Ninja warriors and Episkopat (Polish for episcopate) have little in common apart from a bit of mysticism and the black color associated with both. Ninja Episkopat may even sound like the title of one of those crazy animes where extremes collide for a shock value or like the name of a punk rock band spreading an anti-clerical message, but no second-guess that might come into mind before listening to the record will turn out to be correct.
Ninja Episkopat’s line-up suggests that we will hear jazz in some form. Guitarist Mojżesz Tworzydło, saxophonist Alex Clov, and drummer Patrycja Wybrańczyk (also known from the Polish-Norwegian PESH), although still in their 20s, have marked their presence on the European improvised scene and have become known as instrumentalists who avoid simple solutions. That’s why the overt similarity of the title of the release’s opening track, “Vulgar Display of Abuse”, to Pantera’s “Vulgar Display of Power” cannot be considered coincidental, but don’t expect thrash metal with a strong groove.
Still, the broken bass guitar rhythm, the rumble of tom drums, industrial-like electronic add-ons, and a distorted voice gravitate towards rock sound and are enriched with simple saxophone parts based on just three notes. Sometimes, the outcome resembles jazz musicians playing industrial rock from the second half of the 1990s (similar to Filter or Stabbing Westward). Sometimes, what comes out of these experiments is more like a rock band facing the new fusion ideas developed by Zur Schönen Aussicht, Soccer96, and similar modern bands that adopt heavy electronics. Identifying the exact genre affiliation is even more difficult because of the sudden drop in dynamics in the middle of the song and the replacement of acoustic instruments with an ambient landscape for almost two minutes.
There are many more surprises in Ninja Episkopat’s All Thoughts Are Bad Thoughts. The train of thought often reaches the point when you can almost name what you hear, but after a moment of clarity, it instantly reverses and takes another unknown direction. Sometimes hints are hidden in the voice – when sampled Charles Manson adds a spookiness to “Cielo Overdrive”, or when the angry rap of Brooklyn’s Skech185 fights with a gentle, slow background in the first half of “Middle Class Magic”. Other times, they bury the clues in the compositional decisions, such as the complete immersion in the ambient in allowing one to catch a breath in “Restless Ruminations” halfway through the album; the title track constructed on a club beat (raising a question of media-fueled paranoia and how to defend against it by escaping into the world of fantasy in the lyrics); the drum and bass rhythm in “The More Beautiful Things” or the reflective finale in “Most Were Silent”, which reminds that the threat of nuclear destruction remains very real.
The longer you listen to the ideas of Ninja Episkopat, the less they resemble a postmodern Frankenstein’s monster stitched together from inspirations, sentiments, and various genre clichés, the reproduction of which is supposed to be justified by meta-narration and self-awareness. It’s not a hyperpop (or viral jazz) kaleidoscope in which the past arranges itself into the new future. Instead of making painstaking attempts to distill the substances mixed with the band’s jazz background and comparing it with one of the archaic definitions (such as the one coined by Wynton Marsalis, according to whom there is no jazz without improvisation, swing, and blues), it makes more sense to agree that these musicians follow the path of daredevils who do not allow music to be once and for all shaped in a specific form. Even the most technically advanced solo is not enough when there’s no difference from an aesthetic standpoint between what many musicians play today and what was played in the late 1950s by the precursors of free jazz. Honest development comes from exploring more than just the instrument’s capabilities. It’s equally important to look outside the most familiar world of musical grammar.
The name of the Polish trio may unintentionally suggest perceiving jazz that way. In the minds of the masses, ninjas are assassins who have mastered the art of camouflage and killing in dark, remote places. Still, the historical sources won’t confirm that. Ninja tasks were primarily espionage and gathering information. Popular culture has reshaped the image of the ninja, carved it into a form that fits into a plastic package and is easy to sell, which also happened to jazz – it remained trapped in the philharmonic limbo for decades. Even if fewer musicians want to play the standards in arrangements that don’t require any creative effort, the ideas of Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor began to be treated not as a call to look for something new but as an aesthetic determinant copied by opportunists or in best case scenario by students who are not able to break free from what they have learned at the conservatory. As a result, a massive wave of generic “smooth-free jazz” rose but had nothing to do with actual freedom. It just creates an illusion of music with high intellectual and artistic values.
Ninja Episkopat’s debut album is not the beginning of a revolution. The British scene has been known for a changing direction towards expanding the meaning of jazz for at least 15 years. The jazz variation of the French touch enjoys a growing interest, and the label “Alternative Jazz”, a new Grammy Awards category, is becoming more and more popular and wide thanks to fascinating, diverse representation. All Thoughts Are Bad Thoughts demonstrates the other, non-imitative variation of what contemporary jazz can be. It shows how free improvisation can cooperate with dance rhythm, how an electronic beat can enhance the acoustic one, and how giving up the need to raise the bar in the race of more and more complex instrumental show-offs in favor of unusual, long-lasting melodies increases the record’s vitality and strengthens the need for listening to it repeatedly.
Ninja Episkopat (alongside the French Emile Londonien, the Belgian Dishwasher, or the British Yoni Mayraz, but in its way) is emerging as one of the most exciting European new fusion projects of the young generation, which – whether the more conservative jazz listeners likes it or not – in the coming years will shape the image of this music. Today, this sound is already infiltrating numerous playlists and music festivals – unseen, like masked shinobi – to which jazz was not allowed not long ago. Whether it will develop into a diversified movement that refuses pigeonholing remains to be seen.
Jarosław Kowal is editor-in-chief of Soundrive, one of Poland’s most opinion-forming music websites, curator of the Jazz Jantar and New Music Days festivals, co-founder of indie cassette tapes label Iskra, and music journalist since 2006.