HOW MIGHT ONE define ‘supergroup’? In some popular genres, it may well constitute questionable talent, shallow fame, social media infamy, gold discs, the trashing of hotel rooms or hanging around a decade too long in hideously bright designer lounge suits!
OK, so a tongue-in-cheek generalisation. But, in the case of Phronesis, that hugely popular Anglo-Scandinavian powerhouse of contemporary jazz, their success refreshingly reflects their consummate musicality, impassioned creativity, unequivocal scholarship and acceptance of the challenge to be different. Double bassist Jasper Høiby, pianist Ivo Neame and drummer Anton Eger feature prominently, and separately, in many of today’s exciting line-ups. But, make no mistake… when they slot together to record and perform as Phronesis, selling out venues from the UK to the USA and Canada, and to Australia, this trio becomes one of jazz’s supergroups.
With three studio albums to their tally (most recently, 2012’s Walking Dark) and already an acclaimed live album (Alive!, 2010), Danish-born Høiby is widely acknowledged as the band’s architect. But any thoughts of hierarchy end there, for the three have worked together in this remarkably balanced collective for almost a decade, committing themselves to the development of a wholly unified approach and honing what can only be recognised as complete mastery of their art.
In this new live release – recorded before enthusiastic in-the-round gatherings over three nights at The Cockpit during 2013’s EFG London Jazz Festival – the trio demonstrate more clearly than ever their established, democratic principle of writing and performing. And rather than interpreting previous studio album material, they bravely unleash a blistering, multi-layered assault and ‘batterie’ on the senses with nine astonishingly intricate new works, evenly sharing the compositional credits. Since its release a few weeks ago, I have been drawn deeper and still deeper into this mesmerising hour-long spectacular, increasingly rewarded by the staggering display of telepathy, invention and musicianship – and Phronesis clearly revel in and respond to the close, attentive appreciation of their audiences.
Visually and sonorously the trio’s backbone, Jasper Høiby ‘lights the touch paper’ with his pliant bass intro to Anton Eger’s Urban Control. The piece bursts into life with customary fervour, Ivo Neame’s piano glistening over Eger’s skittering percussion and Høiby’s unyielding exploration of the fingerboard. Phronesis always balance improvisation and tight mechanics so perfectly, blending expressive freedom with pin-sharp communication and structure, resulting in the most engaging of experiences. Phraternal finds a rare moment of contemplation, led by the composer’s piano; and, in contrast, the nine minutes of Høiby’s Behind Bars are simply breathtaking, building in intensity, yet so finely calculated – and Eger’s contribution (to see is to believe!) is frenetic almost beyond words.
Ever the searchingly-melodic pianist, Ivo Neame’s Song for Lost Nomads skips to his staccato left hand, Høiby and Eger tracking every phrase; and the smouldering Wings 2 the Mind from Høiby, with those now-characteristic Phronesis unison piano and bass phrases, bubbles away until anticipatory chimes coax this almost peerless drummer into another powerful display. No let-up in momentum, Nine Lives flies like the wind – and the writer’s double bass dexterity would be quite unbelievable had I not witnessed it many times before.
Neame takes a subtle step into the spotlight in his sprightly Deep Space Dance – a distinctive, creative pianistic style which is upheld beautifully by his colleagues. Two compositions from Anton Eger complete the album. Herne Hill shimmies infectiously (much to the delight of the audience), exhibiting such intelligence and shared understanding of dynamics and tempo. And, finally, Dr Black sums up the essence of this compelling trio, seemingly throwing at it every technique they possess, including a drum showcase which no doubt includes various kitchen items except the sink! – every time, a real thrill to listen to.
Life to Everything is likely to hit very high on the 2014 jazz seismograph, such is the calibre of these performances – and all from a set of live (and particularly superior) recordings. Released by Edition Records on 7 April, audio samples and purchasing options can be found here.
“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything” (Plato)
Jasper Høiby double bass
Ivo Neame piano
Anton Eger drums
Photography: Dave Maric
Design: Darren Rumney
Edition Records – EDN1050 (2014)