by Ian Mann
August 22, 2014
"v2.0"sounds like a real "band" album with a more clearly defined sound and a strong group identity that expresses a unified attitude and sense of purpose. This is a band to watch.
The Manchester based piano trio GoGo Penguin made a big impression with the release of their 2012 début “Fanfares”, also released on trumpeter Matthew Halsall’s Gondwana record label. Although strongly influenced by E.S.T. the album also demonstrated the trio’s mastery of break beats and other rhythms associated with contemporary dance music.
Although routinely described as “young” the members of GoGo Penguin are all in their late twenties or early thirties and bring a myriad of influences to the table from jazz to classical to dubstep. As self confessed members of the “iPod generation” they see nothing strange in mixing all these elements together and their music has the ability to appeal to both club going youths and dyed in the wool jazz fans.
As live performers they have the ability to shape their music to fit their circumstances. Their performance at the Parabola Arts Centre as part of the 2013 Cheltenham Jazz Festival found them deploying an acoustic grand piano to sublime effect and was substantially different in terms of both content and ambience to a London Jazz Festival date six months later in the basement of Hoxton’s Xoyo club, a standing gig with a much younger audience that featured the cranked up sounds of distorted electric piano. GoGo Penguin are nothing if not adaptable.
Since the release of the highly promising “Fanfares” the group have undergone a personnel change with founding members Chris Illingworth (piano) and Rob Turner (drums) joined by bassist Nick Blacka, a replacement for Grant Russell who has left to pursue other projects. The versatile Blacka has known his band mates for a long time through his involvement with an impressive array of other Manchester bands including the Magic Hat Ensemble, Beats & Pieces Big Band, Nat Birchall Quintet and the Brownfield/Byrne Quintet. Blacka is such a natural fit for GoGo Penguin that he sounds as if he’s been playing with the band all his life (he did in fact play in an earlier trio with Illingworth).
Released in March 2014 “v2.0” builds upon the promise and success of “Fanfares” but also establishes a more personalised group sound. This time round all the compositions are credited as being collaborative efforts although the accompanying press release suggests that most of the melodies were conceived by Illingworth before being worked on by the rest of the band. An increased recording budget has also allowed for greater use of subtle elements of electronica with the trio acknowledging the roles played by recording engineers Joe Reiser and Brendan Williams in the success of the finished product.
Album opener “Murmuration” begins with the sound of Turner’s drums, as he establishes a slow, unhurried E.S.T. style groove that also acknowledges the influences of Jon Hopkins and Massive Attack. The title is derived from a term used to describe the way that birds flock together, a fitting description for the way the trio subsequently coalesce around the melody with Blacka’s bass playing a prominent part in the arrangement, whether played pizzicato or arco, his bowing clearly influenced by E.S.T.‘s Dan Berglund.
However there’s more to GoGo Penguin than mere E.S.T. imitators. “Garden Dog Barbecue”, one of the pieces performed at Xoyo, has a frenetic drum groove inspired by Aphex Twin but also features the flowing, bebop flavoured pianistics of Illingworth. This high energy piece is an obvious live favourite and an excellent example of the trio’s contempt for genres. This is music doesn’t fit neatly into any boxes.
The following “Kamaloka” combines an anthemic piano melody with Turner’s skittering drum grooves as the group tip their hat to Fourtet. Conventional jazz soloing plays little part in GoGo Penguin’s world and like most of the pieces on the album this is a supremely interactive trio performance.
“Fort” is equally inspired by the modern classicism of Arvo Part and the techno grooves of the dance floor. Illingworth’s sparse, Part inspired piano melody is underscored by a shuffling drum groove that approximates the sound of electronic beats but does so acoustically. The band’s press release goes as far as crediting the trio with the creation of a new genre, “acoustic electronica”
As befits such a vibrant and energetic band GoGo Penguin wear their political hearts on their sleeves on “One Percent”, a comment on the fact that 1% of the population own 99% of the wealth.
There’s no overt sloganeering but the trio’s beliefs are expressed in their uncompromising attitude throughout the album. Here the piece is driven by Turner’s relentless rhythmic flow and concludes with a stunning set piece as the group approximate the sound of a skipping CD, a trick that they can also reproduce live. Besides its attention grabbing, crowd pleasing qualities I also assume that it’s a comment on our stuttering, faltering, failing political and economic system.
Blacka’s solo bass intro to “Home” represents a (very) brief excursion into orthodox jazz territory. The subsequent sound of his and Turner’s hip hop inspired grooves is rather less conventional on another piece that fairly bristles with attitude and intention. This was the first title to be written by the current incarnation of the trio.
The fact that “The Letter” was recorded in total darkness suggests the influence of Jasper Hoiby’s mighty trio, Phronesis. It’s one of the most atmospheric pieces on the album, evolving from Illingworth’s sparse, solo piano chording to embrace a slow burning anthemic melody and a monolithic groove. Making use of studio dynamics and deploying a greater sense of space than most of the trio’s output there’s a distinctly spiritual feel about this piece, which may hint at future directions for the group to follow.
Emerging from an electronically enhanced arco drone “To Drown In You” initially features a languorous piano motif that contrasts effectively with Turner’s rapid and relentless groove and Blacka’s dramatically plucked bass. Eventually the drums drop out and a brief piano and arco section provides the bridge into a closing dubstep inspired passage that features the band at their most experimental and most dramatic - a rarity to find the two combined - that arguably represents the album’s defining moment.
The following “Shock And Awe” continues the experimental theme but in a more abstract and impressionistic manner. However the combination of dramatic, widely spaced piano chords, mysterious electronically enhanced arco murmurings and Turner’s minimalist groove is both haunting and effective.
The album closes with “Hopopono” which references the theme to the opening “Murmuration” and effectively bookends the album. With its shuffling grooves and uplifting melody it ends the proceedings on an optimistic note.
The enigmatically titled “v2.0” sees GoGo Penguin moving further away from their primary E.S.T influence and creating a more personalised soundscape of their own that draws on many sources with John Cage, Brian Eno and Squarepusher mentioned this time round. With his mastery of non jazz rhythms, these often derived from electronic sources, Turner remains the group’s most distinctive instrumentalist but there’s something more organic and integrated about GoGo Penguin this time round with Blacka sounding like the bassist they’ve been waiting for all along. “v2.0"sounds like a real “band” album with a more clearly defined sound and a strong group identity that expresses a unified attitude and sense of purpose. Behind the technically adept playing there’s something of a “rip up the rulebook” punk spirit. As GoGo Penguin continue to transcend the sum of their influences they give even more of an impression that this is a band to watch.
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