“Blades Plural,” the first full-length album from Portland band Jaw Gems, does not sound like anything else that has been produced by a Maine band this year. Or last year, for that matter. Really, it doesn’t sound like anything since the first Jaw Gems EP, “Take a Sip of My Wish,” which came out two years ago. And even then, “Blades” is a different beast from that one.
It’s not hip hop. They are not a jam band, or a jazz quartet. It’s not electronic music. It’s a special blend of all those things, massaged into being by DJ Moore (drums), Andrew Scherzer (bass), Ahmad Hassan Muhammad (keys) and Tyler Quist (guitar and keys).
“Blades Plural,” available for purchase or streaming on Bandcamp, exists somewhere in the intersection between legendary underground hip hop producer J Dilla, the hybrid jazz-jam-funk sound of Lettuce, and the experimental electronic artist and rapper Flying Lotus. And yet, it’s a little different from all of those; there’s a focused jazz eclecticism and emphasis on keyboard instruments that’s reminiscent of acclaimed pianist Vijay Iyer, and a sonic texture not unlike electronic musician Four Tet or electronic indie bands Atlas Sound or Broadcast.
In all, there are 13 tracks on “Blades Plural,” which swings and sways between lush, moody atmospherics (“Storm,” “Liquid Purchase”), more jazz-inflected songs (“Graymalkin”) and funky crowd-pleasers (“Akai Floss”). There is nary a vocal to be found; just four musicians, who recorded the album in Quist’s family’s pool house in Readfield and mixed it themselves.
“With the first album, we literally went in and sat in a room for two days, and came up with the album,” said Moore. “With this one, we each came in with our own two or three songs, and slowly added to it and switched instruments around until it gelled. It was a much more deliberate process. It was our ‘White Album.’”
Jaw Gems started in 2011, not long after Moore and guitarist/keys player Quist graduated from the jazz program at the University of Maine at Augusta. What started as a more traditional jazz outfit eventually morphed into something much more multi-faceted, and as the final lineup came into being — Moore and Quist, with Scherzer and Muhammad — the band’s experimental streak came to dominate their sound.
“It’s really easy to play very standard issue stuff when you’re playing jazz. That’s really just not what we wanted to do, though. It gets really boring,” said Moore. “We made the decision to move our music forward, sonically. Instead of soloing, we keep adding layers… Instead of playing a traditional jazz song, we’ll play a Bowie song. We try to move people that way.”
A weekly Wednesday night residency at Portland restaurant and bar Local 188 got Jaw Gems their start. Through regular jams that quickly amassed a live following, they began to hone that expansive, eclectic sound. In fact, it was then-bartender Nathaniel Meiklejohn who helped bring the four musicians together in the first place.
“He was like, ‘Hey, guys, put together a band.’ I don’t even think we’d be a band without that,” said Moore. “It one hundred percent was the best thing that could have happened to us. It started off as jazz, and just got weirder and weirder. We kept getting new equipment, kept trying new things. It just keeps evolving.”
“Blades Plural” is out officially this week; the band will play an album release show with Endless Caverns, Altered Gee and Contrapposto at 8 p.m. Friday, May 9 at Bunker Brewing on Anderson Street in Portland.