by Ian Mann
March 06, 2017
Is it jazz, is it rock? Whatever you choose to call it this is exciting, interesting music with an engaging and convincing blend of energy and intelligence.
(Ninety and Nine Records)
Eyot is the band name of the quartet from the city of Nis in Serbia led by the pianist Dejan Ilijic. The band was formed in 2008 by Ilijic, bassist Marko Stojiljkovic and guitarist Sladjan Milenovic with drummer Milos Vojvodic joining the group a little later.
“Innate” is their fourth album and follows in the steps of “Horizon” (2010), “Drifters” (2013) and “Similarity” (2014).
“Similarity” was actually recorded in England at the Bristol studio of Get The Blessing and former Portishead bassist Jim Barr, who also acted as producer. The closing track, aptly titled “The Blessing”, featured guest appearances from GTB’s Pete Judge (trumpet) and Jake McMurchie (saxophone).
The Get The Blessing connection came about when the two bands met at the Nisville Festival, one of the biggest jazz festivals in Eastern Europe which is held in Eyot’s home city. It was the similarities between the two bands that helped to inspire the album title, a shared attitude of irreverence and a willingness to embrace influences from outside the jazz tradition. Eyot mention not only the inspiration of rock acts such as Pink Floyd, Nirvana and Radiohead but also the combined influences of Eastern European classical composers and traditional Balkan music. I rather enjoyed “Similarity” and my review of that album can be found here;
Besides their British connections Eyot also have strong links with the USA and are signed to the New York based label Ninety and Nine Records. The band’s live performances have earned them the epithet “the Nirvana of Jazz” and the title is more than just hyperbole. “Innate” was recorded at Electrical Audio Studio in Chicago by the legendary sound engineer and producer Steve Albini, famous for his work with Nirvana, Pixies, PJ Harvey, Mogwai and others.
Not surprisingly this has resulted in Eyot’s hardest hitting album to date. Rock rhythms predominate and jazz purists may not find “Innate” to their taste but adventurous listeners from both sides of the jazz and rock divide should find much to enjoy in Eyot’s music. Ilijic’s use of acoustic piano contrasts well with Milenovic’s heavily amplified guitar and Vojvodic’s powerful, rock influenced drumming. The mix of acoustic and electric sounds and non jazz elements ranging from rock to classical to folk sometimes reminds me of the hugely popular and influential E.S.T. (themselves almost certainly a source of inspiration for Eyot) and fans of that band should find plenty to appreciate in Eyot’s sound.
As with E.S.T. the group’s pianist is the principal writer and the seven original pieces to be heard on “Innate” are credited to Dejan Ilijic & EYOT, implying a democratic and improvisatory approach to the final arrangements. The group’s press release describes the new album thus;
“Innate has seven compositions of eclectic genres, putting jazz, rock, ambient, punk, classical and conceptual music into one and leaning on traditional music from the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Five pieces are in odd time signatures, thus the listener can hear traditional scales and harmonies all over the album. It is a perfect mix of old and new, east and west, something which has been one of EYOT’s signatures from the moment they arrived on the scene in 2008”.
The press release also offers insights into the inspirations behind the individual pieces. The title of the opening “Veer” is an elaborate play on words simultaneously referring to the English definition of “change of direction”, its Serbian homonym “vir”, meaning “whirl”, and the Serbian archaeological site Lepenski Vir, one of the oldest traces of human settlement in the world dating back to 5300 BC. The music is similarly multi-faceted beginning relatively gently with the sound of acoustic piano and shadowing drums. But the music quickly gathers momentum with the introduction of Milenovic’s malevolent guitar chording and the growing power and insistence of Vojvodic’s drumming. But there are still plenty of the kinds of twists and turns suggested by the title with stylistic and dynamic contrasts keeping both band and listeners on their toes. Ilijic’s acoustic piano helps to keep the sound rooted in jazz, Milenovic’s guitar brings a distinctive indie rock identity.
The title of “Helm” also has a double meaning, besides the familiar English language definition it’s also an old Slavic word meaning “Balkan”. It’s introduced by Vojvodic who sets up an insistent odd meter drum groove around which dovetail piano, guitar and Stojiljkovic’s high register melodic bass. The interlocking themes eventually coalesce as the music develops a seemingly unstoppable momentum, eventually peaking prior to an unexpectedly gentle and lyrical coda.
“Mountain” has a more straightforward title – relatively – with the band declaring; “Mountain stands for an aim; to climb to a mountain’s top has been a goal of countless people, both literally and metaphorically. We all have a mountain to climb”. Well that’s that settled then, at least it’s not about Leslie West. Ilijic introduces the piece with an extended passage unaccompanied acoustic piano and remains a central figure throughout as he exchanges melodic ideas with guitar and bass. At times the music surges with dynamic, rock influenced drumming and soaring, stratospheric guitar but in the main the quartet sidestep the obvious trajectories and power ballad clichés that the title might suggest via their unpredictable changes in dynamics. The summit is finally reached with a second passage of solo piano.
“Perun” is the old Slavic god of thunder, a Balkan counterpart to Zeus, Jupiter and Thor. Here we have a more obvious interpretation with overdriven guitar and a volcanic drum feature from Vojvodic. But there’s plenty of subtlety too with darting melodic motifs and lively rhythms simulating a pagan dance. The piece resolves itself with a spacey, more impressionistic passage as the group depict Perun’s disappearance into “ a mystic remote place…as an ancient ritual”.
“Canon of Insolation” is named in honour of the Serbian scientist Mlutin Milankovic, author of “Canon of Insolation and the Ice-Age Problem”, an interdisciplinary work linking the fields of mathematics, astronomy, geophysics and geology. Following on from “Perun” the other worldly intro gives way to a typically complex lattice of interlocking melodies and rhythms, anchored by Vojvodic’s drums and with Stojiljkovic’s bass occasionally taking the lead. Like E.S.T. Eyot are masters at utilising repeated motifs to generate and release tension and they do this particularly skilfully here, the music peaking before the increasingly familiar subdued coda.
The title “Ramonda Serbica” refers to the Serbian “Phoenix” flower, a plant that can survive the most extreme drought conditions. However in a typical piece of Eyot wordplay it also references the flower of Serbian and other youth lost in the First World War, the composition having been written to commemorate the centenary of that conflict. Contained within the usual heady mix of melody and rhythm there is a particularly poignant slower episode featuring Ilijic on piano improvising thoughtfully around the melody of “Tamo daleko”, a traditional Serbian folk song written a hundred years ago in response to the tragic events of the time.
The album closes with the title track, the most powerful and obviously rock influenced tune on the album. Again there’s a play on words in the title, the Serbian word “Inat” meaning “in spite of”. Thus this blistering track represents something of a hymn to the underdog who succeeds against the odds thanks to the combination of natural ability and sheer bloody mindedness. In their own words the band give it “120%” with Ilijic’s piano the melodic counter to the loud, fuzzed up bass, and pummelling drums as Milenovic’s guitar lines alternate between melody and dissonance. The climax of the piece is positively thunderous, definitely something that fans of Albini’s old associates Nirvana or the Pixies might relate too.
Is it jazz, is it rock? Personally I don’t really care, for me it’s just high quality instrumental music. I first came to jazz from rock and I can very much relate to what Eyot are doing. Whatever you choose to call it this is exciting, interesting music with an engaging and convincing blend of energy and intelligence.
I enjoyed “Similarities” but if anything “Innate” is even better. Recorded by the core quartet (the previous album included contributions by guest musicians) the sound this time round is harder and more tightly focussed, something doubtless encouraged by the presence of Albini at the mixing desk. I also like the fiercely patriotic inspirations behind their tunes, Eyot’s music may be influenced by the US and the rest of Europe but they remain reassuringly proud of their Serbian roots.
Eyot’s music may combine strong grooves, catchy melodies and sheer rock power but there’s a great deal of subtlety and complexity about Ilijic’s writing that draws on the worlds of both jazz and prog rock as well as the more publicised indie inspirations. Their music is also likely to appeal to fans of British “punk jazz” acts such as Get The Blessing, Neil Cowley, GoGo Penguin, Portico Quartet, Polar Bear, Led Bib etc. Like many of these acts I’d also wager that they are also a highly exciting live act, capable of delivering their music convincingly in either a jazz or a rock environment. I don’t know if they’ve ever performed live in Britain. I’d love to see these guys visit the UK.
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