London Jazz Festival – Polar Bear & e.s.t.


Polar Bear
[Mark Lockheart (tenor saxophone), Pete Wareham (tenor saxophone), Tom Herbert (double bass), Sebastian Rochford (drums), Leafcutter John (live electronics)]

[Esbjörn Svensson (piano), Dan Berglund (double bass), Magnus Öström (drums)]

Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 16 November, 2006
Venue: Barbican Hall, London

The London Jazz Festival’s enthusiastic compere told us that this evening was about “cutting edge jazz”, whatever that might be. Each of the two bands on the bill has defined a distinctive sound that mixes jazz improvisation into other influences, but their juxtaposition served to emphasise the broad church of 21st-century jazz rather than to offer any single vanguard.

Of the two, Polar Bear’s music was edgier, more unsettled, an effective combination of slightly shambolic presence and razor-sharp musicianship.

Polar Bear’s compositions are often superficially simple – a mournful melody harmonised by the two-tenor front-line – but with a glitch, a harmonic sidestep that propels the music into darker waters. Mark Lockheart and Pete Wareham were terrific, moving from eerie unison at the head into furious battles; Tom Herbert and Seb Rochford formed a tight rhythm unit, turning on a dime from outright carnage to poker-faced calm. The wild card in the pack was Leafcutter John, a more integrated presence in the band than hitherto, who unleashed a grab-bag of twitters, beeps and snorts from his laptop, and used a toy-guitar and a packet of balloons as sound sources to great effect. The band was too cool to give titles to the new material played, but closed with “The King of Aberdeen” from its last album, an unlikely, amphetamine-fuelled meeting of bebop and ska-punk, powered by Rochford’s incendiary drumming.

After such high-energy performance, there was the danger that e.s.t., a more familiar presence, could be anticlimactic. In contrast to Polar Bear’s stripped-back approach, e.s.t. has reassuringly glossy production; the band’s trademark sound, which applies discreet electronic reverberance to create a sense of epic Nordic grandeur, is complemented by stage smoke and detailed (if sometimes distracting) lighting design. The opener, “Surrogate Renegade”, sounded over-familiar, with its propulsive riff, flickering drums and distorted bowed bass; however, the majority of material was from the new album “Tuesday Wonderland” and showed the trio’s sound continuing to evolve. The title track started with Svensson’s hypnotic treble vamp, which he teased into new harmonic and rhythmic shapes, and closed with a delicate duet with Dan Berglund’s bass who gave a riveting extended solo in “Goldhearted Miner”, and electronic percussion meshed satisfyingly with lightly-prepared piano.

Svensson remains a compelling improviser, whose scalding right-hand runs are now increasingly matched by the left. Perhaps this is prompted by his study of Bach, whose harmonies formed the basis for a set of tender variations in “Fading Maid Postlude”, which was both moving and musically satisfying.

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