Saxophones, Samurai, and Blind Fish: Aleph and The Jazz Gangsters

The Jazz Gangsters are a well-hidden, willfully anonymous project from St Petersburg. Their work ethic is elegantly defined by the B&W image they use as a logo (below). Eleven jazz musicians are shown in a deliberately posed, yet good-natured photograph, as if they're caught mid-performance by some pleasant surprise. Their actual identity, however, is decisively removed with a black rectangle placed across the eyes of each performer. What results is much love, respect, and enthusiasm for tradition, but not for the individuals who constitute it.

This is a celebration of music, not musicians. Of a process, not a product.

Just forget your endless, daily hassles in the company of some smooth, jazzy grooves

In the same spirit, the Jazz Gangsters also publish, free of charge, a series of expert podcasts in order to cut and splice that same heritage further still. The most recent of these efforts has appeared through Ritmo Sportivo: "Many, Many Hugs." It is accompanied by a few sentences of hipster rhetoric: "Here is some special sh*t to help you take a break in the middle of your boring work day. Just forget your endless, daily hassles in the company of some smooth, jazzy grooves."   

There's a reason for celebrating this attitude in this particular season. The Ritmo mix appeared on "the first day of spring. This is a time when the view through your window becomes colorful once more - and you start looking for something to accompany your new inspiration." Eleven smiling faces would appear to be a step in the right direction. They offer an unnamed, yet universally recognized sensation. Or, as Louis Armstrong famously said: "If you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know..." (It's a good mood.)

The Gangsters themselves describe things in a slightly calmer tone, declaring their love for jazz, hip-hop, and electronic music. The project's organizers feel that these styles interweave on such a regular basis today that what's required is not only a venue for the podcasts, but also the centralization of information about others' work and upcoming events. And so the website grows.

The ability of this music to help listeners escape the daily grind appears considerable, since although the Ritmo Sportivo text talks of blooming flowers and reduced stress, we hear simultaneously from St Petersburg that the actual climate on that day was somewhat different. On the first day of spring in the world's most northerly city, the temperature was actually -4C and everybody's windows were speckled with frozen sludge.

Romance sidelined reality - at least briefly, before Mother Nature woke up.

...lazy beats with saxophone passages and fat bass-lines

The response to Ritmo's lazy escapism was therefore slightly different: "Oh, well... It's time to get some brightly colored running shoes and start dancing with upbeat tunes on your iPod!" Whether such levels of energy might actually be sustained, however, was another story. It we look back at the Jazz Gangsters very first podcast, the editors had kind words to say for the the slow, almost soporific tempo of their music. They promised a "total immersion in the atmosphere of lazy, rich beats with saxophone passages and fat bass-lines." 

A horizontal position seemed appropriate, whatever the climate or one's footwear.

A related escape into sonic realms - no matter the view outside - comes this week from the middle of Siberia, in fact from a village so small we're not even told its name. Thankfully a little extra information is offered. From British Columbia, Canada and the King Deluxe netlabel comes an EP by Ivan Erofeev, otherwise known as Aleph.

This young artist has now, apparently, left his village and moved to the city of Omsk. His Canadian colleagues relay Erofeev's enduring conviction that Omsk is an excessively "cold, gray" place to live; as a result, he also entertains fantasies of escaping. The Jazz Gangsters wait patiently for springtime; Erofeev simply wants to get out of the city "and dreams of living in the Siberian wild," where the snow is never sullied with dirt, asphalt, or rock salt.

Purity is elsewhere.

The recipient of a classical education on the violin, Erofeev is currently knee-deep in electronica and the same kind of overlapping traditions we find in St Petersburg. His inspiration on this occasion comes from very far away - on an EP entitled "Haunt for Little Blind Fish." Leaving aside the issue of whether our musician actually meant his opening noun to be "hunt," we discover that his phrasing overall refers to the Mexican tetra or "blind cave fish." It lives at such depth in Mexican caves, far from sunlight, that its eyes have been deemed useless by nature. 

Unable - or not needing - to see anything, the fish orients itself by means of tangible soundwaves. As the folks at King Deluxe have it: "The fish must rely on sound - and the tiniest vibrations - in order to survive." Here, in other words, is a move away from sonic reality as a dreamy or preferable realm: it becomes instead a means of survival.

All-ecompassing melody is replaced by ubiquitous threat, at least potentially; Erofeev says he finds "a kind of Zen connection between the life of the Mexican tetra and a samurai, for whom elusiveness is also a way of life." Blissful ignorance of actuality becomes a blind battle with it.

...spacy sounds, unique beats, and some glitchy two-step

Western reviewers have remarked that Aleph "blends various genres, but he holds a steady foot at the dubstep end. There are spacy sounds, unique beats, and some glitchy two-step feelings throughout the whole recording." The growling bass of dubstep has replaced the lazy, "surround-sound" aesthetic of the Jazz Gangsters

Somehow it's not hard to imagine how the outside streets of Omsk might seem less than friendly to residents. Especially at the tail end of winter.

The EP contains references to other external pressures. "Sulfozinum," for example, is a term that takes us back to the darker aspects of Soviet science. It refers to those shady, semi-legal fields of socialist medicine which believed that all manner of ailments, including syphilis and insanity(!), could be cured by raising the patient's body temperature to consistently high levels.

That same "feverish" thematic is extended in "Some Opium in the Wild Tropics." And then, as the imagery moves towards a consideration of addiction and dangerous jungle, relief comes from a familiar source. The final seventy seconds of the track, somewhat unexpectedly, lapse into the warm crackle of antique vinyl and a sampled, jazzy piano loop. 

Whatever the weather, be it -4C or +40C, the function of jazz remains consistent for these two projects. In both St Petersburg and Omsk, old-school recordings play a similar role, at least symbolically. They offer thoughts of escape from the workday - and an alternative to the kind of presumed, perhaps omnipresent threats that keep even a samurai awake. In a word, jazz symbolizes movement: into rest or away from something nasty, such as the Big City. Jazz improvisations epitomize a transferral somewhere else or, in cruder terms, a passage to anywhere else but here.

The Japanese warrior and Mexican fish therefore see eye to eye on several matters, no matter the levels of sunlight.

Audio

Aleph – Astyanax Mexicanus
Jazz Gangsters – Crazy Radio Show
Jazz Gangsters – Many Many Hugs
Aleph – Some Opium in the Wild Tropics
Aleph – Sulfozinum

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