REVIEW: Phronesis - Walking Dark at Pizza Express Jazz Club

Jasper Hoiby at Dean Street, June 2018
Photo credit and © Mochles Simawi

REVIEW: Phronesis - Walking Dark
(Pizza Express Jazz Club, 15 June 2018. Review by AJ Dehany)

Phronesis’s 2012 album Walking Dark was a watershed moment for the trio. A powerful sequence named after a series of concerts played in complete darkness after bassist Jasper Høiby’s sister went blind, it brought a new emotional impetus to their work. Significantly extending the scope of the group, it defined the elements of their chemistry and catalysed their future reactions, crystallising their transition into one of the most formidable power trios in contemporary jazz.

As part of a celebration of Edition Records' 10th Anniversary, Phronesis played a ‘Déjà Vu’ residency of five concerts over three days at Pizza Express.

Walking Dark was at the mid-point of the series and the second show of the evening at 10.44pm on a Friday night in Soho, down in the basement among the smell of tomato and cracked black pepper. The audience was young and enthusiastic, breaking into applause and even stomping and whooping at points. One couple had flown over from Hamburg especially to attend all five concerts. Another guy professed to have seen Phronesis 25 times, which the Hamburgers said made them feel a bit less crazy.

“This is one of the most intense things I’ve ever done,” admitted Jasper Høiby, “an out-of-body experience for me personally. Five albums, back to back, note for note, no improvising – we don’t like improvising. If you hear of anybody improvising, yeah, send them out…” It’s a good joke, but Walking Dark is rife with tight unison passages and a significant portion of the title track must be played pretty much note for note. This underlines the unity of the trio. Even the solos are played as a trio. The bass punches up the neck, the drums are in your face. No swing, no straight-ahead, angular as hell, driven and intense. Høiby’s chordal articulation on the double bass gives the others enhanced space for harmonic and rhythmic freedom that lets the group sound both stridently angular and warmly melodic at the same time.

Anton Eger at Dean Street, June 2018
Photo credit and © Mochles Simawi
It’s worth remembering that when Walking Dark was released in 2012 bassist Jasper Høiby was still seen as the ‘leader’ of the seven-year old group. Pianist Ivo Neame hadn’t joined until the second album in 2009 (replacing Magnus Hjorth), and drummer Anton Eger wasn’t on the 2010 live album (when Mark Guiliana stepped in). Walking Dark was the first time they had split the writing credits, Høiby with six tunes and Neame and Eger with three each. Since then it’s pretty much evened out three ways. I should note that they were playing these albums in their entirety with no charts and no printed set lists – shaming us mortals who can barely remember at what point Madame George comes on Astral Weeks.

Ivo Neame at Dean Street, June 2018
Photo credit and © Mochles Simawi

Ivo Neame’s compositions Passing Clouds and Charm Defensive are among the most abstract and darkly scintillating selections on the album. In six years they’ve taken some of the blue notes out of the studio versions, with a bit more classically-tinged harmony but still a typically jazz flavour. Ninth up, Anton Eger’s tune Zieding is a Phronesis fan favourite and a highlight of the album, euphoric and accessible with an infectious joie de vivre. More than ever, the trio looked like they were enjoying playing together, with Anton grabbing a tambourine and whacking the kit with it while head-banging.

As midnight approached, credit card devices started to go round and drinks began to drain as the concert entered the closing stretch of the album. After the excitement of Zieding, it was a little weird to carry on and play out with these darker textures. Beautiful, but Høiby acknowledged it was a journey, laconically commenting on the difference between album sequencing and live sets. Tongue-in-cheek, with a verbal shrug, he reflected, “an album is a body of work, typically ten songs. When you play a gig you often make a set list according to what works. It’s different. I don’t know! It’s just different…”

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk

LINKS: CD Review of Walking Dark by Chris Parker
Jasper Hoiby previews Phronesis' first dark gig at Brecon in 2011
Phronesis preview the 2018 Deja Vu series

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