J Hacha De Zola, a New Jersey-based carnival barker and blender of genres, oft has proven himself adept at conjuring musical spirits. He does it splendidly on his juicy, new LP — Icaro Nouveau, out March 8 – transcending the lazy Tom Waits comparisons to lead a merry band of pranksters through a smorgasbord of urban-junkyard jazz. And, if you’re left in his wake, well, so be it. Epic and intoxicating, the new record also happens to be one of the more adventurous jazz-rock sets (for lack of broader, or more insane-sounding, monikers) you’ll likely hear for a while.
Music reviewers and self-professed critics have been fond of painting Hacha De Zola, over the course of his previous outings, anyway, as a kind of Bizarro-world caricature, a fable, a possessed jazz musician. There’s some ammunition for that argument, I suppose. (Hacha De Zola often sounds, especially when he wails, as if he’s bordering on the possessed.) But what that over-simplification does is strip Hacha De Zola of the kind of diverse artistic chops it takes to pull off music this colorful. Yes, Icaro is mostly a jazz record, but that is only one of the genres Hacha De Zola molests. He is less a descendant of Screamin Jay Hawkins or Waits (in the mold of Small Change or even Rain Dogs) than he is a kind of sonic chameleon – think Andrew Bird in his Bowl of Fire days, mixed with the manic energy of Mike Patton fronting Mr. Bungle. (Incidentally, “El Chucho (Hooko)” brought to mind Bungle’s kaleidoscopic “Ma Meeshka Mow Skwoz,” if only in its shared descent into madness.) This is not the type of record you play when your mind is compromised – it’ll get the best of you and take you down some dark roads.
Want great songs? This record’s got ‘em – from a calculated-punch-to-the-gut opener (“Anarchy”) to lounge music from Hell (the splendor of “A Fool’s Moon”). In between, there’s Latin-flavored detours (“On A Saturday”), sparsely adorned but nonetheless devilish blues (“Ode to Ralph Carney”) and demented pseudo-folk ballads accented with toy piano (“Super Squeaky”). And, yowza, the aforementioned “El Chucho (Hooko)” sounds like it would fit right into the nightmare carnival that haunted Pinocchio. Nary is a source of musical inebriation not sought out and slapped on display – and to great effect.
Hacha De Zola has been beating this drum for a few years now in Jersey, not showing the kind of grandiose musical progressions of a Waits or a Bird, but touting a similar level of engagement, and always keeping listeners on their toes. Icaro Nouveau is simply the latest installment in this neon-fueled sonic acid trip. It’s a mighty thing to witness and even a mightier one to say you survived. So, do yourself a favor and tune in.