Saxophonist Duncan Eagles of Partikel spoke to Rob Adams about the band's new album "String Theory" and how it all came about.
The difficult third album, according to music industry lore, can be tough enough to pull off without introducing extra obstacles. This, though, wasn’t saxophonist Duncan Eagles’ thinking when it came to conceiving album number 3 from Partikel, the trio Eagles works in with bassist Max Luthert and drummer Eric Ford.
Having launched the group that originally came together in the late noughties as the resident band at a jam session in The Hideaway in Streatham, with the self-titled Partikel in 2010 and consolidated with Cohesion two years later, Eagles felt that the next step should feature something beyond the saxophone, bass and drums line-up.
Duncan Eagles says: "We’d done a lot of gigs on the back of Cohesion and it felt like we’d established ourselves as a group to some extent and developed a real understanding after playing together so much. So I thought we should consider something on a bigger scale, something that kept the principle of the chord-less unit and maintained the spontaneity that’s been at the core of our work but produced a bigger sound. The idea of working with a string quartet seemed an exciting prospect and something new to explore and so we came up with String Theory."
Eagles had never written for strings before and didn’t really move in the sort of circles that would make it easy to find musicians who could help him achieve his goal of a fully integrated seven-piece outfit, as opposed to a jazz trio with a string section playing lush harmonies, and there was, he concedes, some trial and error in the writing and hiring.
Duncan Eagles told me "I did quite a lot of research into string quartets generally, read up on arranging for strings, and looked at some other British bands and musicians who had worked with strings. Empirical had done it successfully, as had Laura Jurd and the Scottish group New Focus, and it wasn’t so much a matter of listening and taking as just seeing what might be possible as I developed my own approach. Never having written for strings, of course, I quickly found that scoring for and working with string players involves an entirely different process to what I was used to. Jazz terminology makes zero sense to most classical players.
Fortunately help was forthcoming. At a gig in Ronnie Scott’s Eagles got talking to pianist Benet McLean, whose quartet Eagles had played in previously. Unbeknown to Eagles, McLean had trained as a violinist – Eagles thought he was having his leg pulled with this news – and between his own contacts from his time at the Royal College of Music and his concert pianist brother’s little black book, McLean was able to supply adaptable players who could improvise as well as play conventional string parts.
McLean was also a great help in marking up parts to achieve the results Eagles was after and as his playing on Shimmer, as well as other tracks from String Theory, illustrates, he’s a major creative and spontaneous presence.
To new compositions such as Clash of the Clans, a three-part extended piece inspired by the sort of epic battles staged in Lord of the Rings, Eagles added a new with-strings arrangement of The River, from the first Partikel album, and a highly individual septet take on Body and Soul.
As they’ve taken the album on the road, in both septet form and as a quartet with McLean added to the original trio, the music has developed further. On gigs, Max Luthert has added samples via a laptop and both McLean and Eagles have been working with pedals to produce harmonies, and at the end of the current tour, the plan is to go back into the studio as a quartet, with Mclean, and add occasional cello and flute.
"We’d like to keep the idea going," says Duncan Eagles. "We have some concerts towards the end of the year with the full, seven-piece line-up and the fact that it came together quite naturally once we brought Benet on board has made us think that it can work in the longer term." There was very little compromise from Partikel’s point of view. Eric introduced more percussion, like the udu (a clay pot) and woodblocks, so there’s more percussive colour than rock kit involved, but we still produce the same levels of energy and intensity. Plus, the strings aren’t just playing long notes, although they can do the lush thing: they’re adding rhythmical variety and working with the drums and bass. It’s been a lot of fun."
Taking a seven-piece band on the road is no easy undertaking in the current promoting climate but to promoters who might wince at the thought of the financial considerations involved, Eagles can offer a perhaps crucial bonus: “We don’t need a piano!”
LINK: Ronnie Scott's 7th April triple bill details