PREVIEW / BAND INTERVIEW: Partikel (Launch of String Theory on June 2nd)

Partikel. L-R.: Duncan Eagles, Eric Ford, Max Luthert

PARTIKEL have just begun to tour their third album, "String Theory" (released on Whirlwind), which officially launches this Tuesday, 2 June, at Pizza Express. For this interview, Adrian Pallant talked to the trio: saxophonist Duncan Eagles, bassist Max Luthert and drummer Eric Ford.

LondonJazz News: You’ve been together as Partikel for around six years. How did it all begin, and what determined the challenge of the chordless trio?

Duncan: I originally started, in another band, with drummer Pharaoh Russell and bassist Jerelle Jacobs – and as we always arrived for rehearsal before the other guys, we’d enjoy playing standards together. I then put on a Monday night gig in Kingston (where I lived), which became a regular slot, and we started to write our own stuff to play – that was the start of the band, really. But then Pharaoh moved out of the country and Jerelle became very busy. I’d known Max from school and met Eric on gigs, so it built from there. As a trio of sax, bass and drums, we relished the space, enjoying the rhythmic side of improvising and the responsive dialogue with Eric’s drums and percussion.

Max: We’d also been listening to a lot of sax-based trio albums, including Kenny Garrett’s Triology and Sonny Rollins, so it felt like a familiar sound world to us.

LJN: Why the name Partikel?

Duncan: The original band I was in with Pharaoh and Jerelle was called ‘Artikel’ and we became part of that, so… ‘Partikel’!

LJN: How did the decision come about to augment the trio with a string quartet for this third album? Did you always have violinist Benet McLean in mind?

Max: We were discussing what we might do, rather than just another trio album. And Wayne Shorter’s ‘Without a Net’ had just been released, where he plays with a wind quintet on ‘Pegasus’ – to us, that was such an incredible sound. We wanted to keep the chordless aspect of our playing, though with a string quartet there’s also the advantage of implied chords and harmonies.

Duncan: We’d all known and played alongside Benet as a pianist, but had no idea he was a violinist. The first time we recorded this project, the arrangement with the original string quartet didn’t work out. So I rang Benet to see if you he knew of a quartet who could step in, as I knew he had a regular gig with a violinist, and he said, “Well, I’ll just do it”, and I thought he was joking! He put together the quartet heard on the album. And we really wanted them to be an integral part of the album from the start – conceived in the writing, and involved in the improvisations and rhythms.

LJN: Although the majority of the album’s material is credited to you, Duncan, there appears to be a democratic acceptance of improvisation, and responding to each other ‘in the moment’. Was this a conscious decision from the outset?

Duncan: The three of us have been playing together for such a long time now that it’s become a spontaneous feeling when we solo. So, although I’m writing the tunes, the guys have a massive input into how they sound, and Eric brings to it a lot of other experiences, including world rhythms. The gigs on the tour will either be Partikel plus Benet (as a quartet) or, as at Tuesday’s album launch, with all seven of us. So it’ll be interesting to see how it develops, live.

LJN: There seems to be greater energy, as well as freedom, in the new recording – not purely from the added density of four string players. What would you put that down to?

Eric: I would say there is greater contrast on this album – more moments of repose – which is partly due to the involvement of the strings.

Duncan: And the trio playing does feel more spontaneous, with more energy in the solo sections – we’ve continued to grow by playing together regularly in the three years since we recorded our last album.

LJN: Although you are performing as a septet for much of String Theory, you also speak of stripping back your music.

Duncan: Some of the original ideas in the writing didn’t end up that way – there were elements I would remove, as they didn’t seem to add anything in the live setting; and that was an effective process for us.

Eric: If you listen to some of the tracks on String Theory (for example, Seeking Shadows), I don’t think, a few years ago, we would have allowed ourselves to leave as much space, even in the busier pieces – but it helps the music to breathe.

LJN: On the new album, impish swinger "Bartering with Bob" implies that you each have one foot firmly rooted in the hard-bop tradition. Do you feel it’s important to respect that ‘anchor’, whilst searching in new directions?

Max: I listen to so much hard-bop, swing, etc., and for me, it’s important to have a grounding in that – but I appreciate that others may not have that view.

Duncan: As a saxophonist, it’s what I started out playing, and the three of us regularly play standards in other projects, especially at the Hideaway, in Streatham, each week. It’s like the blueprint, and I like to put it in the context of what it is happening now – it’s all linked.

Eric: Most people take up an instrument when they’re in their early teens, when they’re likely to find swing or bop more appealing than maybe the latest Steve Coleman or avant garde thing. So I know some people feel it’s important to leave behind your roots, but it depends on which way your career goes. For example, John McLaughlin doesn't need to look backwards - but we're still doing lots of swing and bebop gigs. It was a conscious decision to put that track on the album because we avoided doing swing stuff on the first two CDs because we’re aware that critics will then say we’re not doing contemporary stuff – so you have to be very careful what you put on an album because you are concerned about what critics will say about it, and what brush they’ll choose to tar it with. That track came about because there’s an octogenarian pianist and arranger in Surbiton called Bob Barter, who I work with quite a lot, and he knows Duncan and Max quite well. He came along to the jam session in Kingston one time (he was over 80 then) and Duncan was knocked out because he played a whole-tone scale, which is quite hip. So that tune is written for Bob, by Duncan.

Duncan: He was playing me a re-harmonisation on Take the A-Train and it had a lot of whole-tone voicings going on, so I just wrote that tune which takes advantage of whole-tone harmony and melody. Putting it on the album used it as a palate-cleanser – I put it near the middle, and it’s so different to anything else and it kind of puts a break in there and refreshes things.

LJN: You each also play in other line-ups. How would you say that benefits your time together as Partikel? 

Duncan: From every project we’re involved in, we learn and take away ideas into our other projects.

Max: Working with other musicians, outside of what we might create as Partikel is really helpful; Eric’s worked with a lot of World musicians, so that’s a huge influence – and these ideas might not otherwise have found their way into our music.

LJN: If you were each to identify your musical influences in just two names, if that’s possible, who would they be?

Eric: Bill Stewart and Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts;

Duncan: Kenny Garrett and Sonny Rollins;

Max: Thomas Morgan and Paul Chambers.

LJN: Whilst you are primarily recognised as jazz musicians, can you each surprise us with an unlikely alternative musical experience that you’ve been involved in during your professional careers?

Max: I once played in a strange Amy Winehouse tribute band (with Duncan), whilst Amy was still around.

Duncan: I also enjoy a bit of funk and soul, and played in vocalist Ola Onabule’s band for a couple of years.

Eric: One of the things I really enjoyed when I moved to London… I managed to get some deps with rock covers bands doing Bandeoke on the Walkabout pub circuit. It was fantastic fun, playing lots of famous rock songs – I could never play too loud!

LJN: The London jazz scene currently seems to be brimming with fresh talent and new, cross-genre expressions. Being at the heart of it, does this vibrancy feel significant to you?

Duncan: There are a lot of students and younger musicians trying their own projects and setting up gigs, so there’s lots of original music to see and hear every night. London Jazz Festival attracts packed audiences, and it would be great for that interest to be spread throughout the year.

Eric: There’s a massive pool of players here, but not enough audience to go around. The only way that is going to change is if, instead of being tucked away at 11.45pm on the radio as a novelty act, jazz is included every now and then on other stations, to bring it to a younger audience.

Max: There are definitely a lot of crossover projects going on – for example, Shabaka Hutchings is reaching out to wider audiences. We played a gig at the Blue Lamp in Aberdeen, and five lads who heard it from outside came in, bought a ticket and said it was amazing – not anything they thought they’d be into.

LJN: Has "String Theory" sparked other potential ideas for how you might work or collaborate in the future? Do you feel it’s opened a creative door? 

Duncan: The string players on "String Theory" are such amazing and inspiring musicians, and it was fantastic to hear them nailing what, for us, was a new concept. It’s been a great chance to develop compositional skills, which I’d like to carry on with; and Max and I are also into exploring electronics.

Eric: I’ve been impressed by Duncan’s compositional skills (especially his fast but melodic 5/8 tune, Shimmer – not an easy thing to pull off). It was also great to discover Benet McLean’s remarkable ability on the violin – we’d known him for years, as a pianist, and he’d never even mentioned it! I can't think of anyone else in the UK who can solo as he does on violin.

Album: ‘String Theory’ (released 11 May 2015, Launch 2nd June Pizza Express Dean Street)
Label: Whirlwind Recordings

LINK: Album Review by Jonathan Carvell

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