REVIEW: Phronesis at Union Chapel

Phronesis at Union Chapel. May 2014
Photo Credit: Cat Munro. All Rigghts Reserved

Phronesis 
(Union Chapel, London N1. 29th May. Review by Dan Bergsagel)

There we were, gathered in the pews underneath the octagonal wooden lantern at Union Chapel. The cloud billowing out from a smoke-machine had obscured the cavernously high ceiling, so the space felt more intimate and spiritual. Would such an atmosphere overwhelm the music? No: for Phronesis' intense brand of jazz, nothing could seem more natural.

They opened their set with Urban Control, a trademark complex fast-paced piece, its sinister name belying the bright jumping descent of Ivo Neame's piano falling on top of Jasper Høiby's rhythmic double bass groove. The more ponderous Song for Lost Nomads followed, allowing space for each musician to take the focus alone, in particular a delicate and precise introduction from the dynamic and sartorially savvy Anton Eger on drums. The climax of Behind Bars was embellished by his bold rock drumming, followed closely by thoughtful brushed percussion in Eight Hours where we see Høiby fulfill his role as the lynch-pin of the group. Phronesis are a unique trio, and are much stronger than the sum of their parts. This richness comes from the flexibility of the musicians, each capable of a leading melodic role or building the infectious rolling groove which underpins so much of their music.

The light outside began to fade as the second set began, initially matched by more introspective compositions featuring bowed bass introductions and clean piano musings in Wings 2 the Mind and Phraternal, sandwiching the modal rhythmic loops of Blue Inspiration. Høiby, as charismatic head of the trio, is eminently relaxed and confident in between songs, with quick-witted jokes and irreverent quips about the holy trinity of the group on stage. This is undoubtedly a part of their wide appeal – Phronesis have done fantastically well in recent years, and Høiby is clearly appreciative of the diverse all-ages audience they gather and the attention they're receiving from industry – their gratitude particularly directed towards their manager Sue Edwards, expressed in the musical homage to where she lives, Herne Hill, and toDr Black, an epic piece for a 'guardian angel' on their recent Canadian tour, which stomps like one of Howard Shore's pieces scoring the journey's through Mordor.

While the majority of the songs were selected from their last album Life to Everything, they brought the scheduled set to a close with the alternating relentless grooving bass, searching piano stabs and virtuoso drumming of Abraham's New Gift, a perfect example of their high energy passionate sound.

What Union Chapel may lack in beneficial acoustics, it certainly makes up for in ambiance and spectacle. Architect James Cubitt's irregular octagonal layout for the 1870's Grade I listed building, with raked pews arranged in a semicircular pattern emanating from the altar, is unlike so many churches in that it was designed for listening and watching something, whether that something be religious guidance or music. It proved an ideal setting for this breathtaking performance.

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