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Phronesis : Pitch Black, Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham, 01/05/2015 (part of Cheltenham Jazz Fest)

Photography: Photograph of Jasper Hoiby at soundcheck by Tim Dickeson.

by Ian Mann

May 05, 2015


A unique and astonishing start to the 2015 Cheltenham Jazz Festival

Phronesis : Pitch Black, Parabola Arts Centre, Cheltenham, 01/05/2015 (part of Cheltenham Jazz Festival).

In 2009 Phronesis released their second album “Green Delay”, the first recording to feature the current line up of the band with Danish bassist and leader Jasper Hoiby joined by British pianist Ivo Neame and Swedish drummer Anton Eger. The album was dedicated to Hoiby’s elder sister Jeanette who was born with a number of disabilities, both mental and physical, but who has dealt with her various difficulties with dignity and fortitude. In 2007 Jeanette lost her sight due to a serious form of cataract, a gradual process that ultimately resulted in total blindness. In his liner notes to “Green Delay” Hoiby signs off with the phrase “sister, now that your eyes have ceased to work here’s something for your ears”.

In 2010 the release of the trio’s third album “Alive”, a concert recording made at The Forge in Camden Town was eagerly seized on by the critics and the acclaim catapulted Phronesis into a different league to many of their contemporaries. Of course the rest of the world was just catching up with the Jazzmann who had been championing the group’s work since the release of début album “Organic Warfare” way back in 2007.

The trio’s new found status made them an increasingly attractive concert and festival draw, something cemented by the exciting nature of their live performances which mixed complex, stimulating, powerful music with a degree of showmanship, particularly from flamboyant drummer Anton Eger. Phronesis is a band that has exhibited consistent artistic growth and is also one that likes to take risks. Their live shows have always been “flying by the seats of their pants” affairs with the group members taking an obvious delight in their own skill and daring as they stretch the fabric of Hoiby’s robust compositions via a high level of improvisation and group interaction.

By 2011 the group’s level of rapport was almost telepathic and buoyed by the success of “Alive” Hoiby took the radical step of deciding to play a series of shows in total darkness, the idea inspired by the experiences of Jeanette. Hoiby dubbed the experiment the “Pitch Black” project and one of its first (possibly THE first) performances was at the 2011 Brecon Jazz Festival, a performance witnessed by my wife Pam who wrote about the experience for the Jazzmann site. I contrived to miss it, having seen Phronesis before I opted to watch Yaron Herman’s trio instead, a move I later regretted as Herman’s performance was marred by sound leakage from another stage - and whose idea was it schedule two of Europe’s leading piano trios opposite each other anyway? Yes, four years on and it still rankles.

With the Brecon experience in mind I was particularly gratified to find that Phronesis were to revive the Pitch Black idea at Cheltenham in 2015. As well as honouring Jeanette the performance also marked the tenth anniversary of the founding of the band, a significant and frankly astonishing milestone. The lighting was already subdued as Phronesis took to the stage offering a brief opportunity to make some visual impressions with a newly bearded Neame,  the gangling Hoiby in his favourite white shirt and a sharp looking Eger suited and booted. The latter’s drums introduced the first tune and the band’s familiar cut and thrust was immediately apparent with Hoiby’s muscular but melodic bass lines combining brilliantly with Eger’s busy and colourful drumming and Neame’s harmonic adventurousness. The pianist took the first solo as the light gradually dimmed, total darkness falling as Eger’s drum feature marked the transition from the first tune to the second. By now making notes was impossible so it was a case of steadily adjusting to the blackness, closing my eyes and concentrating on the music itself.

It’s a long time since I’ve listened to music with the lights out on a regular basis. As a teenager I’d lie on the bed and be transported to the outer reaches of the cosmos by the likes of Tangerine Dream and Pink Floyd, or to a more English pyschedelia courtesy of Caravan, Hatfield and The North and the other “Canterbury” bands. And if I wanted to frighten myself there was always Faust, King Crimson and Van Der Graaf Generator - blimey I’m showing my age here!

Although the Parabola was virtually sold out I felt myself alone in the darkness which was initially somewhat disturbing and disorientating but I soon found myself honing in on what the band were playing. Astonishingly there seemed to be no let up in terms of either intensity or precision in an opening segue of the tunes “Eight Hours”, “Urban Control” and the hard driving new piece “OK Corral” which sounded as good as anything they’ve ever done. The sheer range of percussive sounds generated by Eger using a variety of sticks, brushes and mallets was particularly noticeable and there were also significant solos from both Hoiby and Neame plus fascinating musical conversations between all the instrumentalists, still communicating with each other despite the absence of the usual head nods and hand signals. Quite how they maintained these levels of interactive brilliance was utterly astonishing, yes they must have rehearsed but that doesn’t make it any the less astounding or admirable.

Hoiby delivered his announcements in the dark, fumbling for the vocal mic and his water bottle before speaking of the “intense fun” offered by the Pitch Black experience. He also talked of Jeanette and of the circumstances behind the performance.

A second sequence of tunes began with “Stillness” which featured an extended passage of eerily bowed bass, mallet rumbles and what sounded like interior piano scrapings from Neame. At times Eger’s contribution seemed to be coming from a different place to my mental image of the location of the drum kit but it was Hoiby’s evocative arco playing that was the most crucial component of this richly atmospheric and effective sequence.

This was followed by relatively more conventional piano trio playing as the group progressed through “Rabat” and “Phraternal”, the title of the later seeming particularly relevant tonight as the trio played in a situation that relied on mutual trust to an even greater degree than usual, they truly are a band of brothers in music. It was during this last piece that the light gradually began to be restored and once more we had the visual stimuli of Neame hunched intently over his keyboard, Hoiby anchoring the group with his imaginative but unfailingly propulsive bass lines and Eger flailing energetically around his kit. At the end of the number the audience at the Parabola rose as one to give their exhausted heroes a standing ovation as the trio members came to the edge of the stage and bowed extravagantly. However their night’s work was still not done as they played a sighted encore in the still dim light and later met fans in the foyer and readily signed the CDS that were flying off the shelves.

I’ve witnessed Phronesis perform on numerous occasions and this was undoubtedly the most unusual. The darkness genuinely was total, even the exit signs were dimmed and the lights on the mixing desk extinguished, you literally couldn’t see a thing. It was a unique experience, one that I was glad to undertake but not one I’d necessarily want to repeat if I’m honest. Although the darkness focusses one’s attention on the music it can also cause one to hone in on other things as well. Feeling obliged not to move about too much in such circumstances the aches and pains in my increasingly dodgy knees (showing my age again!) were particularly noticeable and I was glad when the lights came back up and gave me something to look at again. And at the end of the day Phronesis are a band who deserve to be seen as well as heard.

That said the Pitch Black performances are little short of remarkable. Quite how the band do what they do and do it so well is almost unbelievable, particularly for the ebullient Eger I would have thought. For me this was a unique and astonishing start to the 2015 Cheltenham Jazz Festival, with many more musical delights to come.

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