by Ian Mann
February 11, 2016
Ian Mann enjoys the triumphant first night of GoGo Penguin's UK tour and takes a look at their new album "Man Made Object".
GoGo Penguin, The Gate Arts Centre, Cardiff, 06/02/2016.
The Manchester based piano trio collectively known as GoGo Penguin have come a long way since the release of their début album “Fanfares” on trumpeter Matthew Halsall’s Gondwana record label back in 2012.
There was something of a buzz about the band even then and the Jazzmann was quick to recognise the trio’s potential declaring “Fanfares exhibits enormous promise” and “with their use of beats and rhythms inspired by electronic music the trio are really onto something”. In my review of the album I even predicted that the trio’s Mercury Music Prize nomination, something that eventually happened with the release of their follow up album “v2.0”.
“v2.0” introduced the current line up of the band with pianist Chris Illingworth and drummer Rob Turner being joined by bassist Nick Blacka, a replacement for Grant Russell who appeared on the début but subsequently left to pursue other projects. Blacka had played in an earlier trio with Illingworth and from the outset seemed a natural fit for GoGo Penguin. “v2.0” (Gondwana Records) was even more distinctive than its predecessor, more tightly focussed and a real ‘band’ album that was sharper, harder and more uncompromising in its use of beats and rhythms sourced from the worlds of electronica and dance music. “This is a band to watch” opined the Jazzmann, and so it proved with the anticipated Mercury nomination raising the band’s profile even further and earning them a contract with the prestigious Blue Note record label.
The first fruits of the band’s alliance with Blue Note have recently appeared in the shape of their third album, “Man Made Object” which was released on February 5th 2016 and which further hones their approach as they continue to explore a style of music that some have dubbed “acoustic electronica”.
GoGo Penguin may come from jazz (Turner, Blacka) and classical (Illingworth) backgrounds but they find a common interest in the music of electronic music artists such as Aphex Twin, 4tet, Burial and Squarepusher. Much of the music on “Man Made Object” was written by Turner on computer using sequencing software before being humanised collectively by the trio in a more acoustic context.
The band’s methods have won them a loyal following, an audience that is much younger than the usual jazz demographic. I’ve been lucky enough to see GoGo Penguin live on two previous occasions, the first in an arts centre environment at the 2013 Cheltenham Jazz Festival where they had the use of an acoustic grand piano and played with great energy and verve to a mature jazz audience who awarded them with a standing ovation.
The second was later in the same year when they performed for a much younger crowd at a standing gig in the basement of the Xoyo venue in Shoreditch supporting the American artist Jaimeo Brown at London Jazz Festival. This time round the trio cranked up the volume and deployed an electric keyboard, it was very different to the Cheltenham show but equally effective and equally well received despite technically being a ‘support slot’. These two instances serve to highlight the band’s versatility and adaptability in the live environment, GoGo Penguin are a highly competent live act who are able to combine excitement with an admirable level of consistency. A quote from the band uttered around the time of “Fanfares” seems to sum up their cross-generational appeal “we’ve played to pensioners in churches and to a club full of 400 drunk 19 year olds and they all seemed to like it”.
Fast forward to 2016 and the first first date on a UK tour in support of “Man Made Object”. The Cardiff date was an official sell out as are several other dates including The Lantern in Bristol, London’s cavernous Village Underground and two homecoming shows at the Band on the Wall in Manchester.
I’ve attended performances at several Cardiff venues over the years, most notably at Dempsey’s, but this was my first visit to The Gate, an arts centre in a former Presbyterian church in the Roath area of the city. I was impressed with the venue with its comfortable bar area, good sight lines (particularly so for a converted church) and excellent acoustics, the latter enhanced by the work of the group’s in house sound engineer Joe Reiser.
The audience was indeed younger than the usual jazz crowd with a good number of students from the nearby university I would imagine, although there were a few more mature listeners, such as myself too. A definite air of anticipation attached itself to the proceedings and once the Penguins got under way the audience reaction was particularly enthusiastic – there was even cheering and whooping. Unfortunately despite the good attendance some seats remained unfilled - disappointing to see given that friends of ours who had looked forward to joining us at the gig had been informed by the venue that the show was sold out when had they had phoned up for tickets during the week preceding the concert. However it may have been possible that some fans were dissuaded from travelling by the torrential rain that had effected Wales and the West Country on the day of the gig.
I was pleased to see that the venue had a grand piano which Illingworth was able to put to good use as the trio took to the stage and opened the proceedings with “All Res” and “Unspeakable World”, the opening two tracks from the new “Man Made Object” album.
“All Res” has been selected as the first single from the album, although several of the other tracks would have been equally appropriate, such is the trio’s way with a melodic hook and a bustling groove. These qualities were present here as the group began with a real sense of purpose with Illingworth’s melodic motifs complemented by the urgent, muscular bass grooves of Blacka and the skittering beats of drummer Rob Turner, ‘Mr. Perpetual Motion’. GoGo Penguin also exhibit a mastery of dynamics, not so much in a jazzy ‘light and shade’ way (they don’t do ballads) but instead in the building and release of tension, the soft/loud dynamic favoured by rock bands that was popularised by Nirvana in the grunge era of the early 90s – I think I’ve stumbled on an analogy here that hasn’t as yet been applied to GoGo Penguin’s music. This was exemplified by Blacka’s bouts of arco playing which helped to punctuate the tune. He’s a highly skilled player with the bow and although his style is influenced by that of E.S.T’s Dan Berglund he generally uses less distortion and favours a more natural and acoustic sound that is very much in keeping with the band’s aesthetic.
“Unspeakable World” was the perfect summation of what Gogo Penguin are currently about. The restless, jumpy piano motifs sketched by Illingworth filtered the synthesised pulses of electronic music through an acoustic prism, a process further humanised by the quiet bustle of Turner’s drum grooves and the melodic flourishes of Blacka’s plucked bass. There was what amounted to an orthodox jazz solo from Blacka, a comparative rarity in GoGo Penguin’s music, before the tune took on an anthemic quality that borrowed both from E.S.T. (the group’s initial influence) and from more contemporary rock and electronic sources.
The introduction to the 4tet inspired “Kamaloka” from the band’s previous album “v2.0” elicited a round of spontaneous applause akin to being a rock gig when the audience recognises a “greatest hit”. Here anthemic piano melodies combined with deep, rich, sometimes foreboding arco bass allied to Turner’s typically hyperactive grooves, with Illingworth even taking a solo, insofar as GoGo Penguin do such things.
More applause broke out during the course of “Branches Break”, a tune from the new album that included some superb exchanges between Blacka and Turner. It’s the relationship between this pair that marks out Gogo Penguin as different and so much more than just ‘piano and rhythm section’. This is a highly interactive band and it could be argued that Blacka and Turner are its two most distinctive instrumentalists.
Blacka had handled the announcements thus far but with the audience fully onside the group relaxed and just seemed to want to play. Tune titles were dispensed with as the trio warmed to their task and the numbers passed by with the usual evocative blend of soaring piano melodies, cello like arco flourishes and tight hypnotic grooves plus additional elements such as dampened piano strings and Turner’s use of bells and shakers. This was music to absorb oneself in, nodding along to the groove and rejoicing in the melody rather than overly dissecting the fine detail.
There was little let up in the intensity but variety was provided by the different elements that the trio incorporated into their music. Besides the much discussed electro elements there were also snatches of hymn like gospel, Steve Reich minimalism and hints of Far Eastern exoticism.
Along the way I recognised a number of tunes from the new album including “Initiate”, with a melody that seemed to borrow from “Sometimes I Feel Like A motherless Child”, and the electronica inspired maelstrom of rhythm and melody that was “Smarra”.
After playing another half dozen numbers in this vein with little in the way of verbal punctuation the trio left the stage to a standing ovation, returning after a lengthy bout of audience foot stomping in the manner of conquering rock stars. They played two encores, the first little more than a vignette before signing off with “Protest”, the closing track from the new album with its vaulting piano melodies and bludgeoning bass and drums, the rhythmic patterns inspired by the Roland 808.
This gig represented a triumphant start to GoGo Penguin’s UK tour. The queues for the merch table after the show were lengthy and in keeping with the trio’s quasi rock star status there were even T shirts, a cool design, as Blacka said, featuring the band’s Picasso like penguin logo in white on a black shirt. Only two sizes though, large and medium - how about getting some XL ones printed up for the more mature members of the group’s fanbase such as my good self. I did buy one (large, naturally) – now I’ll just have to go on a diet so that I can fit into it. There you go, another first, the Jazzmann’s first online fashion review!
Needless to say the CDs were flying off the shelf too. All are highly recommended, particularly “v2.0” and “Man Made Object” which both feature the current edition of the band and capture their edgy, vibrant energy perfectly.
Jazz purists may carp at the lack of variation, and I’ll concede that they may have a point, but it’s obvious that GoGo Penguin believe in a music that is increasingly becoming very much their own and which they play with skill, verve and passion. Collectively and individually they are highly accomplished musicians but besides the technical ability there is a palpable sense of attitude and these elements combine to make music that is genuinely exciting and reaches out to a wider public – but without any hint of artistic compromise. With a headlining tour ahead and that Blue Note record contract GoGo Penguin are still on the rise and promise to become an even more important musical force in the years to come.
Earlier in the evening we had been entertained by a solo performance from the singer, guitarist and songwriter Daudi Matsiko. Matsiko has recorded two digital EPs, “A Brief Introduction To Failure” (2014) and “The Lingering Effects of Disconnection” (2015).
Matsiko’s songs are intimate and confessional with a strong sense of narrative and the subject matter can be somewhat dark, as the EP titles suggest, but following a few initial misgivings I quickly found myself warming to his music. His intimate style avoids the usual verse/chorus/verse clichés and the songs unfold organically and with little regard for songwriting convention. This was music that was rambling but intelligent, emotive and emotional but never strained, with Joni Mitchell possibly a key inspiration.
Matsiko apologised for the sometimes depressing subject matter of his songs but there was an element of dark humour in there too, and the man himself was never less than charming with his enthusiastic, upbeat and sometimes rambling announcements. He seemed genuinely happy to be here and it looks as if he’s got the support slot for the whole GoGo Penguin UK tour. Occasionally he augmented his guitar technique with the use of live looping effects, something which added both depth and colour to his sound.
I didn’t catch all the song titles but suspect that most of them came from his two EPs and included “Home” and Take Me Old” as part of a six song set that was surprisingly well received by an audience that was primarily there to see the headliners. I suspect that he’ll attract a considerable number of new fans on this tour despite playing a very different type of music to that of GoGo Penguin.
The Gogo Penguin / Daudi Matsiko tour continues with upcoming dates as follows;
12 FEB Norwich Norwich Arts Centre
13 FEB Coventry Warwick Arts Centre
16 FEB Glasgow Oran Mor
17 FEB Aberdeen Lemon Tree
18 FEB Gateshead The Sage Gateshead
19 FEB Leeds The Wardrobe
20 FEB Manchester Band on the Wall - SOLD OUT
21 FEB Manchester Band on the Wall - SOLD OUT
23 FEB Birmingham Glee Club
24 FEB Bristol The Lantern - SOLD OUT
25 FEB London The Village Underground - SOLD OUT
05 MAY London Koko - added by popular demand
From David Renn via Facebook;
The Gate is around the corner from me yet many in the neighbourhood (a student-packed area) have not heard of it. Oh, I recommend taking a cushion as the church pews get mighty hard about halfway through any gig. The venue has great potential that is just not being realised. I fear that proper management has been constrained by Church-based trustees for a number of years. The main hall should be in much greater demand for gigs. Successful open mike nights in the cafe bar were allowed to fade away. It has taken them years to sort out whether they would offer a decent bar service for the auditorium or not. As you say, great acoustics.blog comments powered by Disqus