by Ian Mann
September 17, 2018
As fresh, inventive and dynamic as ever, there’s still something very special and unique about Phronesis.
“We Are All”
(Edition Records EDN1118Y)
The release of a new album by Phronesis is always a major event on the jazz calendar. Founded by Jasper Hoiby, born in Denmark but for many years based in London, the trio made their recorded début in 2007 with the excellent album “Organic Warfare”. It has always been a source of personal pride for me that the Jazzmann identified the group’s potential straight away and I have followed their career with interest ever since. Now, more than a decade later Phronesis has become one of Europe’s most respected piano/bass/drums configurations and the trio has also made considerable inroads into the US market. This is a truly international band with a truly international reputation.
The current line up of the trio has been in place since “Green Delay”, the group’s second album release from 2009. Here Hoiby and drummer Anton Eger were joined by the British pianist Ivo Neame, who replaced the original incumbent Magnus Hjorth.
The first two albums appeared on the Loop record label founded by members of London’s Loop Collective but the group’s international breakthrough came when they moved to the Edition Record label. The group’s third release, “Alive”, a concert recording made at the now defunct Forge venue in London’s Camden Town attracted a compelling amount of critical acclaim and swelled the ranks of the trio’s already substantial following. Ironically the band’s biggest seller to date featured the playing of the hugely popular and influential American drummer Mark Guiliana, who was deputising for the unavailable Anton Eger.
Eger was back in the fold for all the trio’s subsequent releases beginning with 2012’s studio set “Walking Dark” and 2014’s “Life To Everything”, the group’s second live recording, this time recorded at a ‘Jazz In The Round’ event at London’s Cockpit Theatre.
In 2016 Phronesis released their next studio set “Parallax” while 2017 saw the appearance of “The Behemoth”, another concert recording which documented the trio’s collaboration with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band conducted by Julian Arguelles in a set of big band arrangements by Arguelles of existing Phronesis compositions. It was a tribute to the quality of the original writing that the pieces chosen lent themselves to the expanded format brilliantly and in November 2015 Phronesis, plus the FRBB conducted by Arguelles, played two brilliant concert performances in Frankfurt and London, the latter at Milton Court as part of that year’s EFG London Festival – and I was there! However it’s the earlier Frankfurt show that has been documented on disc.
In 2017 the members of Phronesis were involved with another collaboration, this time with the contemporary classical composer Dave Maric. The Cheltenham, Manchester and London Jazz Festivals of that year saw the trio performing Maric’s composition “Decade Zero” as part of an ensemble featuring eight string and woodwind players sourced from the ranks of the Engines Orchestra and directed by saxophonist, composer and educator Phil Meadows. It is to be hoped that one of these performances will also find its way on to an album. These live appearances also featured arrangements of existing Phronesis pieces and one of the shows was subsequently broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s Jazz Now programme.
All this history brings us to the release of “We Are Now”, the trio’s most recent album and their eighth overall. Following their recent large ensemble collaborations it’s back to basics with the fifth studio recording from the core trio.
The album’s title is a reflection of the band’s evolution over the course of the last decade or so. Phronesis was originally the vehicle for Hoiby’s compositions exclusively but from “Walking Dark” onwards the group’s repertoire has also featured the writing of both Neame and Eger as this already highly interactive trio has become even more democratic. These days one doesn’t really think of Phronesis as Hoiby’s group but as a unified entity with a particularly strong group dynamic, now very much a partnership of equals.
‘Chemistry’ is a word that gets bandied about a lot with regard to musical ensembles but its one that is particularly applicable to these three musicians. Hoiby also leads the quintet Fellow Creatures and is a member of the trio Malija, Neame and Eger both lead their own groups and each is a prolific sideman. It’s fair to say that everything that these three players are involved with is of musical interest and as individuals all of them have appeared on some exceptional recordings – but there’s still something special, a real spark in the air, that only happens when the three of them get together as Phronesis. It’s no coincidence that no fewer than three of the band’s eight albums have been live recordings.
It’s this kind of collective rapport that the trio seek to express on “We Are All”, with the title expressing their wish for their spirit of mutual co-operation to be extended to humanity as a whole. The group’s recent large ensemble co-operations are also reflective of the trio’s desire to look outwards, despite being so tightly knit and inter-connected as a band.
“More than ever before, we feel we have a responsibility to use whatever influence we have to voice environmental, political and social concerns, and use our creativity to raise awareness, to prompt discussion and to share a message, hopefully as a force for good. The history of civilisation is often told in terms of the struggle for power between nations and competition between nations for resources. The question is whether humans will have the ability to co-operate with each other in the future; whether we will have the capacity to ‘love our neighbours’ regardless of differences of race, religion or gender, and love and protect our planet in spite of the ravages of corporate capitalist society”.
That sense of unity is expressed in the album cover with its aerial photographs of crowds of humans, penguins, fish and forests, which all seem to take on similar forms when viewed from high above. The front cover shot varies across the different release formats (CD, vinyl, digital) with artwork designer Oli Bentley explaining;
“It was important for us to use multiple covers across the different release formats as we didn’t want to suggest a homogeneity of experience between everyone on earth – something just one image would suggest. But whatever environment we inhabit, whatever our lives are like, we are all sharing this one little blob of rock, bumbling through space”.
OK, I’ll buy the artistic argument, but I do wonder how the use of multiple ‘collector edition’ covers (two for the CD format) and of yellow vinyl squares with the band’s environmental and anti-capitalist concerns.
However I’ll let that go and concentrate on the music, which is as intense, complex, interactive and invigorating as anything Phronesis have hitherto produced. In the spirit of the album the compositional duties are split equally with each member contributing two pieces to the recording’s programme of six tracks. At a little over forty minutes in length the album as a whole is concise and tightly focussed and features plenty of the trio’s trademark dynamic interplay as powerful rhythms are allied with strong melodies to create richly stimulating music that remains readily accessible, transcending its technical demands and considerable complexities.
The album commences with Hoiby’s “One For Us”. Even before listening to the music I like the ambiguity of the title; does it refer to the insularity of this closest of jazz trios or to the album’s theme of humanity as a whole? I guess it’s the latter, but I’m intrigued by that element of doubt.
The music too, invites questions, the piece doesn’t begin like a typically upbeat Phronesis album opener; instead things start quietly with the gentle, lyrical sound of Neame’s unaccompanied piano, soon joined by the melancholy, cello like sound of Hoiby’s bowed bass. It’s only when the composer puts down the bow to play muscular but fluent pizzicato bass that the piece moves into more recognisable Phronesis territory, but still with plenty of twists and turns along the way as the trio skilfully build and diffuse tension, their collective interplay as dynamic and exciting as ever. There’s a mercurial piano solo from Neame accompanied by Eger’s frantically busy, but always engaging, drumming. Hoiby’s powerful but agile and melodic bass solo is augmented by the rapid clatter of sticks on rims. This is a piece that covers a lot of ground in its nine minute duration, moving from the dark and melancholic to the viscerally exciting and doing so in a manner that sounds uncontrived and thoroughly organic, an observation that acts as a tribute both to the quality and ingenuity of the writing and to the sheer brilliance of the playing.
Neame takes up the compositional reins for “Matrix for D.A.”, which he dedicates to the memory late author Douglas Adams, of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” fame. As his solo recordings have shown Neame’s writing tends to be complex and cerebral, although agreeably so. The press release accompanying my copy of the album describes this piece as “polyrhythmic and polymorphic” and the piece is as intricate and multi-faceted as anything that Neame has produced. The composer’s ongoing dialogue with Eger is a constant source of fascination throughout the piece. Eger is so much more than just a time keeper or even a just a drummer, this flamboyant but astonishingly creative musician is very much an equal partner in the unique Phronesis sound.
Eger himself contributes “The Edge” and reveals himself to be a sensitive and intelligent composer. The drummer switches to brushes as Hoiby solos both with and without the bow, his gently brooding arco work setting the tone for a melodic, but deeply resonant pizzicato solo. Neame’s fuller involvement then takes the trio into more animated, interactive territory as the piece gradually gathers momentum.
Neame’s “Emerald Horseshoe” develops out of the composer’s piano arpeggios and embraces elements of minimalism and folk melody before the pianist stretches out at length above Eger’s skittering, consistently compelling drum grooves.
The title of Hoiby’s “Breathless” is intentionally double-sided, referring to his wonder at the beauty of the natural world, while lamenting the toll humanity is taking on its resources. It commences with the lonely sound of the composer’s unaccompanied double bass before introducing one of his most attractive melodies. Piano and bass exchange melodic phrases while Eger deploys brushes almost throughout. Possessed of a pastoral beauty this is Phronesis at their most unadorned and emotionally direct.
The album concludes with “Eger’s” “The Tree Did Not Die”, which he dedicates to the survival of the Redwoods of Muir Woods, California. Musically it’s the most radical piece on the album with the trio adding an element of electronica to their sound, something that reflects Eger’s recent experiments with a new quartet featuring British musicians Dan Nicholls (keyboards), Matt Calvert (guitar, keyboards) and Rob Mullarkey (electric bass), this group having made its live début at London’s Vortex Jazz Club in April 2018. Meanwhile Neame was also heard deploying electric keyboards to convincing effect on his latest solo album “Moksha” (Edition, 2018).
“The Tree…” is a largely hard grooving piece that features a fascinating array of acoustic and electronic sounds with Hoiby playing both pizzicato and bowed bass, Neame deploying both acoustic piano and electric keyboards and Eger laying down drum grooves inspired by hip hop and electronic dance music. It all works surprisingly well, sacrificing nothing of the band’s essential integrity yet hinting at adventurous new areas for them to branch into on future projects.
Most bands, regardless of musical genre, tend to start with a burst of creativity but gradually run out of energy and ideas. It’s a process that’s less pronounced in jazz than in rock but nevertheless Phronesis remain one of the few groups in any sphere to consistently buck this trend. They set the bar high with “Organic Warfare” but have still managed to progress artistically year on year, and more than a decade in show no signs of slowing down or slackening off. Their recent large ensemble collaborations and this new experiment with electronic sounds are indicative of a band that refuses to rest on its collective creative laurels.
But as “We Are All” joyously demonstrates the threesome’s core acoustic ‘piano trio’ sound is as fresh, inventive and dynamic as ever. Despite the considerable individual achievements of its members elsewhere there’s still something very special and unique about Phronesis.
Phronesis are currently on tour in the UK and Europe. Forthcoming dates as below;
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Saturday 20th October – Jazz & the City Festival, Salzburg, Austria
Tuesday 30th October – Watermill Jazz, Dorking, UK
Wednesday 31st October – Capstone Theatre, Liverpool, UK
Thursday 1st November – Howard Assembly Room, Leeds, UK
Friday 2nd November – The Sage, Gateshead, UK
Saturday 3rd November – CBSO Centre, Birmingham, UK
Sunday 4th November – Band on the Wall, Manchester, UK
Saturday 24th November – Cambridge Jazz Festival, UK