What’s really new in improvisational music? Where else can innovation go? Mn’JAM Experiment — singer Melissa Oliveira and her visual/electronics/turntablist partner JAM — are daring to mix high-tech audio-with-video media in live performance, and as they say, it’s an experiment, in a direction that live performance seems sure to go.
Grounded in jazz fundamentals (call and response, in-the-moment interactions, individualized expression, rhythmic drive, repertoire; she went to Berklee, he to New England Conservatory) they use screens, loops, layers, cut-ups, self-crafted as well as appropriated items, abstraction, distortion and familiar themes — and they’ve made it all portable, so they tour and teach worldwide, recently out of Melbourne.
Their performance last week Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music proved Mn’JAM’s essential ingredients of multi-track looping and rapid-fire yet intentional manipulations of images that are wedded to percussive, sometimes pitched, also malleable sounds can be rapidly understood, enjoyed and adopted by young players. Members of the School’s Teen Collective had a two-day workshop with Mn’JAM, then performed well, I’ll say rockin’, at the School’s estimably international Wednesday night community-donation series (which is funded in part by the European Union). These teens, 13, 14 and 15, added their own solo and backup voices, electric guitar, bass, keyboards and traps parts to the act — as Mn’JAM has on their 2017 DVD/CD album Live With A Boom (still, much of that album’s musical material is significantly more complex than what these forces tried).
While Melissa records stacks of vocal loops cleverly metered for polyrhythmic effects, over which she sings and which she can distort or add to using a Korg Kaossilator, JAM triggers images ranging from GIFs, pictograms, geometric figures to accompany, complement, lead (or ignore) her. He, too, manipulates source material, starting with a bank of let’s call them visual-sonic gestures, typically totaling 60 — consider bank a keyboard, different for each of the duo’s tracks (which they compose separately but collaboratively), which he can change with color, overlays, stretching/mirroring/dividing/warping functions by hand-drumming and table-spinning. The visual display can be — is — quirky, surreal, hypnotic, distracting, sometimes simultaneously. (They’re into moire patterns.) Melissa, sings affectingly in Portuguese, and rather more cooly in English, but still slices, dices and swirls her phrases, isolating key elements of “Body and Soul,” for instance, or offering a hot version of Bill Withers’ “Use Me.”
In the training sessions (I’ve attended two Mn’JAM conducted for adults), the two musical artists quite openly discuss and demonstrate their equipment and techniques, designed and devised to offer vast opportunities for creative composition, spontaneous variation and sensory overload, including considerations of what can be carried, used to greatest affect, replaced/repaired/modified on short notice. Having formerly been based in Amsterdam, Oliviera (she says she’s half-Portuguese, half-Australian) and JAM (persistently “all Portuguese”) have done a TedX SPJain Sydney, Talk, performed at the 2017 Cairo Jazz Festival and in India, in 2016 traveled extensively in China, Japan, Macau and Hong Kong.
They acknowledge a couple of other ensembles are trying to unite image and audio, but intend their own processes of combination to more immediate, organic and as much as possible analog — they abjure using a click track to sync music and image — and identify themselves, in the best sense, with jazz. So they keep experimenting, and explaining what they’re up to with weekly YouTube clips. Pretty cool.