Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019





by Ian Mann

July 28, 2010


There is a strong sense of the group having fun, taking musical risks and revelling in the sheer daring of it.



(Edition Records EDN1021)

I like to think that I was there for the start of the Phronesis phenomenon. I was blown away when I reviewed the trio’s début album “Organic Warfare” back in September 2007 ( see elsewhere on this site) and I’ve followed their career with interest ever since.

The group is led by London based, Copenhagen born, bass player Jasper Hoiby and plays his compositions exclusively. “Organic Warfare” was recorded in Copenhagen with an all Danish team featuring Magnus Hjorth on piano and Anton Eger at the drums. The début album was catchy and immediate with memorable melodies and strong grooves that evoked comparisons with Swedish superstars E.S.T.
Not that there was any hint of compromise in Phronesis’ music, their sound appealed to a large number of listeners but without any hint of compromise or “dumbing down”.

I still love the (relative) simplicity and urgency of that first recording but Phronesis are one of those bands that exhibits signs of continuous artistic growth. The second album “Green Delay” (2009-also reviewed on this site) featured lengthier, more harmonically sophisticated compositions. This development in Hoiby’s writing style was partly the result of a change in the piano chair with the British pianist Ivo Neame taking over from Hjorth. An adventurous and rapidly maturing pianist Neame brought an extra element of complexity and group interaction to the trio. A member of the North London based Loop Collective he has collaborated with Hoiby in numerous other bands including his own Ivo Neame Quartet. 

I waited a long time to see Phronesis play live, finally catching them at The Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock in March 2010. The Shropshire date took place just a couple of days after this exciting live album was recorded at The Forge Arts Venue in London’s Camden Town. Regular drummer Anton Eger was unavailable for the group’s spring tour and his place at both The Forge and The Edge was taken by the young American drummer Mark Guiliana, best known for his work with bassist Avishai Cohen’s group.

Guiliana proved to be an inspired choice and Hoiby was clearly very excited to be working with him. I was hugely impressed by Guiliana’s performance at The Edge (see review elsewhere on this site) and on the evidence of this recording he was in equally sparkling form for the two London dates from which this album is sourced.

“Alive” shows Phronesis taking material from both their studio albums, plus one as yet unrecorded tune “Eight Hours”, and improvising extensively around Hoiby’s compositions. There is a strong sense of a group having fun, taking musical risks and revelling in the sheer daring of it. Phronesis get stuck into their harmonically adventurous and rhythmically complex music for all they’re worth and there’s a palpable sense of the crowd being taken along for a roller coaster ride with them. 

“Alive” sees the trio moving from the Loop label to the increasingly influential Cardiff based Edition Records. Otherwise it’s business as usual with the final mixing being undertaken in Copenhagen by the group’s regular engineer August Wanngren.

The album opens with “Blue Inspiration” from the album “Green Delay”. It opens with Hoiby’s huge, ringing bass sound, soon joined by Guiliana with his crisp, flexible intelligent drumming. There’s no sense of the American being a newcomer, he sounds as if he’s always been with the band, meshing almost perfectly with Hoiby and Neame right from the off. His playing is both propulsive and full of subtle detail and he complements the two regular band members supremely well. As the only chordal instrument in the group the melodic emphasis often rests with Neame but he is more than adequate to the task. Hoiby’s tunes often have catchy hooks or leitmotifs and “Blue Inspiration” is no exception. However here in a live situation the trio also incorporate lengthy improvised sections combining almost free passages, complex group interplay and dazzling solos. There’s a particularly exuberant example of the latter from Neame which draws roars of delight from the crowd.

“French” from “Organic Warfare” is more groove based and expands considerably on the original. Hoiby’s powerful bass pulse provides the springboard for the extemporisations of Neame and the astonishing Guiliana. His chattering, brilliantly detailed stick work around the rims of his kit is frequently jaw dropping.

The new tune “Eight Hours” sits well in the Phronesis canon with a typically accessible melody that frames Hoiby’s first solo of the set. The leader has an enormous sound and an amazing agility, qualities that really drive his band, but here he shows that he has a lyrical side too.

“Abraham’s New Gift”, the opening track from “Green Delay” is a bona fide show stopper opening with a mighty Hoiby bass groove and maintaining it’s energy through a series of bewildering time signature changes.  The piece contains virtuoso solos from Hoiby and Neame and a series of explosive drum breaks from Guiliana as the piece builds towards its climax. It clearly represented the end of the first set on one of the nights at The Forge and is accorded an appropriately thunderous reception.

“Rue Cinq Diamants” is also sourced from “Green Delay” and represents a more contemplative side to the trio with Neame’s delicately lyrical piano. There are some more impressionistic episodes featuring atmospheric interventions from both Guiliana and Hoiby on a piece that represents something of a departure for the trio.

Both from “Green Delay” the tunes “Happy Notes” and “Love Song” are both explored at considerable length. Both are good encapsulations of the trio’s virtues of arresting melodies, powerful grooves and a keen ear for improvisation. “Happy Notes” begins in lyrical mood with a feature for the sensitive drumming of Guiliana. Only in the tune’s latter stages does it take off with leaping piano from Neame and a series of drum explosions from the trio’s star guest.

“Love Song” establishes an immediate groove with Guiliana’s subtle polyrhythmic drumming complementing Neame’s piano hook. There’s an extensive bass feature for Hoiby as his two colleagues accent his every move, and similar episodes for Guiliana and Neame. But essentially it’s a group thing with the baton of leadership transferring back and forth. It’s exploratory but exciting and the audience respond with whoops of enthusiasm. The trio project themselves well but without resorting to showbiz clichés and it clearly works for the London crowd. 

The album closes with “Untitled#2” , a tune that appears in two forms on the album “Organic Warfare”. The piece features one of Hoiby’s most arresting melodies but he’s not afraid to use it as a jumping off point for yet another example of adventurous improvisation.

Listening to the album I’m struck by how different many of these tunes sound to how I remember them at Wenlock. Despite the winning hooks and grooves it’s clear that improvisation is the beating heart of Phronesis’ music. I doubt if two shows are ever alike which is what makes jazz, and this trio in particular, so exciting. I’m off to see the group again at Brecon Jazz Festival in a couple of weeks time and with regular drummer Anton Eger back on board I’m looking forward to seeing something different again.

Those like myself who already have the trio’s two studio albums may feel that “Alive” is a less than essential purchase but the quality and sheer bravura of these performances suggests otherwise. There’s a considerable buzz about Phronesis at the moment as their national and international standing continues to grow and certainly for newcomers this sparkling live album is a great place to start.

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