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Friday, March 22, 2013

The accidental jazz of German indie-rock singer Monika Roscher

Posted By on 03.22.13 at 02:00 PM

Monika Roscher
  • Juan Martin Koch
  • Monika Roscher
I don't think I've ever encountered a jazz big band led by a masked woman with an electric guitar strapped around her neck, but that was before I heard the Monika Roscher Big Band. On the group's recent debut album, Failure in Wonderland (Enja), the 29-year-old composer, singer, guitarist, and arranger from a small village in Bavaria fearlessly collides disparate musical worlds with seemingly little regard to how they mesh. Her melodies and singing, to say nothing of the occasional skronking guitar solo, belong to the indie-rock world, but her 18-piece band usually sounds like a typical university big band—precise, blocky, and more than a little bit square.

After listening to the record several times I still don't know if I like it, and considering how much the thick brass blasts annoy me, I have my doubts that it's something I'll keep returning to. Still, it is like nothing I've heard before. Roscher first put the band together for her final grad-school project at the Munich Conservatory, and somehow convinced the fellow students who worked with her to form a full-time project. Given the economic difficulties of corralling that many musicians on a consistent basis—especially when the players are unknown, the music is odd, and the repertoire original—it's an accomplishment in itself that she's been able to keep this all together. In addition to leading and writing for the group, she handles its business too. As she said in an interview on the blog Bushwah last year, "Financially, touring with a big band is hardly manageable. I want to make sure that we somehow get to zero at the end financially — if I pay a bit extra, it's also ok. I hope we play some festivals next year ... I realize how really difficult it is for a big band, it's also difficult to find a booking agency that wants to book a Big Band! I realize more and more what people mean when they say, 'you really saddled yourself with this Big Band'!"

In that same interview Roscher is asked about her influences, and she mentions the Mars Volta, Zs, John Zorn, and Jeff Beck, and coupled with her admission earlier in the piece that she only became familiar with the music of Carla Bley and Charles Mingus recently, it's clear that the jazz element in her music is mostly accidental. In fact, it rarely swings, and there isn't a whole of improvisation, although the arrangements are impressive harmonically. Yet Roscher seems to possess loads of charisma and so much nonchalant ambition I've found it hard to write off the album as some kind of bizarre anomalous collision. I can't image that we'll ever get to see the full-strength version of this project on these shores, but we can listen to the record. Below you can check out her piece "Future3," which includes her most extroverted guitar solo on the album


Today's playlist:

Shirley Brown, Woman to Woman (Stax)
Fennesz & Sakamoto, Flumina (Touch)
Eric Hofbauer and the Infrared Band, Level (Creative Nation Music)
Ceremony, Zoo (Matador)
Sonny Boy Williamson, The Real Folk Blues/More Real Folk Blues (MCA/Chess)

Peter Margasak writes about jazz every Friday.

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