Graded on a Curve:
Fazer, Plex

Fazer is a Munich-based quintet that specializes in a combination of jazz and post-rock with African polyrhythms. Yes, that means two drummers. The men behind the kits are Simon Popp and Sebastian Wolfgruber, with trumpeter Matthias Lindermayr, guitarist Paul Brändle, and bassist-producer Martin Brugger completing the group. Plex is their latest, an 11-track affair that nicely balances groove complexity with buoyant melodicism. It’s out January 14 on clear or black vinyl, compact disc, and digital through City Slang.

The scoop is that the five members of Fazer all met while attending the Academy for Music and Performing Arts in Munich, a circumstance not the slightest bit surprising, as their collective skill is not only easy to discern but impossible to deny, even as they firmly favor the mingling of rhythmic flow and gestures of beauty over the mere flaunting of chops. Or at least that’s the case on Plex, their third full-length and the first this writer has heard (the prior two are Mara from 2018 and Nadi from the following year).

The impact of jazz on Fazer’s sound is also indisputable, but the same is true for the elements of post-rock in the equation. To elaborate, in the promo text for their latest, the group cites Talk Talk, Can, Fela Kuti, and Rhythm & Sound as influences, though it’s to their credit that none of the acts mentioned are blatantly obvious in the overall scheme as Plex unwinds.

Instead, they forge their own personality as a unit, an approach that leans more toward finesse than grit as the record plays, but with enough twists in the progression to keep matters consistently interesting. Opener “Ghazal” immediately establishes an African-tinged rhythmic bedrock, followed in short order by guitar, first a tight plucked pattern complementing the cyclical drum and bass and then a little post-rock atmospherics.

However, Bill Frisell also came to mind (to pinpoint, there’s a mild similarity to his playing in Naked City’s “The Sicilian Clan”). It’s when the trumpet enters that the mark of the jazz tradition becomes unmistakable, the playing articulate and poised but then quickly undergoing a funhouse mirror-like rippling effect (mingled with a wordless vocal technique) before reverting back just as fast to relative normalcy.

Brugger’s role as producer seemingly includes the brief sonic interjections heard in the opener and throughout the record. These sounds are distinct from the trumpet effects, which also persist across Plex’s landscape, that are apparently handled by Lindermayr himself. Also, please note that “Ghazal” is a model of economy, wrapping up in just a smidge over two minutes, though “Thea” more than doubles that duration and gets funkier in the process (the crisp snare hits are a treat).

“Dezember” is a showcase for Lindermayr’s trumpet, his delivery running from contemplatively pretty to forceful with fleeting bits of agitation and then back again. And all the while, the playing of his bandmates is structurally expressive. For “Grenadier,” the tempo speeds up as the funk returns but without losing a handle on the jazzy expressiveness, and specifically due to Lindermayr, whose playing is likely to please ears attuned to later-period Freddie Hubbard, Donald Byrd, and even Lee Morgan.

Taking a turn for the meditative, “Morning” is one of Plex’s standouts, throwing the spotlight onto Brändle’s lithe but tender fingerpicking as the trumpet brings to mind Kenny Dorham’s work from the early 1960s. This isn’t to suggest that Lindermayr is equal to Dorham as a player, but rather that he’s not only solid across the record but attentive to feeling and melody even as he occasionally indulges in a smoothness (no better way of putting it) that can be traced back to the ’70s productions of Creed Taylor.

It’s worth noting here that early post-rock jazz often harkened back to the then still largely unfashionable genre of Fusion, so that Fazer’s engagement with a certain concurrent mode of late-post-bop accessibility isn’t without precedent. But what’s cool (well, one thing, anyway) is how the aura of pleasantness gets offset with gusts of edgier blowing, as during the jaunty “Prague.” Additionally, when Fazer dives into funkier end of the pool, as they do in the energetic stretching out of “Cuentro” in particular, they expertly avoid the hackneyed.

“Jaculysses” is a highlight for how it thrives on the integrated input of the unit and allows all the components to shine. The rhythms, the bass and the guitar are all individually perceptible as they unify. While this is true of the instrumental spacing across Plex (as producer, Brugger sees clarity as a virtue), it’s especially the case with “Jaculysses,” even as Lindermayr soars in his solo, and again in penultimate track “Cycle,” which offers some of Brändle’s jazziest playing.

In between “Jaculysses” and “Cycle” sits “Fannie’s Theme,” a catchy groove that at under two minutes in length nods toward the pop-jazz tradition rather than fully embodying it (contrasting, many jazz singles were edits of longer album tracks). Plex’s closer “Nago” subtly engages with the dub aesthetic as Lindermayr explores one more melodic motif and Brändle accents with clean lines of his own. To reiterate, a little more rawness in Fazer’s execution would’ve been appreciated, but complaining begins to feel like bellyaching when the playing is this vibrant and the compositions this solid.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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