One of the most consistently interesting and entertaining bands in British music of any genre
By Proxy” is the long awaited fourth album by Partisans one of the most consistently interesting and entertaining bands in British music of any genre. The group merge elements of jazz and rock in a thoroughly organic manner aided by the superior writing skills of co-leaders Julian Siegel (reeds) and Phil Robson (guitar). Both are composers of a consistently high standard but the group identity is also shaped by the distinctive contributions of bassist Thad Kelly and drummer Gene Calderazzo.
Partisans is a real, democratic, working band that has been together for some thirteen years now. Only jazz economics and the success of the individual members’ solo and side man projects has prevented this “band of brothers”-Calderazzo’s words- from recording more frequently. Siegel leads his own British quartet plus a trio with American giants Greg Cohen (bass) and Joey Baron (drums). Robson has his exciting “Six Strings and The Beat” project plus his work with singer Christine Tobin, Calderazzo appears with pianist Zoe Rahman’s trio and is “the beat” in Robson’s Strings combo. Kelly, meanwhile works regularly with figures as diverse as singer Ian Shaw, Orquestra Mahatma and musical maverick Billy Jenkins. Albums by Robson’s Six Strings and The Beat and Siegel’s Anglo-American trio are reviewed elsewhere on this site. Both are highly recommended.
Highly recommended too are the Partisans’ excellent live shows. I’ve seen the band more than a dozen times and never tired of the experience. Siegel and Robson are brilliant soloists, both among the best in their field and Calderazzo is a dynamic and propulsive drummer. New York born but settled in the UK for many years he still has a uniquely American air of self confidence and is something of a showman. With Kelly skilfully but unobtrusively anchoring it altogether they make a great team.
That togetherness is shown on this album with Robson and Siegel sharing the writing credits (Robson writes four tunes, Siegel three) with outside material coming from Wayne Krantz and Duke Ellington. American guitarist and improviser Krantz collaborated with the band on a one off project at the 2003 Cheltenham Jazz Festival and has remained a friend ever since. I was at that gig in Cheltenham and it was awesome, definitely an “I was there” moment. The Ellington piece is a radical re-working of “Prelude To A Kiss” by Siegel and Kelly, of which more later.
The group’s 2005 Babel release “Max” featured guest performers Chris Batchelor (trumpet), Jim Watson (Hammond organ) and Thebe Lipere (percussion) who all made significant additions to the patented Partisans sound. This time the aim was to go back to the core quartet and aim for a sound more in keeping with 2000’s seminal “Sourpuss”, still my favourite of the group’s albums. “Sourpuss” had a loud, raw rock style production that I’m convinced was influential on Acoustic Ladyland and hence the later “punk jazz” movement. Relatively unheralded, the influence of “Sourpuss” and of Partisans in general is ripe for re-appraisal.
“By Proxy” maintains the high standards of composition and performance we have come to expect from this most cohesive of bands. The album commences with Robson’s composition “Advance”which features Siegel’s soprano snaking purposefully around Robson’s guitar motifs and Calderazzo’s neatly energetic drumming.
The guitarist also wrote the title track, a typically time shifting piece that sees the group seamlessly switching from one style to another and back again. Robson is featured on heavy, fuzz laden guitar and takes a memorable solo. Winner of the “Best Musician” category in the 2009 Parliamentary Jazz Awards Robson is really worthy of far wider guitar hero status. Siegel weighs in with a typically agile and inventive tenor solo as Calderazzo drums up a storm behind him.
Siegel’s own “Mirrors” is, almost inevitably, a little more reflective with a sly, quirky melody providing the vehicle for the saxophonist’s tenor ruminations. Robson offers more conventional jazz soloing on this one but with Calderazzo simmering purposefully in the background there is no great diminution of the energy levels.
Also by Siegel “Mbadgers” is based around a catchy tenor hook that surfaces periodically. The piece is something of a tour de force for Siegel but the razor sharp playing of the rest of the group on the darting riffs and phrases that punctuate the piece is incredible. This is typical Partisans music, complex but accessible, intricate but not self consciously “show- offy”.That man Calderazzo almost steals the show on the coda.
Robson’s be-bop flavoured “Lapdog” initially appeared on his trio album “Screenwash” (Babel 2004) recorded with American musicians James Genus (bass) and Billy Hart (drums). The tune still works well in this quartet context. Robson’s slippery, boppish guitar is still the main feature with Siegel’s lithe tenor an ideal foil. It’s probably the most conventionally “jazzy” piece on the album but still sounds thoroughly contemporary and relevant, fully in tune with the Partisans aesthetic.
“Munch” is not the funk fest the title must suggest. Robson’s tune is actually a reflective ballad, not a style associated with Partisans as a band. Siegel’s warm tenor is featured alongside Robson’s delicate acoustic guitar. Could the tune be named for Edvard Munch perhaps? In any event it’s very effective, both haunting and beautiful and suggests future avenues for the band to explore.
The collaboration with Krantz is remembered in the American’s composition “Partisans #1” which adds a degree of FX and electronica to the band sound (presumably pedal generated by Kelly and Robson). The delightful and distinctive tones of Siegel’s bass clarinet can also be heard here. He is definitely one of the leading UK exponents of an instrument that is becoming increasingly popular and rightly so.
As if to emphasise their closeness the members of Partisans jokingly refer to their engagements with other groups as “traitor bands”. This presumably explains Siegel’s title “Traitor”, yet another piece that embodies all the Partisans virtues, the fiery collective playing, the dazzling soloing,the fusion of energy with musical intelligence and so on.
Finally comes a version of Duke Ellington’s “Prelude To a Kiss” that utterly defies categorisation. There is a precedent for this, Siegel transformed David Bowie’s “John I’m Only Dancing” into a brooding instrumental on “Max”, but this goes further again. Ellington’s piece is not only radically re-arranged by Siegel and Kelly but the bassist also treats it to a remix using beats, electronica and archive voices. It’s totally different to the rest of the album and could only have been scheduled at the end but it certainly works, grabbing the attention and again pointing to possible future directions for the group.
In the meantime they are keen on recording a live album to encapsulate the unique vibe of the band in concert. I have to say that it’s a shame that a recording of the legendary Partisans/Krantz gig has never appeared. It was broadcast by the BBC but I assume there are licensing/copyright difficulties with regards to getting it released on CD.
“By Proxy” is the sound of an already very good band still developing and having some serious fun in the process. It’s immediately accessible but each subsequent listen reveals something new in these arresting compositions. There is some fabulous writing and playing here but this is a band which is truly at it’s best in a live situation. There are still plenty of gigs coming up so check http://www.partisans.org.uk and http://www.myspace.com/thebandpartisans for more information.
JAZZ MANN FEATURES
The sun shines on the final day of an excellent festival.
Ian Mann soaks up the vibes at Cheltenham Jazz Festival.