by Ian Mann
November 01, 2017
This live recording fully captures the spirit & ethos of a band with a growing international cult following. As likely to appeal to an adventurous rock audience as it is to dyed in the wool jazzers,
Girls In Airports
(Edition Records EDN1097)
I first discovered the increasingly popular Danish quintet Girls In Airports when they played a free lunchtime show at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in Dean Street as part of the 2014 EFG London Jazz Festival. I became an instant fan of a band who have already attracted something of a cult following in their homeland and have also toured in China, Brazil, South Korea, Portugal, Germany and the US.
Those lunchtime showcases at the Pizza, which invariably attract large audiences, have represented an important stepping stone for a number of acts. The 2014 series also featured the Swiss piano trio Plaistow who have subsequently returned to the Festival as part of the concert programme.
Don’t be misled by the name, Girls In Airports is actually a group of five Copenhagen based males including the extravagantly bearded saxophonist Lars Greve. Greve is joined in a twin reed front line by fellow saxophonist Martin Stender and the group is completed by keyboard player Mathias Holm, drummer Mads Forsby and percussionist Victor Dybbroe. The band name comes from the title of their 2010 début album, this followed by 2011’s “Migration” and 2013’s “Kaikoura”. Dybbroe was absent from the first album, which was recorded as a quartet, but has played a prominent part on all subsequent releases.
Girls In Airports are managed by a Briton, Sue Edwards, who also looks after Phronesis and I suspect that it was through this connection that they came to the attention of Dave Stapleton, co-founder of the Edition record label, a British imprint with an international distribution network. The group’s latest studio recording, “Fables” was released on Edition in 2015 and helped to enhance the group’s reputation both in the UK and elsewhere.
Stender is the quintet’s main compositional presence and all of the group’s pieces are credited to ‘Martin Stender and Girls in Airports’, suggesting that Stender’s initial ideas are subsequently arranged and developed by the rest of the group via the process of improvisation. Stender described the writing process on “Fables” thus;
“A tune starts with me playing an unfinished idea on the piano. I am not a pianist so it sounds like a children’s song or very slow ballad. Keyboard player Mathias will immediately sit down and do a much better version without even looking at the notes that I have scribbled down. Then the drummers add a rhythmic layer that changes the whole thing into something else and then saxophonist Lars will make all of us follow him into some third place that we’ve never been before. It is quite easy to write new tunes for this band”.
This live album was recorded in March 2017 at three different venues in Hamburg, Dresden and Berlin during a German tour. Speaking of the decision to release a live recording Stender has said;
“Basically we are an old fashioned live band. Concerts have always been our main thing and playing concerts is how we reach people. We have been together for eight years now and many of the songs have changed so much since we recorded them. It just makes sense to do a live album and document all that.”
“Playing live is really where the band comes together. We allow ourselves to be freer, more in touch with the music and in tune with each other. The energy created from a live concert, especially when the audiences are also connected with the music, is electric. We really felt that in these concerts”.
“Live” features four new, previously unrecorded, pieces as well as eight items from the band’s back catalogue. The music of Girls In Airports incorporates elements of jazz, folk, minimalism and world music allied to something of an indie rock sensibility. They are more concerned with colour, texture and atmosphere than conventional jazz soloing but with the presence of a drummer AND a percussionist adding a rhythmic vibrancy to the music steers it well away from ambient stasis or noodling.
The twin horn front line may evoke comparisons with the now extinct Polar Bear but GIA ultimately sound very different to Seb Rochford’s former outfit. Nevertheless their music is likely to appeal to a similar audience and I suspect that fans of British bands such as GoGo Penguin, Portico Quartet and Mammal Hands will enjoy GIA’s music too. Like Polar Bear GIA’s tunes often have a charming, childlike naivety about them, giving the audience something to hang on to as the band develop and stretch out on Stender’s original ideas.
GIA’s music tends to evolve from Stender’s melodic hooks with opener “Kantine” mutating from an anthemic, waltz like theme into free jazz squalling and back again, all in a little under four minutes.
The title track from “Kaikoura” incorporates wispy sax melodies with exotic percussion and minimalist keyboards while “Broken Stones” combines a hypnotic drum groove with droning, textured keyboards and haunting double horns. The way in which the group builds the music in layers, gradually ratcheting up the tension is reminiscent of prime time “Isla” era Portico and “Broken Stones” elicits a terrific response from the German audience.
Recorded in Dresden the title track of “Fables” is more concerned with atmosphere and ambience as it develops from Dybbroe’s solo percussion introduction with fragile fragments of sax melody combining with Holm’s eerie keyboard colourations. Initially it’s a little like Polar Bear at their most reflective but a change of pace mid tune finds the percussive grooves getting heavier and the sax sounds more distorted. GIA’s command of contrasts and dynamics and the way in which they develop a tune to a climax suggests a strong indie rock influence.
A drums and percussion set piece introduces “Episodes” followed by the free jazz style whinnying of the twin saxes before the piece settles into a slow, rock influenced monolithic groove around which the saxes sinuously intertwine with Holm’s haunting keyboard textures filling out the sound.
Also from the “Fables” album “Aeiki” begins in gently atmospheric fashion before gradually building via a series of interlocking patterns and rhythms that reference both classic minimalism and contemporary electronica. The likes of Portico, GoGo penguin and Mammal Hands are again convenient reference points as the Danish quintet subtly sculpt yet another compelling soundscape.
“Albert Kahn” has been a favourite item in the group’s repertoire for some time and is a richly atmospheric piece that features Greve on bass clarinet alongside Stender’s saxophone. The reeds become increasingly distorted as they improvise around mallet rumbles and textured keyboards on one of the album’s most evocative pieces.
The title of “ADAC” references both the Australian rock band AC/DC and the German equivalent of the RAC. As the influence of the Aussie rockers might suggest it’s the most forceful and rhythmic track on the record - but still far removed from heavy metal. Introduced by Forsby and Dybbroe the piece features the drone of Holm’s heavily distorted Gothic keyboards alongside the staccato riffing of the two sax men.
A startlingly aggressive sax barrage ushers in “Need A Light”, a piece that just as suddenly slides into atmospheric introspection in an arrangement paced by the exotic patter of Dybbroe’s gamelan like percussion, the eerie tinkle of Holm’s keyboards and the delicate murmurations of the saxophonists. The German fans loved it.
The title track from the “Migration” album is the lengthiest piece on the album, gradually developing from a fragile keyboard and sax introduction via a passage of interlocked, circular breathing reeds above an insistent drum and percussion groove. Yes, It’s somewhat repetitive but it must have been totally compelling in the live environment. A spontaneous round of applause breaks out in acknowledgement of the skill and stamina of the players. As in London back in 2014 the piece segues directly into “King’s Birthday” from the “Kaikoura” album, an anthemic coda featuring soaring, layered keyboards above a busy drums and percussion undertow.
The album concludes with the chilly but elegiac “Vejviser” which sees the percussionists sitting it out as Holm and the saxophonists paint fragile but atmospheric sound pictures in the air with wisps of breathy sax melody underpinned by a gentle, spacey keyboard drone, this later giving way to sparse acoustic piano. It’s piece that conjures up images of glistening winter landscapes, undeniably lovely but with the sound of the vocalised horns at the very end hinting at the harshness behind the beauty.
With their blend of acoustic and electric instruments and broad range of influences Girls In Airports have developed a sound that is very much their own, a kind of ‘post jazz’. The focus is very much on mood, texture, colour and the overall ensemble sound and collective ethos. It’s a style of music that I personally find very satisfying and enjoyable but I can appreciate that it may hold limited appeal to listeners who prefer old school swing and bop.
Even more than the studio album “Fables” this live recording fully captures the spirit and ethos of a band that is as likely to appeal to an adventurous rock audience as it is to dyed in the wool jazzers, even though improvisation still lies at the heart of the group’s music. The album packaging features a photograph of the group playing “in the round” and the faces that surround them are predominately young.
“Live” is a good starting point for listeners who haven’t heard the group before but it’s also an invaluable addition to the collection for fans of a band with a growing international cult following.
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