, Coffin, Quigley and Ottignon are to be congratulated for refusing to rest on their laurels. The best of Rejavanation signals a band willing to undergo a radical makeover in its quest for new sounds. After fifteen years in the game, they’ve shown us they don’t intend to age gracefully.