Guitarist and composer Olivier Benoit was appointed the leader of the Orchestre National de Jazz, January 2014. The post is four years long and is part of French culture that dates to 1986, and was created by the Minister of Culture. Under Benoit’s leadership, the Orchestre National de Jazz, has recorded albums that focus on place, and takes avant- garde approaches to capture the mood and atmosphere of four signature cities. Fourth and last in a series of recordings designed to explore the heart and nuances of European capitals, is “Europa Oslo”. Previous cities covered by Benoit and his ensemble were Rome, Berlin, and Paris. Using poetry, a small orchestral ensemble and influences from progressive rock, Ochrestre National de Jazz led by Olivier Benoit presents an almost surrealist take on jazz.
Probably the most esoteric feature of the album is work by contemporary writer and poet, Hans Petter Blad. With the inclusion of Blad’s work, among other features, Benoit forces a re-defined view of jazz.
There might be some jazz fans who take issue with Benoit’s approach. After all, how much prog rock can be added to a song before it becomes a rock song with jazz underpinnings? In this case, listeners can hear the structure of jazz, the approach and esthetic that is jazz, and the other elements, poetry and progressive rock, are added in as nuances, not the entirety of the specific pieces.
In a career that has lasted almost two decades, Benoit has shown his willingness to experiment, from the number of musicians used, to the approaches he chooses, and the other elements he weaves into the recordings. This current work is no exception. And the result here is smooth. Sometimes, when musicians want to experiment for the sake of being “jazz-like” there is a clumsiness to the project that makes even die-hard fans feel self-conscious. But clumsiness does not happen here.
It is difficult not to think of surrealism when listening to Benoit’s composition for “Oslo”. It might be inaccurate to say that the work is the jazz equivalent of an exquisite corpse, as the various elements do not “startle” as much as they provoke on an intellectual level.
A stand-out track on the album is “Sense That You Breathe.” In it, Baccarini’s narration turns from calming to just this side of scary, as a rock motif kicks in, a motif that might remind some listeners of early Joy Division with its metronome-like drums and overall sparseness. That mood is shattered when the more traditional horns show up. It is full-on jazz fusion at the end, as the instrumentation and vocal seem to vie for sonic space. Listeners’ unsettled feelings have been anticipated, as Baccarini instructs listeners not to panic, and how could we, when we are intrigued?
Other songs of note include, “Ostracism”, “An Immoveable Feast”, and “A Sculpture Out of Tune”. Ranging from deep and moody (“Ostracism”) to bare and pretty, (“An Immoveable Feast”), the songs recorded to explore and celebrate Oslo break down barriers between genres of music, and those between music and other art forms, such as poetry, and ultimately, raises the expectations for jazz.