Powerful, dynamic and highly energetic; Mount Kujo is a Melbourne based, internationally formed act blending Funk and Jazz influenced by Latin and Afro-beat. A collective of jazz musicians from all around the world deeply rooted in Melbourne’s music scene, playing original arrangements rich of colourful harmonic changes, syncopated rhythms with explosive horn sections and extensive solo parts.
Mount Kujo have an extensive touring record in Australia, having played festivals (Dragon Dreaming, Castlemaine Jazz, Renaissance Festival) as well as some of Melbourne’s finest night clubs (Night Cat, 24 Moons, Toff in Town, The Gaso), they are probably best known for their intimate residency shows in some of those beautiful hidden bars in the side streets of Melbourne’s underground music scene.
Jazz survives gracefully into our modern age because of its flexibility as an art form. It flows through cultures and adapts with each new reinvention, thriving within or without structure. That’s a perfect metaphor to introduce the sound of Mount Kujo’s first self-titled studio album, the follow up to Live at Bar Oussou.
If the nucleus of the band was documented on that live recording from 2020, Mount Kujo’s 2022 effort bears the fruit of hard work, introspection and musical growth. Their compositions have matured far beyond the monothematic “afrobeat orchestra” ideas that bandleader Max Myland brought to Melbourne’s warmer cityscape from Berlin and now include elements of latin-rock, spiritual jazz and even drum ‘n bass. The group has embraced the true spirit of being a musical collective: a living, breathing unit that adapts to its surroundings quickly, and boasts a confident studio prowess that has benefitted from their unconfined stage style.
Awkward attempts to secure band members by inviting them to a tombstone factory / rehearsal room in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, plus the insecurities of the last years meant Mount Kujo got used to operating as a loose collective. The idea of being comfortable to play and rehearse as a larger or smaller band came out of their compulsion to continue to be creative no matter what circumstances they found themselves in. Max recruited and bunkered down with the core composers of the band – keyboardist Phil Setton (“We talked about Steely Dan all night”), trombonist Tom Panckridge (“This band doesn’t actually work on paper”), saxophonist Will Larsen (“Listening to Tom’s solos is giving me permanent stank face”) and drummer James Carman (“When we play together, it feels like this is what I’m on Earth to do”) to compose the foundation of tunes that would become this exciting album, while leaving space for rotating members of the greater collective to add their own flavor in the mix.
The first single, Orientation is a classic Kujo standard, finally fleshed out as a studio version, hails alongside Golden Holden and Move to showcase Mount Kujo’s fondness for groovy arrangements in the vein of 70s cinematic funk, bolstered by Latin and West African rhythm accompaniments. Cliffhanger proves they are masters of tension, bombastic vamps and then enthralling an audience with a four-to-the-floor backbeat.
The warm, vintage-analog feel to the album is a great credit to sound engineer Deep Sheth, who took pains to recreate many creative studio ideas from the 70s, including looping the drums in a garden hose with a mic on the end, a trick picked up from Sylvia Massy.
While the group jokes that “stage beers” are tantamount to the “Kujo Vibe”, peering into that answer exposes a greater truth about the Mount Kujo ethos: these musicians are as pure as it gets, in an industry moment where – for many – getting on Spotify playlists and selling t-shirts has become more important than the music, Mount Kujo are dedicated to honing their compositions and setting them free on stage. They savor the post-soundcheck hangs, dealing with stage and production issues and simply existing in their creative element. “No one is irreplaceable in the band, including me” explains Max, of the way they are allowed to forge forward without member’s egos getting in the way. A close listen to the immaculate Gobo River hints at this rooted, elemental part of the collective, even without lyrics or a physical manifesto and shows they are masters of quiet moments.
Another standout moment on the album is the second single Earth Hum, with an articulated and breathy pause and pedal tone mediating through the composition. It pedestals the arranging skills and depth of Mount Kujo, flexing some progressive influences and provides an exciting song to break up the set.
Max maintains his Berlin connections with renowned musicians from Germany’s jazz scenes. Contributing to the album is Benny Brown (Benny Brown Band) on trumpet, Daniel Avi Schneider (Bukahara) on violin and Niko Zeidler (Make a Move) on tenor saxophone. This inclusion gives the album a truly international feel, out of time and place upon a first listening. However, as you get a feel for the moods on this self-titled album, you will truly start to understand what is “the Kujo Vibe” – in essence, a collective dedicated to seeing their funky visions become reality, through the positive interactions of a musical family.