by Ian Mann
March 21, 2016
A superb fusion of jazz, classical and electronic elements, the three components combining to create something organic, homogeneous and totally unique.
Partikel’s String Theory, Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton, 18/03/2015.
Here at the Jazzmann we like to think that we’re pretty good at spotting emerging jazz talent. Back in 2010 I gave a glowing review to the eponymous début album by the London based trio Partikel led by saxophonist and composer Duncan Eagles and also featuring double bassist Max Luthert and drummer/ percussionist Eric Ford.
“A refreshing, innately tuneful and highly distinctive take on the art of the saxophone trio” was my summary of that first album, a quote that has been reproduced many times since. As well as the playing I was also highly impressed with the quality of Eagles’ writing and the band went on to consolidate their success with the aptly titled “Cohesion”, released on Whirlwind Recordings in 2012.
The trio also impressed with the quality of their consistently exciting live shows and I was lucky enough to cover performances at the Brecon Jazz Festival in 2011 and at The Edge Arts Centre in Much Wenlock in 2012, the latter just after the release of “Cohesion”. I enjoyed these events so much that I also went to see the band a second time on the “Cohesion” tour, this time attending their gig at The Hive in Shrewsbury as a paying customer.
However Partikel are not a band to rest on their laurels and their second release for Whirlwind augmented the core trio with a string quartet led by violinist Benet McLean. The aptly titled “String Theory” was a resounding success with the strings achieving a remarkable level of integration with Partikel’s now well established signature sound.
As Eagles explained at the time of the album’s release in 2015;
“This time we thought we would do something a bit different, still keeping the essence of what we’d built up while adding something that would make the sound a bit bigger, but with no chordal or comping instrument as such. From the beginning there was something right at the front of my mind - not making it sound like two separate ensembles or to use the strings like backing or padding - instead there’s a sense that the strings are kind of with us, so it’s more like a seven piece band”.
And he’s right, the album sounds like the work of a fully homogeneous septet rather than “jazz trio plus string quartet”.
The economics of touring have entailed that Partikel have performed the “String Theory” repertoire at some gigs as a quartet, with the core trio being augmented by just McLean on violin. I was lucky enough to cover a performance by this line up at Leam Jazz in Leamington Spa in June 2015, a remarkable performance that saw McLean interacting with the trio on equal terms in a thrilling evening of music making. The extraordinary McLean is these days better known as a pianist and vocalist but he began on the violin and his involvement with the “String Theory” project has re-ignited his passion and enthusiasm for his first instrument.
I thoroughly enjoyed the quartet performance but I was always keen to see the full seven piece line up and was very disappointed in January 2016 when my plans to cover the septet’s performance at The Hive in Shrewsbury had to be aborted due to flooded roads.
Luckily I was to get a second chance when the full “String Theory” line up came to Wolverhampton with the line up of Eagles, Luthert, Ford and McLean augmented by second violinist David Le Page, violist Richard Jones and cellist Kate Gould.
As at the quartet gig in Leamington the performance commenced with the dramatic “Clash of the Clans” suite which also opens the “String Theory” album. “Part 1” began with a free jazz squall featuring the sound of mass dissonance from the strings before the piece quickly gathered momentum courtesy of Eagles’ hooky sax motif and Ford’s dynamic drumming. Solos came from Eagles on garrulous tenor sax and McLean on violin as the strings deployed both arco and pizzicato techniques.
Luthert’s extended unaccompanied bass passage introduced “Seeking Shadows”, the second part of the “Clash of the Clans” suite. When Ford and Eagles entered the proceedings Luthert also provided a subtle soupçon of electronica to the music via a laptop and sundry other electronic gizmos mounted on a table next to the bassist. Already the group are beginning to explore other musical avenues, but more on that later. Meanwhile Ford’s cymbal shimmers accentuated the already atmospheric music as Eagles deployed a Jan Garbarek like reverb sound on his tenor sax. Meanwhile “Seeking Shadows” segued almost imperceptibly into “Midnight Mass”, the final part of the suite.
Also from the album came “Shimmer”, a piece that Eagles described as the “happiest tune I’ve ever written”. Inspired by a visit to Thailand and Cambodia it was undeniably upbeat and catchy with Ford’s use of udu (or clay pot) bringing an element of Eastern exotica to the music. The first solo came from McLean, the only string player to have a floor mounted effects unit enabling him to treat the sound of his instrument. Here he engaged in a dialogue with drummer Ford as Luthert filled an anchoring role. McLean subsequently handed over to Eagles as the group temporarily went into core saxophone trio mode before Ford rounded things off with a feature for his mammoth drum kit with its huge array of cymbals, foot operated cowbell, rack of frame drums etc.
“The Buffalo” was named for McLean (apparently Eagles’ surname triggered a spate of animal nicknames for the rest of the group) and was introduced by McLean who used his pedal board to loop and layer his sound during an extended solo violin passage. Eagles moved to soprano sax for this piece which was also notable for Ford’s use of hand drumming techniques, both on udu and his conventional kit. The folk like melody inspired memorable solos from McLean on violin and Eagles on soprano.
At this point Le Page, Jones and Gould left the stage and the Partikel Quartet concluded the first set with “Bartering with Bob” , Eagles’ dedication to the veteran South London based jazz pianist Bob Barter. This was a rumbustious piece with a more orthodox ‘jazz’ feel, a “swing tune” as Eagles later referred to it, with Luthert playing a ‘walking’ bass line for just about the only time in the entire set. However despite the ‘old school’ feel McLean still utilised his FX pedals on his violin solo as he followed Eagles’ hard blowing tenor. The piece also included features for Luthert on double bass and Ford with a vigorously brushed drum solo.
Set two also began with the four piece as Eagles informed us that Partikel’s new album, due to be recorded later this year, would be a quartet album featuring the core trio plus McLean and a raft of electronics. The decision to record in this format is a direct result of the chemistry generated by the four musicians in their numerous gigs in the quartet format while the use of electronics represents yet another musical area to explore as Partikel continues to grow and evolve.
Tonight we were treated to a sneak preview from this project as the Quartet performed two new Eagles compositions. “Lanterns” was a hard hitting affair featuring Eagles on tenor and McLean on both plucked and bowed violin, their robust interplay fuelled by Ford’s dynamic drumming.
Meanwhile “Land and Sea” featured Eagles himself making use of electronics, his looped and layered tenor sax generating a series of Garbarek like drones that underscored his animated dialogue with drummer Ford. This exciting new music suggested that Partikel’s next album will be well worth looking out for.
Le Page, Jones and Gould returned as the band picked up the thread of the “String Theory” album with “The River” with Eagles announcing that “we’re going to bring things down a bit”. With the leader moving to soprano the piece featured another delightful folk like melody that inspired some excellent interplay between the string players and a lilting solo from Eagles on soprano.
The next piece was unannounced but I believe it was the album’s “Wray Common”, introduced here by a haunting passage of solo violin by the consistently excellent Le Page. Subsequently the piece was centred around Luthert’s bass motif and the patter of Ford’s udu with subsequent solos from Gould on cello and Luthert at the bass before a final plangent statement from Eagles on tenor.
The “String Theory” album includes a remarkable septet arrangement of the classic jazz ballad “Body And Soul” which was ushered in here by the rich, dark, sonorous solo cello of Kate Gould. Incredibly this was Gould’s first performance with the group as she filled in for the album’s Matthew Sharp. “She really nailed it”, Eagles was to remark approvingly later. Elsewhere we heard from Eagles himself on tenor above a backdrop of melancholy cello and busily brushed drums, his solo becoming increasingly garrulous as Ford picked up his sticks. This was a piece that covered an impressive dynamic range before gently resolving itself with a final restatement of the theme.
The evening concluded with the final track of the album, “The Landing”, a tune inspired by Eagles’ dislike of flying, or more precisely landing! Tonight the piece was introduced by bass, drums and echoed tenor sax with the core trio being joined by the pizzicato rhythms of the strings. Eagles soloed at length above the interlocking rhythmic patterns generated by string quartet, double bass and drums, his playing becoming increasingly urgent as he exchanged phrases with members of the string section. This was a superbly integrated septet performance and a fitting climax to an excellent concert. As well as the musicians, who were all excellent, both individually and collectively, praise should also go to sound engineer Peter Maxwell-Dixon who did a superb job of balancing the unusual combination of jazz instruments, string quartet and electronics.
At last I’d got to see Partikel’s String Theory in its full glory and I wasn’t disappointed. This was a superb fusion of jazz, classical and electronic elements, the three components combining to create something organic, homogeneous and totally unique.
But it’s also fair to say that Partikel in any combination, be it trio, quartet or septet, never fails to deliver. This is on of the best and most consistent of contemporary British jazz groups. The new quartet plus electronics album will be awaited with much anticipation.
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