When Babylon Berlin first premiered in 2017 on German television network Sky TV, few if any would have thought it would become an international hit. More than four years after its premiere in its home nation though, it has gone on to become a hit among American audiences on Netflix, with all three of its current seasons streaming through that service. The series has been certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes with a score of 97 percent. A big part of the period noir series’ success is its “house band,” the Moka Efti Orchestra. The 14-piece organization has proven to be such a key part of the series’ success that it has gone from being just a collective element for the series to being a real recording and performing entity. That just goes to show the collective’s popularity. That popularity is likely to continue its growth when the organization releases its debut album, Erstausgabe Friday through Six Degrees Records. Roughly translated, the title means “First Edition,” which is fitting, considering again, this is the group’s first full outing. The 13-song offering is a presentation that will appeal equally to fans of Babylon Berlin and jazz fans. That is due in part to the collection’s featured songs. They will be discussed shortly. The performances of said songs add their own touch to the presentation and will be discussed a little later. The record’s sequencing rounds out the album’s most important elements and will also be discussed later. Each item noted here is important in its own way to the album’s presentation. All things considered, they make the album overall a surprisingly enjoyable new addition to this year’s field of new jazz albums.
Moka Efti Orchestra’s debut album Erstausgabe is a strong first outing for the band, which started out as just a fictional collective that is part of a television series. The 51-minute record helps the group take a big step from the screen to the real musical universe in part through its featured songs. Some of the songs featured in the album are works that the band performed on Babylon Berlin while others are new, original compositions. What’s more, some of the songs are instrumentals while others feature lyrics. Some of those lyrical presentations are performed in German while others are presented in English. Even more important to note is the diversity in the stylistic approach to the songs. The whole thing opens with a composition in ‘Hollaender Mash Up’ that is one part 1920s swing and one part 1960s cool jazz. That sounds like an odd combination, but it works. On the other hand, a composition, such as Rainbow is a more modern style work that lends itself to comparison to works composed by Harry Connick Jr. and his big band. On yet another hand, ‘Gloomy Sunday,’ the album’s penultimate song, is a deeply moving blues style work that take audiences way back in time to the smoky night clubs of the 1920s and 30s with its controlled piano line, string arrangement and vocals. It is one more example of that aforementioned stylistic diversity presented throughout this album, and it feels so real thanks to that real performance. Speaking of performances, they will be discussed shortly. Getting back to the subject at hand, the noted diversity in the arrangements’ stylistic approaches and sounds works with the diversity in the new, original tunes and songs composed for the series, and even the diversity in the instrumental and vocal performances to make the songs in whole, a strong, powerful foundation for Erstausgabe. Building on that foundation and strengthening it is the band’s performances of the songs.
The performances in question are important to examine because of the impact that they have on the album’s general effect. One of those performances – that of ‘Gloomy Sunday’ – has already been noted. Singer Severija Janusauskaite’s smoky vocals and the gypsy style violin line pairs with the simple yet so rich piano performance, to make this performance so immersive. The overall performance will keep listeners fully engaged and entertained. The rest of the orchestra gets its chance to shine as the song progresses, with full horn and percussion ensemble joining. The addition of those elements shows the arrangement’s evolution and makes the song even more immersive, even as short as it is. The whole of the two “movements” makes the performance in whole so enjoyable and just one example of what makes the album’s performances notable. On a completely opposite end of things, the performance presented in the instrumental track ‘Frenzy’ does its own share to show the importance of the group’s performances.
‘Frenzy’ clocks in at two minutes, 15 seconds. That brief run time is fully utilized from start to end complete with the…well….frenetic yet controlled drumming and percussion from Larry Mullins and Tobias Backhaus, and equally energetic performance on clarinet from Gegoire Peters. The strings and horns, which serve as support, are just as enjoyable to hear as they add their own flourishes to the whole. All things considered here, the orchestra’s performance proves just as engaging and entertaining as its performance of ‘Gloomy Sunday.’ To that end, it is yet another example of what makes the group’s performances in whole important to the record’s presentation. The band’s performance of ‘Zu Asche, Zu Staub’ (‘To Ashes, To Dust’) is yet another example of what makes the band’s performances here so important.
The band’s performance of ‘Zu Asche, Zu Staub’ is a notable example of the overall importance of the group’s performance because the song itself is so much unlike anything else featured in the album. It is another multi-part composition whose first movement is more modern classical than jazz. The real jazz element comes into play in its second movement. The drum solo that opens the movement lends itself to the work of the likes of Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. The vintage 1960s style work that rises from here, complete with Janusauskaite’s powerhouse vocal performance makes for such a wonderful growth from the song’s first movement. When it and the song’s first movement come together, the whole presents a performance that is just as engaging and entertaining as any of the other performances featured here. Keeping those other performances in mind, when they are considered with this one, the whole makes clear why the performances are so important to the album’s presentation. They enrich the listening experience just as much as the variety of arrangements that make up the album. As much as the performances of the album’s featured arrangements do to make the album so appealing, they are just one more portion of what makes the album successful. The album’s sequencing rounds out its most important elements.
The sequencing of Erstausgabe is important to examine because of its impact on the album’s general effect. Listeners will not a clear change of style and energies throughout the record, showing unquestionably that some thought went into the album’s sequencing. The album’s first trio of songs is mostly up-tempo even as their styles change from one to the next. From there, the sequencing pulls things back in ‘Snake – Together Alone’ and ‘Crocodile Blues’ before picking right back up in ‘Frenzy’ and ‘Lange Beene.’ ‘Zu Asce, Zu Staub’ serves as a real break point, changing the album’s mood completely through its unique arrangement and energy. From there, the energy rises again in ‘Rainbow’ and “Wannasee Weise’ before easing off once again in the much more laid back ‘Die Nacht.’
‘Gloomy Sunday’ pulls the record’s energy back once more before the band closes out the album on a high note in ‘Tschuldigensemal.’ Looking back through all of this, it is clear, again, how much time and thought went into the sequencing. The result of that time and thought results in an album here that impresses just as much through its general effect as its content. When everything is considered together, the bigger picture makes the album a unique addition to this year’s field of new jazz albums that every jazz fan will agree holds its own against any release from the band’s American counterparts.
Moka Efti Orchestra’s debut album Erstausgabe is a unique presentation that makes quite the name for itself among this year’s field of new jazz offerings. That is due in part to its featured musical arrangements. The arrangements are diverse in their styles, ranging from ragtime, to klezmer, to even some classical jazz. That diversity in itself guarantees listeners’ engagement and entertainment. The performances of the featured songs build on the foundation formed by the arrangements, adding even more enjoyment. That is due to the fact that the performances are themselves so rich. They fully immerse listeners in the songs. The sequencing of the songs puts the final touch to the album. That is because of the impact that it has on the album’s general effect. It ensures the album’s energy and styles avoid any redundancy while also providing just as much enjoyment through the band’s performances. Each item noted here clearly has its own impact on this album’s presentation and enjoyment. All things considered, the album stands out and holds its own among this year’s field of new jazz albums. Erstausgabe is scheduled for release Friday through Six Degrees Records. More information on the album is available along with all of Moka Efti Orchestra’s latest news at https://www.facebook.com/mokaeftiorchestra.
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