by Ian Mann
April 03, 2011
An exceptional display of keenly intelligent music making.
The Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock, Shropshire,02/04/2011
A little over a year ago Phronesis brought down the curtain on the “old Edge”. Since that time a lot has changed with the venue opening a brand new purpose built performance space that has maintained the high standards established by The Edge’s Artistic Director Alison Vermee.
It’s been quite a year for Phronesis too. That earlier performance came just a few days after they had recorded their album “Alive” at The Forge in Camden and featured guest drummer, the American Mark Guiliana. “Alive” went on to be voted “album of the year” by Jazzwise Magazine, an accolade that raised the band’s profile considerably, as did a sequence of successful summer festival appearances including an electrifying performance in front of a sell out crowd at Brecon Jazz Festival.
These factors had combined to bring jazz fans out in force with the numbers well up on their previous visit. Regular drummer Anton Eger was back in the fold joining pianist Ivo Neame and the group’s double bassist and leader Jasper Hoiby. The group’s 2010 performance had been good, if a little short, but this time round the trio were even better in a value for money show that featured both old and new material. This early return visit to The Edge represented something of an indulgence on behalf of Alison who unashamedly numbers herself among the growing ranks of Jasper’s female admirers!
Like all the best jazz combinations Phronesis are not a band that stands still. Hitherto all the group’s music has been written by their Danish born leader but Hoiby has now encouraged Neame and Eger to become involved in the writing process and several of their tunes were to be heard over the course of the evening. It’s all part of a process that gives Phronesis a strong group identity; although Hoiby is the leader there is still a strong sense of democracy within the group and a high level of interaction and dialogue between the players. With Eger back on the team it’s immediately obvious that the three musicians know each other’s playing very well. They play without sheet music and with the drums set up sideways on to the audience, facing the piano and with Hoiby centre stage. It’s an arrangement that encourages that essential eye contact and cross fertilisation of ideas.
Before they’d even played a note the first thing that struck me about the 2011 edition of Phronesis was their new found sartorial elegance. All took to the stage wearing neatly tailored jackets, which surprisingly remained on for most of the evening, but there was certainly nothing buttoned up about their free flowing music. Eger, in particular, brings a certain edginess to the band in live performance, plus, on occasion, a sense of humour. He’s a busy, but never intrusive, drummer who relishes the opportunity for a spot of showmanship-but only in the right places. It’s in the nature of Phronesis’ way of doing things that each musician should lead the music in turn and both Eger and Hoiby enjoy regular features but this is in no way rote head/solos/head style soloing. Each member comes into focus in an entirely unforced and organic manner, this is a genuine musical dialogue between equals with each participant sometimes leading the conversation. The combined qualities of the writing and the improvising coalesce to give each piece an episodic feeling which draws the audience into the narrative. This is music full of unpredictable twists and turns that keeps listeners on the edge of their seats.
First up was Eger’s tune “Democracy?”-both he and Hoiby expressed the importance of that question mark. Hoiby’s huge, elastic double bass sound gave the music an enormous rhythmic impetus which in turn encouraged some feverish soloing from the excellent Neame. The pianist’s blend of discipline and adventurousness is just right for Phronesis, anchoring the music one minute, pushing the harmonic envelope the next. He’s a superb technician whose playing has come on by leaps and bounds these past few years. Recently turned thirty he’s a player who seems to be right on top of his game. Eger’s military sounding snare patterns at one point of the performance may have been a comment on the political questions inherent in his choice of title.
Hoiby’s “Suede Trees” began with the composer on unaccompanied bass. “Dexterous” is a word that routinely gets used describe bass solos but Hoiby takes the word to a whole new level. His huge hands contort themselves into seemingly impossible fingering positions, producing unexpected notes and phrases but without ever losing that hugeness of tone and an extraordinary resonance. It’s little wonder that he’s one of the most in demand bassists on the UK scene both as a formidable soloist and a superb accompanist. Following Neame’s solo there was an equally impressive feature from Eger, a drummer who coaxes an amazing array of sounds from his kit via a combination of sticks, brushes and frequent use of the rims as well as the skins. Here he used one stick and one brush-surprisingly not a combination you see used very often-to vary his sound before switching to two sticks for an extrovert finish. Not that this piece was just about the opening and closing features, there was plenty of that expansive Phronesis style dialogue to enjoy as well.
Neame’s “American Jesus” featured complex grooves (with Eger simultaneously handling both sticks and shakers) and dense torrents of piano notes followed by a more lyrical concluding passage. Here was a piece that typified the increasingly episodic nature of the band’s writing.
Hoiby’s tune “Lipwash” began with a drum roll that led into a series of dazzlingly tricky unison passages plus the usual expansive improvising, the title a mild jibe at politicians of every stripe.All the music we had heard thus far was new, suggesting that a new studio recording is in the offing. The quality of the material indicated that this will be well worth waiting for and hopefully there will be a new release later in the year.
To close the first half they treated us to “Happy Notes”, a Hoiby tune familiar from both the “Green Delay” studio album and the “Alive” concert recording. This was notable for its solo piano opening, the ensuing dialogue between Neame and Hoiby and finally Eger’s atmospheric and dramatic drum feature which saw him generate an astonishing amount of power with the brushes alone.
The first half had been full of sparky and erudite musical conversation and there was to be no flagging in a second half that relied more on previously released material. Phronesis’ sense of groove has evoked comparisons with E.S.T. but I think it’s fair to say that the group have moved beyond this to develop a style that is very much their own. Nonetheless “Abraham’s New Gift” with it’s propulsive bass groove is one of the most accessible pieces in the Phronesis canon and provided an attention grabbing opener to the second set. Stunning solos by Hoiby and Neame were followed by the explosive drumming of Eger in a climactic percussion feature.
The similarly accessible melody and groove of “Blue Inspiration” then provided the opportunity for the band to wander off piste in a series of fascinating mutations that incorporated another remarkable bass feature from Hoiby.
Hoiby’s solo bass intro"Love Song” formed the basis for a spirited three way musical dialogue, this in turn leading to a more intimate conversation between piano and drums as Hoiby leaned on his bass sipping a glass of wine whilst admiring the work of his colleagues.
Shimmering cymbals introduced a new Eger tune “Ziedging” which introduced hip hop style grooves to the band’s sound and incorporated the now customarily excellent bass and piano features. It was crowned yet again by the composer’s drum feature which drew the most rapturous applause yet from The Edge crowd. Mr Eger was rapidly becoming something of a show stealer. His impish sense of humour was also apparent on the set closer, a new groove orientated Hoiby piece entitled “Walking Dark”.
With the audience now in the palms of Phronesis’ collective hands an encore was inevitable. Hoiby’s tune “Eight Hours”, which made its début on the “Alive” album added an unexpected lyrical touch and was very well received. Such was the reception for this that Hoiby took the unusual step of deciding to play a second encore piece, “Untitled # 2” from the group’s first CD “Organic Warfare”. It was the arresting melody of this piece that first drew me to Phronesis’ music back in 2007 and it’s been a pleasure to chart their remarkable progress since then. I’d like to think that The Jazzmann was in on the ground floor so to speak. With a little prompting from Eger Hoiby dedicated the piece to Alison Vermee, and rightly so I think. We’re very lucky to be able to see groups of this calibre on a regular basis in Much Wenlock and right now Phronesis are a group right at the top of their game- but still with the promise of great things to come. Musically the tune combined ECM style balladry with a kind of sly, cerebral funkiness and this return to the group’s beginnings was a wonderful way to round off an exceptional display of keenly intelligent music making.
We have received two Facebook comments relating to the Phronesis performance at The Edge;
“I was there. it was great. Your review sums it up excellently.Next up…Kit Downes at the Hive in Shrewsbury” -David Battisby
“A great night out!” -Derrick Barstow
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