by Ian Mann
March 31, 2014
Ian Mann enjoys a double bill of electro jazz and takes a look at Polar Bear's new album "In Each and Every One".
Polar Bear / Gonimoblast, The Hare and Hounds, Kings Heath, Birmingham, 27/03/2014.
It’s almost unbelievable to think that drummer and composer Sebastian Rochford has been leading his remarkable group Polar Bear for more than a decade. For my money they’re one of the most significant bands to have emerged in the 21st century as they continue to build bridges between jazz and other types of music, both electric and acoustic.
Polar Bear seemed to emerge almost fully formed in 2004 with the release of “Dim Lit”, their remarkable début album for the Babel label. The then quartet featured Rochford at the kit, Tom Herbert on double bass and the unusual tenor sax pairing of Pete Wareham and Mark Lockheart. They were joined for 2005’s Mercury Music Prize nominated “Held On The Tips Of Fingers” by electronics artist Leafcutter John who brought even more of a wild card element to an already highly unconventional band. The five piece line up has remained constant ever since across the course of three more albums, 2008’s eponymous “Polar Bear”, the critically lauded “Peepers” (2010) and the latest offering “In Each and Every One” (2014), of which more later. There have also been a number of EPs including 2010’s “Common Ground”, a mini album recorded with Portuguese rap artist MC Jyager, the only item in the Polar Bear catalogue of which I’m not especially fond. The prolific Rochford has also led the short lived (but very good) Fulborn Teversham, been a key component of Wareham’s now defunct Acoustic Ladyland and collaborated on a myriad other projects across a variety of genres as both musician and producer. Currently he is a member of Shabaka Hutchings exciting Sons Of Kemet group who are due to visit the Hare & Hounds on April 24th 2014.
Polar Bear’s brand of contemporary instrumental music (Rochford sometimes fights shy of the word “jazz”) has been a substantial influence on other musicians with a whole sub genre of “punk jazz” bands growing up in the wake of both Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland - although I’m keen that Partisans should also be acknowledged as pioneers of that whole scene with their 2000 Babel album “Sourpuss”.
One musician to be influenced by these developments is Chris Mapp, the Birmingham based bassist and composer and co-founder of the city’s adventurous Harmonic Festival. Mapp’s latest project is Gonimoblast , an electro-improvising quintet that acted as tonight’s “support act”, although the evening was effectively a “double bill”. This was certainly the case for Leafcutter John who appeared as a member of both groups, making crucial contributions to each. He was joined in Gonimoblast by Mapp on five string electric bass, Mark Sanders at the drums, Dan Nicholls on keyboard and Sam Wooster on trumpet, the last named replacing original member Aaron Diaz. Gonimoblast has grown out of other Mapp projects such as Gambol and Elda, both of which made use of samplers and electronics. Mapp names Scandinavian acts such as Arve Henriksen, Food and Supersilent as influences on this latest project and first collaborated with Leafcutter John as part of the Take Five scheme. Tonight was only the second gig for Gonimoblast following the band’s début as part of the SOUNDkitchen programme at the Bull’s Head in nearby Moseley in July 2013.
I suspect that rehearsal time had been limited and the quintet played a single piece clocking in at around the forty minute mark, much of which was probably entirely improvised. Prior to the group’s first performance in 2013 Mapp spoke of “presenting a journey through six stages of emotion” and this sketch or premise may well have also formed the basis for tonight’s music which ebbed and flowed in the spirit of the best improvised music. Electronic sounds predominated with both Leafcutter and Mapp involved in the treatment process and the band played at rock volume, which was probably just as well as they were competing with a rowdy, sold out performance by current Wire magazine favourites the Sleaford Mods in the smaller of the Hare & Hounds two performance spaces. At times the ultra low, almost subsonic bass pulses generated by both Mapp and Leafcutter were almost physically painful.
Incidentally it was the first time I’ve been to a Jazzlines event in the “big” room at the Hare & Hounds and I’m pleased to say that it was absolutely rammed, evidence of Polar Bear’s enduring appeal. Many of the audience were much younger than the usual jazz demographic and on this occasion I didn’t get the impression that they were all music students. It was like 2005/6 all over again when the buzz around both the Polars and Acoustic Ladyland was huge, a direct result of that Mercury nomination.
Returning to Gonimoblast their music was a melange of electronic sounds but with the brilliant Sanders’ use of small percussion instruments adding a humanising effect. Wooster’s trumpet playing veered from breathy, other worldly Henriksen style whisperings to full on clarion like blasting, his sound occasionally exhibiting a Middle Eastern influence, at others mutated by the live sampling and processing techniques of Leafcutter John. Nicholls frequently worked in tandem with Leafcutter, his keyboard sound basically that of an electric piano but with other electronic effects also thrown in.
As the music pulsed and flowed Mapp and Sanders set up a series of mighty grooves, alternating these with more impressionistic moments of electronic meditations in which Leafcutter’s role was central. Although there was no soloing in the conventional sense responsibility for taking the lead was passed around the various instruments and there were also some inspired moments of dialogue including memorable exchanges between Nicholls and Wooster and later Nicholls and Sanders as the latter exercised his powers of creativity as he circumnavigated his kit over an urgent, insistent and effective electric piano figure. Equally fascinating was the exchange of ideas between Sanders and Leafcutter, the ancient primacy of the drums creating a fascinating juxtaposition with the modern day energy and eclecticism of the electronics.
Gonimoblast is clearly a band with a great deal of potential and one hopes that Mapp can keep it going and that he gets to document its music on CD. Given that the band is nominally led by the bassist and that Leafcutter John is central to its concept the musician who impressed me most was still Mark Sanders who was at the heart of everything good about the music. Positioned centre stage he never dropped a beat and his sense of groove was matched by the delightful details of his playing and the use of exotic percussion and extended effects, the latter including the eerie and highly effective sounds of bowed cymbals. Peter Bacon singled him out in his review for the Jazz breakfast and I’m totally in agreement with Peter on this point. I’ve seen Sanders quite a few times now, (other gigs have included performances saxophonists Martin Speake, Ken Vandermark and Paul Dunmall plus guitarist Alex Ward) and every time I see him he seems to get better and better. With Seb Rochford due to follow him on stage tonight was a night to admire the playing of two of Britain’s brightest, most imaginative drummers.
And so to Polar Bear, who are currently touring the UK in support of their new album “In Each and Every One”, their latest release for the Leeds based Leaf label. Like its predecessor “Peepers” the new album has been widely acclaimed by the British music press and rightly so. In typical Polar Bear style “In Each…” manages to combine invention, imagination and innovation with relative accessibility as the group continue to demonstrate clear signs of artistic growth. “In Each..” sees the group adopting a substantially different approach to both recording and performance while remaining true to the Polar Bear ethos and retaining the essence of their signature sound.
In the past it’s been tempting to think of Leafcutter as a bit of a novelty and as an add on to the original quartet, “the cheeky element of Polar Bear” as the man himself has described it. “Peepers” saw him taking on a greater role as he contributed his singular guitar stylings to the electronic fairy dust but this time he’s ditched the guitar as the electronics have come to form a more central part of Polar Bear’s music. The new album sees much of the rhythmic drive being created around electronic beats with Rochford playing in and around Leafcutter’s computer generated rhythms. The resultant music is darker than that of “Peepers” but Rochford’s gift for a melodic phrase or hook ensures that there’s always a tune or a groove to hang your hat on, for all their experimentation and other worldliness Polar Bear always retain a degree of accessibility, hence the packed room and the air of anticipation this evening.
The air of the eccentric and exotic extends to the group’s visual appearance. Rochford still sports his trademark bird’s nest cum afro mega barnet, Herbert, surely the pioneer of the Hoxton beard remains fashionably hirsute, and saxophonist Pete Wareham has gone all C & W on us, he looked like a refugee from the Hank Wangford band. Leafcutter and Mark Lockheart were both relatively normal by comparison.
With their stable line-up and preponderance of written material Polar Bear were always going to have the edge over Gonimoblast (good as they were) and so it proved. Tonight’s show featured most of the new album and began with a lengthy segue of the first three tracks. The appropriately titled “Open See” is perhaps the most obviously “ambient” piece the group have recorded, a result perhaps of Rochford’s recent work with Brian Eno. Here ghostly electronics and grainy arco bass combined with the two tenors, Wareham manipulating the sound of his horn to add an extra layer of effects as Lockheart took something vaguely approaching a conventional solo. All the while Rochford crouched egoless behind his kit admiring the work of his colleagues. Could the new record be the only drummer led album where a stick isn’t even raised (let alone in anger) until track two? But there’s no denying the ethereal beauty of “Open See”, both the recorded version and tonight’s performance.
Leafcutter’s electronic beats ushered in “Be Free” and Rochford finally seated himself at his kit, a modified set up with customised cymbals and ethnic looking drums, some way removed from the classic drum set and as far as I could see broadly similar to the kind of kit he deploys with Sons Of Kemet. Lockheart continued to be the dominant saxophonist with Wareham taking over as the music segued into the edgy and urgent “Chotpot”, a Bengali word meaning “distracted”, the piece Rochford’s musical commentary on our twitchy, modern, social media driven existence. The other two titles seemed more typical of Rochford’s wide eyed, other worldly, child like innocence, celebrations of possibilities and freedom respectively.
The two parts of the cheerily titled “Lost In Death” were bracketed together, they’re kept apart on the album, Rochford gently playing hand drums over the drone of Leafcutter’s electronics as the two saxes intertwined, Wareham again manipulating his sound through his own effects unit and taking the main saxophone solo as the music gained intensity, this developing out of a dialogue between Rochford and Herbert.
The announcements dried up after this but there was still much music to be heard, including the dramatic “Life and Life”. Grooves became heavier, the sound more processed and Wareham began to assert himself more and more with some swashbuckling solos. Herbert’s heavily treated bass became increasingly guitar like and some of Leafcutter’s electronic beats were of industrial strength.
Rochford conceived the group name as the result of the perception that Polar Bears are “cute and cuddly but are simultaneously fierce and extremely dangerous”.The paradox can be heard in the music, the wide eyed innocence of “Open See” and the almost childlike simplicity of some Rochford’s other themes juxtaposed with the hard edged rhythms, often sourced from non jazz sources, the ferocious, often heavily processed sax solos and the leader’s often incendiary drumming. Rochford may come over all fey and ethereal but he can hammer hell out of a drum kit in addition to being a quite awesome technician. The more groove driven elements of the Bear’s performance led to a sea of bobbing heads, further evidence of the accessibility behind the weirdness.
Despite their brief flirtation with mainstream success following the Mercury nomination Polar Bear have maintained their outsider status and remain as cool and vital as when they started out over ten years ago. The intervening years have been marked by an urge to experiment and almost continual artistic growth. Now their music has taken another turn but remains as fresh as ever and there seems to be a real buzz about the band once more. As an album “In Each and Every One” is as good as anything they’ve ever done and is a good candidate for their best ever. It’s certainly the one that sees Leafcutter John most fully integrated within the band. I’ll admit that I’ve sometimes found him a bit of a distraction but there’s no denying the centrality and importance of his role in the Polar Bear of 2014.
On a night when the band received a great reception from the Birmingham crowd and business on the merchandise stall was remarkably brisk it’s a view that many listeners seem to share.
Polar Bear are still touring in the UK. Forthcoming dates as follows;
WED 2 APRIL
THU 3 APRIL
St John the Evangelist Church
SUN 6 APRIL
The Sage Gateshead
FRI 4 JULY
- SUN 6 JULY
Love Supreme Festival 2014
SUN 10 AUGUST
Brecon Jazz Festival
Y Neuadd Goffa: the Memorial Hall, Christ College
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Full details at http://www.polarbearmusic.com