Review: Nicolas Jaar makes electronica musical at the Echoplex
There was a lot to like in the young electronica artist Nicolas Jaar's hype-codifying, sold-out set at the Echoplex on Monday night. The languorous pacing, the just-danceable tides of bass and kick drum, the digital hiss that made his samples feel as if they were being sauteed -- all were real pleasures.
But maybe the best part was something more fundamental. It was the way he approached the perennial problems of computer-based dance music: how to make it interesting to watch and how to perform it like a musician.
Each of those problems has its own solution. For artists whose sets are largely confined to "the box" (or laptop), it's easy to slap up a giant LED screen and some powerful lighting rigs. That's the time-tested staple for commanding festival crowds, and artists such as Deadmau5, Rusko and L.A. hero Nosaj Thing have done really interesting work in making their sets mixed-media experiences. And because onstage electronics are often opaque as to which device is making which sound, it's pretty easy for dance bands playing to an in-ear metronome and MIDI clock to add drums, guitars and synths while keeping the backing tracks discrete.
Jaar didn't do either of those things. His three-piece ensemble -- a guitarist, a saxophonist and Jaar himself behind a bank of gadgetry -- looked like a minimalist rock outfit, all shrouded in blue and red light and nodding along to the tracks' ebb and flow. But the long-form instrumental jams and gentle tweaks of tracks from his solo debut, "Space Is Only Noise," and two full-posse mixtapes (or mix-Prisms) from his label Clown & Sunset underlined that this was every bit live. It was the most convincingly musical set of electronica I'd seen since Flying Lotus corralled his own Mothership of great players at the same venue two years ago.
Jaar gets a lot of jazz references in reviews, which aren't really warranted save for the sly Ethiopiques-inspired saxophones that add a lost-to-time sadness to his tracks. But Monday night's set did feel like a jazz-derived melding of wonkish chops and pure physicality. One couldn't see which program Jaar used to control his samples, but it didn't feel as though much of anything had been pre-programmed or played to a click track.
The threesome riffed off each other like a seasoned trio. The guitarist upped stakes with echo-laced funk licks, and the saxophonist cooled the mood with long, wan single notes, while Jaar cued bits of filleted ambiance and percussive patter into coherent songs. It wasn't a laptop set repurposed for a live performance, and it wasn't a sonically limited live band; it was something else, with a ton of genre-shattering promise.
Jaar seems to have an allergy to the obvious bass-drop moments that so dominate today's dance music, and the band played off that hesitation perfectly. When he did get around to a four-on-the-floor, it felt as good and tangible as a first kiss returned.
-- August Brown
Photo: Nicolas Jaar, courtesy Infamous PR