Zavod Sploh

Mario Batelić: Jazz (with an exclamation mark)

Liner notes for the album Mnogobolje by Oholo!

There is something unusual and slightly unsettling about the name of this band (which roughly translates as ‘proud’, ‘arrogant’, perhaps even ‘boastful’), sealed as it is by an exclamation mark that demands your undivided attention. It hints at the unconventional and the audacious. It’s a name that, let’s be honest, makes us think more of a rackety punk band than a group of some of the country’s most prominent representatives of jazz, improvisation and experimental music.

The musicians gathered here come from a younger (and ever so slightly older) generation, but they’ve already clocked up the miles in various jazz and improvisational ensembles, in bands that cultivate a different approach to the poetics of singer-songwriting, chanson and new folk, and in more radical forms of rock, such as noise and hardcore. This seven-piece contains musicians, familiar to us from other bands, who have forged their sound at musical gatherings and ad hoc formations of numerous types, learning over the years to play spontaneously, but also to listen to their comrades and react immediately to what’s been heard or played. Another feature of Oholo! worth noting is that it brings together representatives of different parts of Slovenia, and shows that otherwise geographically distant scenes – from Primorska to Štajerska via Ljubljana and the central region – are easily able to find common ground when it comes to creating bold, contemporary sounds.

The line-up is also somewhat irregular, featuring two double-bassists, a drummer and a guitarist whose role far exceeds what you might expect from a conventional rhythm section – that is, rather than laying the foundations for the rest of the band, they are equal partners in the creation of this multi-layered and highly rhythmically and melodically diverse music. The band clearly draw inspiration from free jazz, but you’ll also hear echoes or dustings of African music and the exploratory approaches of improvised and new music.

Oholo! are a prime example of a medium-sized jazz band (there aren’t too many of those in these parts) who sound like a big band from the ‘golden age’ of jazz – of course, only in the sense that they have a powerful, wide-ranging and volume-laden sound (something akin to what Mingus had in mind when he created small ensembles that managed to achieve the sonic dimensions of a large orchestra) and certainly never in the sense that they evoke past styles. This doesn’t mean that the band don’t swing – it’s just that their swing is strongly enriched with modern jazz and with other genres and styles of the current moment. Swinging (or indeed rocking) is not about searching the rhythmic patterns and infectious melodies for something that can be whistled, as was the case with the old big bands; rather, it resides in the ceaselessly shifting and dynamic structures of multi-layered pieces in which the melodic and rhythmic motifs are free to wander around and bounce off these highly skilled players. It’s in the committed and focused playing that we constantly hear a solid push towards a coherent group sound – that is, one that does not give precedence to certain instruments or structural components. The band never succumbs to ‘art for art’s sake’ or to the base urge to show off. Instead, what strikes us on this record is the ecstasy of group playing, the agile exchange of sax themes and the ceaselessly superb control by a rhythm section that frequently propels itself to the forefront of the band’s sound.

While most of the tracks rest on blistering lines of woodwind, which carry the theme and, with sudden twists, change the dynamics and course of the track (these can often sound hymnic), Oholo! are equally adept at thrilling us with longer sections in which, almost Zen-like, they quest towards a balance between sharp and soft, forceful and subdued. This almost drone-like echoing, where the violin and guitar play key roles, always comes at just the right time, and gives added dynamism and drama to individual tracks and to the album as a whole. This could very well end up being one of the best Slovenian jazz albums (and that’s a surprisingly crowded field). Let’s hope the band becomes something of a pathfinder, in terms of composition and performance, for other ‘big little bands’. Long live the exclamation mark!

Mario Batelić
Translated by Joel Smith

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