Adult Jazz: Freeing Pop

Music Features Adult Jazz

Members: Harry Burgess, Tim Slater, Steven Wells, Tom Howe
Hometown: Leeds, England
Current Release: Gist Is
For Fans Of: Wild Beasts, Joanna Newsom, Antony & The Johnsons, Brightblack Morning Light

We know the music community’s already cried wolf a few dozen times this decade; but that hyperbole of “…you’ve never heard a band like this before…” just proved irresistible, at least at the time, for some cases that might likely have disappointed you with their music.

But, lo, dear listener, now we have Adult Jazz. Let’s just leave all clichés at the door and let us explore!

As singer/guitarist Harry Burgess admits, the Leeds-born quartet were “keen to explore,” while they were making music together over the last couple years in a Scottish Borders farmhouse, the fruits of said-labors being their debut album Gist Is. In a nutshell, as Burgess says, they began “deviating from form.”

Adult Jazz’ latest single is eight minutes long and any drums don’t start, really, until the 3:50 mark. Not implying that you absolutely need your drums, you back-beat dependent pop-rock addicts, but Burgess’ celestial voice fluttering over an uncannily calming (still eerie) drone will be enticing enough for you in that opening minute.

But then the vocal plumes outward and inward, garbled by deep pitch shifting effects, into a wordless geyser of throaty grooves. As your ears start percolating, you notice that various brass and wind instruments have been slowly insinuating themselves onto the stage, with that humming drone serving as bedrock; drums finally stutter-step onto the scene, giving you just enough to locate a downbeat as a monstrous synth grinds out a hook with gusto. Does it sound orchestral and jazzy? Yes. Does it also sound alien? Yes! But, does it also sound like pop? …Maybe?

But a breakdown of their single, “Hum,” could go on for three more paragraphs, since there’s a new instrumental phrasing that frolics onto the song’s stage every 40 seconds or so, disregarding the convention of repeating a catchy chorus or melodic theme. Listen closer and you can hear djembes and marimbas mingling in, too! But as you cross the five-minute mark, with everything finally swelling together in near-unison, Burgess’ vocals align with a complimentary updraft of brass and the rhythms set more of pop-friendly shimmy which builds into a march with Burgess starting a warm-toned chant of “la la laaas” that bounce atop the beats. It’s then that it feels as though this is the moment the song has been building towards…that all those seven minutes were just about the journey.

Keen to explore.

“It just seems arbitrary that pop songs should be that short, ya know, three minutes,” Burgess says. “It doesn’t seem necessary. We can be freed from that.”

Adult Jazz (with Tim Slater, Steven Wells and Tom Howe) released their debut album, Gist Is, via their own label, Spare Thought, earlier this month. Burgess, Slater and Wells started the band five years ago while attending university together.

The trio had known each other for a while as they sporadically got together at shows, talking about each of their respective bands, and daydreaming of the time when they could all try something together. They fatefully aligned with Howe, who could employ his studies in electronic engineering to help them demo their first recordings.

“I remember really passionate singing in those first practices where we’d stick on a lick and just do it to death for three hours to where I’d have a really horse voice at the end. That kind of indulgence, I guess, in expression, is where one of our first songs on the record came from. We were all exploring expression or, I guess, I’m never comfortable using the word ‘theatricality…’ But, it came from just being good friends and finally getting to do something together after talking about it for years.”

Burgess says they each shared an appreciation of music that was “a bit challenging” but still had faint, friendly pop elements. “That’s the music that gives a bit and takes a bit. We were aware that that was the kind of music that we liked…” He name drops Joanna Newsom’s work on Ys as a contemporary kindred spirit in defying conventional structures, as well as equally experimental bands and singers like Miriam The Believer and Micachu & The Shapes. “Music,” Burgess surmises, “that had character.”

Adult Jazz arrive—with their six, eight and even nine minute-long songs—just in time to recondition the endurance of an Internet Generation’s withered attention spans. Burgess readily admits that certain song lengths were to accommodate all of his lyrics as the themes he addresses are just as dense as the instrumentation, particularly a questioning of the value of traditional forms of expression and communication. His “deviation from a transcribed form” is demonstrated in the tribal, twisty grooves of “Idiot Mantra,” where he melodically yowls “primitive, unformed vowel sounds.”

But I suggested that if this band’s music is challenging, then that could be an encouragement to listeners to reconsider what’s possible within the confines of “pop” or “jazz” or whatever kind of musical structure, demonstrated by the pure adventurous spirit of each Adult Jazz song’s magpie-ish gathering of unique instrumental timbres, tricky tempos and vocal melodies.

“I guess you might be right, that extends into the actual song structures, that deviation from form, or just an emphasis on the expression.”

The charm of Adult Jazz is that this isn’t, at all, a music that is overtly avant-garde, or, as Burgess puts it, “…difficult.” There are pop-ish familiarities in the jangle of guitars, the trundle of drums and the baroque-tinged vibe of orchestral elements splashed atop a rock riff.

When he speaks of working on a song, Burgess describes “this process of intervention where you can open up this initial impulse and see what else it can be…” That’s exemplary of each member’s mindset when forming songs together.

Burgess recalls viewing a documentary on the iconic noise/industrial experimentalists Throbbing Gristle. “I was…shocked. I didn’t know what to do and then did loads of research on the band. And I have so much respect and am so glad that it’s there, ‘cuz that means you can, when you’re writing a pop song, which I feel compelled to do, you can then stretch out and pull the skin over to that way or back over this way. So I’m glad for Throbbing Gristle and that we all listened to it, that stuff that we get really emotionally attached to is the stuff that does what we’re trying to do.”

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