J.A.S.S. is a multinational quartet that takes its name from the first initials of its four members: John Hollenbeck (drums), Alban Darche (tenor saxophone), Samuel Blaser (trombone), Sébastien Boisseau (bass). Of course, the name also recalls the Original Dixieland Jass Band, the group credited with the very first jazz recording, way back in 1917. The band’s self-titled debut is out now on the Yolk Recordings label, and it’s an impressive example of modern post-bop with just enough historical awareness to keep things grounded.

Fans of Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet know he’s a talented composer as well as a drummer with a unique sound, and both those qualities are on display on JASS. He contributes three compositions (“Jazz Envy,” “Limp Mint” and “No D”) to the album. Blaser, too, is a strong writer; he offers two tunes here—”Recurring Dreams” and “It Began to Get Dark”, while Darche’s written five: “Saj’s,” “Water,” “Driving License,” “Miss Univers 2031,” and “Tricephale.” Boisseau does not write for the group.

Each writer’s voice can be heard early; “Recurring Dreams” opens the disc, and has some of the same dreamlike, exploratory qualities that marked Blaser’s last album as a leader, A Mirror to Machaut (reviewed here in August). Meanwhile, Hollenbeck’s “Jazz Envy,” the third track, has a lurching swing that provides plenty of space for his rattling drums while letting the horns team up for some farting grooves. Between those two pieces, we get Darche’s “Saj’s,” which combines a slow-burning two-horn melody with clattering percussion rhythms that are somewhere between the Art Ensemble of Chicago (tiny bells) and Einstürzende Neubauten (junkyard ringing).

There’s a lot of unison playing and close harmony on JASS, and relatively little obstreperous individual soloing. The bandmembers seem very keen on harmony and collaboration. On “Limp Mint,” atmosphere takes over; the first two minutes of the piece are devoted to long tones and drone, the saxophone and trombone talking at each other like those two aliens from Sesame Street who communicate in whoops and coos. Behind them, there’s a steady rhythm built of flat thumps and shaker, a bowed bass, and what sounds like a harmonium. An actual groove doesn’t develop until the final 90 seconds or so, and even then it sounds like Hollenbeck is feeling his way around the kit in the dark. “Driving License” is even more sparse, beginning with Darche popping his valves more than blowing actual notes, and Blaser’s trombone spurting out two or three shy notes at a time. Again, things perk up around two minutes in, with Darche venturing into the tenor’s lower range and Blaser heading toward hard bop territory. But no matter how metronomic Boisseau’s bass line gets, the drums always keep things just a little too abstract for pure mindless grooving. And then, out of nowhere, it ends with a thrilling unison fanfare. JASS (the group) are all about keeping the listener on his/her toes.

That’s not to suggest that they’re ever deliberately alienating, or that they what they’re playing won’t trigger jazz fans’ pleasure centers. It will. This album is in some ways reminiscent of the work of Mostly Other People Do The Killing, in that it’s compositionally witty, technically adventurous (even virtuosic, without falling prey to the ascetic nerdiness that overwhelms some practitioners of “extended technique”), and simultaneously smart and fun. Aware of all jazz traditions, and respectful of the ones they choose to work within, while simply bypassing those they don’t. This is music that avoids cliché without ever feeling like homework. Highly recommended.

Phil Freeman

Here are live versions of four tracks, from April 2012:

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