Adult Jazz’s debut album, Gist Is ,begins with a hum — literally. The buildup to the seven-minute-plus “Hum” is a low, slow drone (akin to a buzz) before frontman Harry Burgess’ oddly punctuated phrasing comes into play. Even then, his voice is met with multitudes of pitch-shifted, Auto-Tuned harmonies that flash the chanting out of the land of monks and into 2014’s very real present. Gist Is feels like a record that is trying very hard to be modern. The clever swatches of brass that swoop in and out of tracks like “Am Gone” and “Idiot Mantra” are nestled alongside the nonsense words of what could only be properly called Burgess scatting. It’s jazz, but in the present, get it? But while the Leeds four-piece aims for the stateliness of maturity, they often end up right where they started — in an adolescent, jumbled hum.
Perhaps the largest problem with the band’s sound is how directly it corresponds with that of their peers, the Chicago-based Maps & Atlases. I found myself again and again fascinated and drawn in by songs on Gist Is, but in the back of my mind, the easy counterparts in style, rhythm, and even vocals emerged. Whether it was conscious or not, it’s still interesting to hear musicians from entirely different parts of the world come to these same themes. But sometimes the remarkable similarities come off as lifted from Maps & Atlases, who are a decade senior to Adult Jazz.
These are songs that go in sputters, stops, and starts instead of reliable cyclical structures, riffing off the jazz influences that they claim alongside prog, dream pop, and even folky elements. All of these are whirled through the sieve of the present, guitar solos mishmashed and growling, as at the end of “Springful”, an otherwise joyful tune. It’s when the band achieves a shuffling sort of delicacy that they’re most powerful, like on standout “Donne Tongue”. This track alone feels a cut above, whereas the nearly 10-minute “Spook” loses interest in itself, and the title of “Be a Girl” doesn’t belie a more thoughtful song.
Donne isn’t the only literary allusion in the track listings, as album closer “Bonedigger” can’t help but recall Shakespeare’s wisely weird Gravedigger. This track leans the most toward folksiness at the beginning, before breaking into fits that obliterate the idea of a melody. It feels like an apt representation for an album stuffed to the brim full of musical ideas that react, explode, and fizz without ever achieving an actual chemical reaction. Unfortunately, it seems the desire to be wild and innovative eclipsed the will to create songs that hold together. After listening to this record several times, I have two suggestions for a new listener: do hear “Donne Tongue”, but more importantly, read some Donne. Oh, and listen to Maps & Atlases. They did this 10 years ago.
Essential Track: “Donne Tongue”