A golden age is usually defined in retrospect, discerned from a comfortable distance of decades or centuries. For the award-winning Norwegian jazz quartet Pixel, the urgency of their music allows for no such hesitation. The band is in the vanguard of a jazz scene brimming with exceptional young musicians, charting an exhilarating, improvisation-steeped path infused with the cathartic energy of rock. This is an exciting time in jazz’s evolution, as it expands to embrace other popular musics worldwide. Pixel stands out in this phenomenon, as no one else is melding jazz with the song structure and accessibility of pop and indie rock as they do. Pixel’s third album Golden Years captures the next step in the band’s own rapid evolution, following their 2014 breakthrough We Are All Small Pixels and 2012’s impressive debut Reminder (all on Cuneiform). Pixel consists of double bassist and vocalist Ellen Andrea Wang, drummer Jon Audun Baar, trumpeter Jonas Kilmork Vemøy, and saxophonist Harald Lassen (with everyone contributing vocals).
Golden Years Track Listing:
1. Rainforest (4:39)
2. People Pleaser (2:29)
3. Nothing Beats Reality (5:01)
4. Our Beauty (4:21)
5. Arp (1:57)
6. Dani Anana (4:11)
7. Move On (4:53)
8. I Have the Right To Go to Syden (2:55)
9. Slinky (4:52)
10. Space Is Going to the Moon (4:42)
11. Airborne (1:18)
Jon Audun Baar: drums, percussion, vocal
Jonas Kilmork Vemøy: trumpet, vocal
Harald Lassen: saxophone, vocal, bongo
Ellen Andrea Wang: double bass, vocal
Compositions: 1, 2, 7 by Wang; 3, 4 by Lassen; 5, 9 by Vemøy; 6 by Wang/Lassen; 8 by Baar/Wang; 10, 11 by Baar.
Recorded and mixed at Propeller Music Division by
Mike Hartung, Oslo, Norway (February 2015).
Recording Assistant: Jacob Dobewall
Mastering: Morgan Nicolaysen at Propeller Mastering
Pattern artwork: William Branton
Album Design: Thor Johannes Wang
Band Photo: Lasse Fløde
Supported by Fond For Utøvende Kunstnere and Komponistenes Vederlagsfond.
Pixel tends toward translucent textures, tight orchestration and pop-inflected songcraft. While the sound is essentially acoustic, Vemøy and Lassen increasingly employ subtle effects that provide deeper textural depth to the already charged mélange of bright harmonies and protean rhythmic thrust.
[Pixel | photo credit: Lasse Flødø]
“This album has a darker sound than the two previous ones,” Pixel says. “It’s more spacious, more open and maybe even more mature. We feel that we’re evolving together as a band and as individual musicians. We have worked more collectively on writing new songs, where somebody brings in an idea to the rehearsal and we start to play it and form it.”
Golden Years opens with Wang’s “Rainforest,” a gorgeous piece inspired by Norwegian trumpet player Arve Henriksen’s breakout 2004 album Chiaroscuro. In many ways it embodies one facet of Pixel’s less-is-more aesthetic, with Wang’s loping groove establishing a questing mood that’s accentuated by Baar’s light touch on the trap set. Vemøy and Lassen introduce the haunting melody, and when Wang blends her wordless vocals with Vemøy’s trumpet, the band has vividly evoked an emotional realm that’s as forbidding as it is enticing.
From the ethereal, the album pivots to the telegraphic pop concision of “People Pleaser,” a brief confessional blast propelled by Lassen’s slap tongue pops. The multi-section “Nothing Beats Reality” displays another Pixel specialty as the quartet segues from tightly arranged churning jazz rock and melodically charged pop to spaciously appointed improvisation.
Lassen contributed the gently soaring theme “Our Beauty” (which includes album’s titular lyric) as an almost nostalgic shout out to reckless creativity of youthful musical exploration. “Arp” is an evolving melodic movement that captures the fragile luminous with Vemøy playing arpegios one step at a time. Speaking of youth, “Dani Anana” is a singsong piece that evokes the suspended-in-time feel of a late summer afternoon. But adult concerns quickly resurface on “Move On,” a power-pop vehicle for Wang’s expressive vocals.
The band takes on a satiric edge with “I Have the Right to Go to Syden,” an aggressive tune about Norwegian restlessness and the way that social media has transformed the experience of travel. With it’s lyrics and repetative phrases “Slinky” reveals a playful childlike remembrance, with Lassen and Wang merging in a pop duo.
With its slinky groove, atmospheric textures and tendril melodic lines, “Space Is Going to the Moon” evokes a very different kind of exploration. The album concludes with another cosmic interlude, “Airborne,” a brief gossamer excursion that could only be rendered by an ensemble that can anticipate what each player is going to leave out.
In fact, Golden Years is the result of Pixel’s bustling 2014, a year in which the quartet played nearly 100 gigs (while also each pursuing projects of their own). When they started the recording process at the end of the year, everyone brought new songs to the table, tunes documented over five intensive days in the studio. The collaborative nature of the group continues to deepen within Pixel.