by Ian Mann
June 09, 2016
There's a palpable spirit of audacious, free-wheeling adventure about this recording. This is a trio that is very much at the peak of its powers, and is, if anything, still improving.
(Edition Records EDN1070)
It’s hard to believe that the Anglo-Scandinavian trio Phronesis have been performing together for a decade and that “Parallax” is their sixth album in a catalogue that includes four studio recordings plus two concert sets.
The Jazzmann has always been proud of spotting the potential of Phronesis as early as 2007 with my review of their début album “Organic Warfare”. The current edition of the group has been together since the second album, “Green Delay” from 2009, when the British pianist Ivo Neame joined founder members Jasper Hoiby (double bass) and Anton Eger (drums).
Under the leadership of Hoiby the story of Phronesis has been one of consistent artistic growth, something documented on their four albums for Dave Stapleton’s Edition record label. The first of these was “Alive”, a live recording made at The Forge in Camden Town, London and featuring guest US drummer Mark Guiliana filling in for the unavailable Anton Eger. The album captured perfectly the excitement generated by Phronesis’ increasingly brilliant live performances and really brought the band to the attention of the British jazz public as it gathered plaudits and awards from an adoring jazz press, including Jazzwise Magazine’s award for “Album of the Year” in 2010.
Initially all of Phronesis’ material was composed by Hoiby but for the group’s studio album “Walking Dark”, released in 2012, both Neame and Eger brought tunes to the group for the first time. This was a natural development from the trio’s increasingly exciting and interactive stage shows and a group rapport that had reached such a high level by this time that they were able to perform a series of concerts in total darkness, the so called “Pitch Black” project. This was initially conceived as a tribute to Hoiby’s sister Jeanette and the progressive blindness that she suffered as the result of a genetic medical condition. The “Pitch Black” performances were also a unique sensory experience for audiences and were a tribute to both the pioneering spirit and technical excellence of the three musicians. As an album“Walking Dark” exhibited no discernible reduction in quality and helped to consolidate the band’s success, a process that was taken a stage further by the trio’s second live album, “Life To Everything”, recorded at Jazz in the Round at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone, London and released in 2014.
In 2015 Phronesis appeared alongside the Frankfurt Radio Big Band directed by Julian Arguelles at a very special gig at the Milton Court Concert Hall as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. The programme consisted of Arguelles’ big band arrangements of previously released Phronesis material and it was fascinating to see how brilliantly and effectively these pieces made the transition from trio arrangements to big band. Hopefully this gig was documented on tape, it was a stupendous performance that really deserves to come out on disc as the third Phronesis live album.
In the meantime we have “Parallax”, the trio’s latest studio recording, to keep us happy. Recorded at the famous Abbey Road Studios in London the new album follows the pattern set by its two immediate predecessors by including compositions from all three members of the band. In this increasingly democratic trio Hoiby, Neame and Eger contribute three tunes each and it’s fascinating to study the contrasts inherent in their writing, yet at the same time marvel at how everything comes together to create the now signature Phronesis sound. This time round the writing is intentionally less dense and more open, with more room given for improvisation. In a sense it’s a return to the approach adopted on the début “Organic Warfare” where Hoiby deliberately kept things harmonically simple. At the same time it’s totally indicative of where the band are now and was recorded ‘live in the studio’ over the course of a single day in October 2015. The greater freedom afforded by the writing is expressed in a typically feverish and interactive trio performance, Phronesis like to play on the edge, with senses sharpened, and there’s a palpable spirit of audacious, free-wheeling adventure about this recording. This is a trio that is very much at the peak of its powers, and is, if anything, still improving.
Things get off to an adrenaline fuelled start with Eger’s “67,000 MPH”, the title representing the speed of the Earth around the Sun. Introduced by the composer’s drums the piece features Neame’s darting, Latin-esque, Chick Corea-like piano motifs and Hoiby’s consistently propulsive, but also flexible, bass and more time signature changes and sudden swerves of direction than you can shake the proverbial stick at. It’s thrilling stuff, unpredictable, highly interactive, technically astonishing and above all exciting and just plain brilliant.
Neame is an established bandleader in his own right and has released a series of successful solo albums for line ups ranging from trio to octet. His writing is often complex and cerebral but is frequently enlivened by a sense of humour as titles like “OK Chorale” suggest. This piece begins with a quirky passage of solo piano but subsequently evolves into a typically busy and feverish Phronesis performance with the usual high levels of group interaction. Although the individual members of the group take turns in leading the music, including Eger , here with a series of increasingly spectacular drum breaks, the conventional jazz solo and the whole head/solos/head thing is largely redundant as far as Phronesis are concerned. These are true trio performances, the three musicians working together as if part of a single organism.
Hoiby’s “Stillness” initially represents something of a departure for the band as it adopts a more reflective tone than much of the group’s output. Emerging from a freely structured intro it features Hoiby’s dramatically bowed bass and Eger’s atmospheric mallet rumbles and other percussive effects as Neame’s circling piano motif forms the backbone of the piece in its early stages. Things subsequently become more animated with an increasingly colourful solo drum and percussion passage from Eger before Neame cuts loose with a buccaneering piano solo as Hoiby and the flamboyant Eger stoke the rhythmic fires around him.
Neame’s “Kite For Seamus” sees the composer introducing a lyrical element of his own on a charming piece that includes Hoiby’s pizzicato bass solo alongside the composer’s luminous pianism. However the trio’s underlying sense of urgency is never far away as Eger’s brushed drum breaks demonstrate.
Hoiby’s “Just 4 Now” ups the volume levels once more with its feverish, densely written theme and the composer’s muscular, vigorously plucked bass solo. At a little over three and a half minutes it’s one of the shortest tracks on the album but it’s one that fairly bristles with energy.
The momentum is maintained with Eger’s “Ayu” which features the trio members in tight synchronicity with Hoiby’s bass pulse providing the drive as Eger chatters around him. The composer is one of the most distinctive drummers around, his colourful, idiosyncratic, constantly flowing style combining a restless, impish energy with a brilliant technique and a broad and colourful sonic palette incorporating a wide variety of percussive implements. However this piece also features a gentler, more freely structured passage mid tune before the trio up the energy levels yet again to finish with a flamboyant flourish.
Hoiby’s “A Silver Moon” represents something of a pause for breath and is the second piece to suggest that he is now taking a more thoughtful, lyrical and contemplative approach to his writing. His own bass features strongly here, still inherently powerful even in the album’s quieter moments as he solos at length. Neame also features with an expansive but lyrical piano solo as Eger demonstrates his gentler side with some supportive brush work.
“Manioc Maniac” is another title that demonstrates Neame’s love of word play. The music is perhaps less characteristic, a three minute outburst of energy that maintains something of the composer’s trademark quirkiness as he and his piano conduct a particularly lively dialogue with Eger’s richly colourful and hyper-energetic drums.
The album closes as it began with a composition by Anton Eger. “Rabat” embraces driving, hypnotic grooves, these punctuated by a pizzicato bass feature from Hoiby and a barnstorming piano solo from Neame. The composer himself is in particularly ebullient form behind the kit as the piece builds to a climax before subtly falling away as it gently resolves itself.
In a sense there are no surprises about this album, this is just Phronesis doing what they do best, but arguably with even more flair, openness and energy than usual, particularly in a studio situation. “Parallax” is well up to the standard of their previous recordings but the best place to hear Phronesis is still in a live situation and admirers will have the chance to catch up with the band at three dates in June 2016 as detailed below;
Phronesis at Wiltshire Music Centre, Bradford on Avon, Wilts.
Friday, June 10, 2016
Phronesis at Cadogan Hall, London.
Sunday, June 12, 2016
Phronesis at Band on the Wall, Manchester.
Tuesday, June 14, 2016
Further details at http://www.phronesismusic.com
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