Polar Bear, Royal Northern College of Music, 17 April, 2015




It’s the originality that ultimately impresses. Polar Bear propose an entirely new vision of jazz. Their sound is characterised by linear melodies, complex beats of metronomic precision and an ability to move between static electronica and freewheeling organic acoustic jazz. It’s a synthesis with blurry edges. Melodies conceived on a computer (I surmise, without actually knowing anything about drummer/composer Sebastian Rochford’s working method, but it would explain their inscrutable sensibility and circular shapes) are then given to flesh and blood players – that is, the twin tenor saxophones of Pete Wareham and Mark Lockheart, and the securely rooted, if buoyant, bassist Tom Herbert – to translate. There’s a fifth player, Leafcutter John, but as he’s the chief wielder of electronics, he plays the role of the trickster. Wareham has a declamatory, staccato delivery, while Lockheart is more lyrical, not to say fluent, and apt to weave a delicate counterpoint around Wareham’s more bludgeoning lines. But the tunes are distinctly Rochford’s own: intriguing, mildly eccentric, and resolutely set on pursuing the current of joy to its source. 

I wasn’t looking forward to the gig, by the way. Well, I was a little alienated by the group’s previous offering, In Each and Every One, an unfocused dalliance with electronica, accompanied by a 10” LP, which is untitled and white all over (except for a little polar bear), with only a hand-written number – ‘326’, in my case – for identification. Wise old Polar Bear: reserving the difficult stuff for the collectors’ market. Whereas the new album, Same As You, is a delight from start to finish. The group performed Same As You in its entirety during the second set. There was the first set to get through beforehand. 

A sustained obstinate gets everyone into the zone. There follows a sinuous theme, ‘Open See’, with the twin horns unravelling skeins of melody to Rochford’s meticulous, polyrhythmic parts. They don’t lose their way, but I do. I worry that the sound of the room isn’t entirely suited to the electro/acoustic mix, and my mind wanders. It all gels for the last ‘Lost in Death’, a multi-cellular piece, but somehow I’m still not wholly engaged. 

The second set, as I say, a run-through of Same As You, is wonderful. The sound is much improved. It starts with another sustained omni-chord – because this is spiritual jazz, and these drones engender a trance state, an ideal way to heighten the senses and forget time (Rochford’s mastery of time, includes the ability to suspend it altogether). On disc, ‘Life, Love and Light’ is even more overtly spiritual, and the drone serves as backdrop for a sincere invocational poem. Though the invocation is dropped from the live performance, its positive vibe affects everything that follows. 

Spiritual, yes, but ‘We Feel the Echoes’ directs the inner bliss in an outward direction, generously aided by Herbert’s loping bass, which is almost roots reggae in it’s appeal. After an interval of white noise, variously an earache or an evocation of elemental force (just which depends on an individual’s level of tolerance towards that sonic imp, Leafcutter John), ‘The First Steps’ sets up a tension between Rochford’s wood and skin patterning and a contrasting tinny electro rhythm, courtesy of Leafcutter. The horns scale a pyramid of beats during ‘Of Hi Lands’, but this is only a prelude to the transcendent dance ‘Don’t Let the Feeling Go’, which nevertheless involves a bit of uncomfortable chanting. No matter, nothing can stop the forward momentum now. ‘Unrelenting Conditional’ is the great trance inducer of the evening, with Wareham traversing foothills with steady deliberation and gradually, almost imperceptibly, building to a state of euphoria, and all at a steady stroll (and later, a surge) dictated by Rochford’s detailed, controlled kit. 

Spiritual too, in the way that the musicians surrender their egos to the collective vision. Same As You. Rochford is the catalyst, but all the players are equal and all are necessary. 

A health note: anyone suffering from an attack of low spirits or spiritual ennui is directed to the course of medication prescribed by Polar Bear. It’s a universal panacea and there are no unpleasant side-effects. 


Comments

1 Response to "Polar Bear, Royal Northern College of Music, 17 April, 2015 "
  1. gravatar Eva Navarro says:

    Thanks for this great review of the concert. It was a very special concert. Probably, it is the best CD of Polar Bear.

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