December 2004 By Nate Chinen
In the Spirit
"With a palm full of stars," Bjork muses on her latest album, Medulla, "I shake them like dice and throw them on the table...repeatedly, repeatedly, until the desired constellation appears." Diffusing grandeur with the commonplace, outlasting chance through repetition, it's an image that handily illustrates the equipoise and mystery of her most beguiling work. The finishing touch of remorse-"How am I going to make it right?" she laments in the chorus-propels this performance into the realm of the extraordinary, a place shared by Billie Holiday, Joao Gilberto and Nina Simone. Bjork is not a jazz singer even by the term's most porous allowances, but her music often taps into the kind of magic I associate with jazz of the highest order.
Bjork's jazz affinities predate her superstardom. In 1990, when she was still known as Bjork Gu?mundsdottir of Iceland's art-rock super-group the Sugarcubes, she branched out with Gling-Glo, a winsome small-group jazz album in her native tongue. To hear it today is to marvel at the flexibility of an already distinctive style: With expert backing by a bebop-leaning Gudmundar Ingolfssonar Trio, the singer interprets such Icelandic standards as the lite-samba "Litli Tonlistarma?urinn," her phrasing as surefooted and nuanced as any jazz crier, and her melodic embellishments more striking than most. And when these performances slip into a disconcerting otherness, it's a matter of culture rather than intent. I believe Bjork takes jazz seriously; it's just that she favors a global strain of jazz utterly untroubled by the blues.
It's also due, no doubt, to uncommon influences. Bjork has professed an abiding fondness for the music of parodist Spike Jones, whose delirious swing-honed big band was a staple of radio and television comedy in the '40s and '50s. Jones and his City Slickers delivered a rowdy spectacle of sound; it's easy to imagine what they would have done with the car parts, bottles and cutlery catalogued in "Hyper-Ballad," an anthem from Bjork's second solo effort. That album, Post, also offered the vintage Betty Hutton vehicle "It's Oh So Quiet"-which, in Bjork's rendition, oscillates between music-box murmurings and yowling shout choruses. The music video, directed by the aptly stage-named Spike Jonze, depicted Technicolor dance routines in and around an automotive garage; it ultimately landed Bjork the lead in Lars von Trier's harrowing film Dancer in the Dark, for which she won a 2000 Best Actress award at Cannes. In both the film and the video, as in much of her musical oeuvre, Bjork's identity is shaped by tensions: between anarchy and order, between the fantastical and the prosaic, between the sacred and the profane.
Inspired as much by these tensions as by the pure possibility of her music, a number of jazz musicians have brought Bjork into their repertoires. Jason Moran's second Blue Note album, Facing Left, transposed "Joga" into the language of an acoustic piano trio, losing none of the song's ruminative weight or depth. Dave Douglas spirited "Unison" to the bandstand on The Infinite (Bluebird), assigning its melody to his muted trumpet and Chris Potter's bass clarinet. On a new live album, Detained at the Blue Note (Half Note), Jeff "Tain" Watts and crew imaginatively recast the plaintive "107 Steps" into a head-wagging opener with an Afro-Cuban tinge. And these are just a few prominent examples of a phenomenon that shows no sign of subsiding. Just this year, a New York alto saxophonist and pianist named Travis Sullivan introduced his Bjorkestra, a big band playing arrangements of the Icelander's music. (I haven't heard it yet, but reports from the field have been promising.)
Bjork herself has come a long way from the major-key ditties of Gling-Glo. Her 2001 album Vespertine is a masterwork, a marvel of intimate gestures and interior spaces; its closest emotional cousins in my jazz collection might be Sarah Vaughan's After Hours (Roulette), Marilyn Crispell's Amaryllis (ECM) and Luciana Souza's Brazilian Duos (Sunnyside). What sets it apart even from these gems is its sonic landscape. Bjork, more than any jazz musician, manages to locate the organic within the synthetic. As her music has moved ever closer to digital exactitude, it has also pushed deeper into the unknown, toward the essence of what Whitney Balliett once called the sound of surprise.
That essence animates Medulla, an album consisting almost entirely of sounds produced by the human voice. It's Bjork's paean to the primordial, carved out of volcanic barrens; at this summer's Olympic Games, she performed "Oceania," an appraisal of humankind from the godlike perspective of the sea. Medulla's cast of characters is expansive, including art-rock icon Robert Wyatt, metal growler Mike Patton, several vocal percussionists, an Inuit throat-singer and an Icelandic choir. The results range from cathedral cadences ("Vokuro") to sublingual utterances ("Ancestors"), underscoring Bjork's abiding fascination with spiritualism and ritual.
True, there's less of a jazz presence here than there was in Bjork's music of a decade ago-when her album Debut featured the harp-and-vocal caress of "Like Someone in Love" and her MTV Unplugged performance featured saxophonists Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake. But the tireless sense of discovery at the heart of her work still bears more in common with jazz than with any kind of pop. Jazz folk who embrace her music feel a spiritual kinship with that expression-what Bjork herself recently termed "the freedom we are so hard seeking."
Originally published in December 2004