Part of a fortnight of shows grouped together as a Brit Jazz festival,this show might have stretched the boundaries of what can be termed Britishjazz. Led Bib, nominated for the Mercury Prize last year for their albumSensible Shoes, are led by expatriate American drummer Mark Holub whilstPhronesis are the brainchild of acoustic bassist Jasper Hoiby, originallyfrom Denmark and now resident in London. They also have a Swedish drummer.But an elastic approach to national identity is undoubtedly positive if itprovides the rare opportunity to see two contrasting but highly acclaimedacts in a double bill.
Phronesis opened the evening with a rhythmically sophisticated,technically assured set that demonstrated the group’s confident interaction.Hoiby has a resonant, powerful bass sound that allows him to build strikingthemes from a minimal combination of notes. It’s rare to find a jazztrio with the bassist as leader, and it was a particular joy to watch Hoibyperforming his subtle melodic themes in unison with pianist Ivo Neame. Hoibyis musically charismatic but exceedingly dry as an announcer, claiming thathis mostly English audience should hate his composition entitled Frenchand promising to decide a title for a piece that eventually transpires to beUntitled #2. Ho ho ho.
The loose structure of Hoiby’s compositions allowed for some vibrant,intelligent improvisation. Neame played with a beautifully light touch, andhis improvisation was both tasteful and exciting where necessary. DrummerAnton Egan, an engaging showman, played polyrhythmically with considerabletechnique and musicality, demonstrating an impressive dynamic range at thekit. His frenetic playing could occasionally be explosive, but he respondedintuitively to the demands of the music. His trading of phrases with Hoibyon Love Song may have been the highlight of the evening. Most importantly,he sustained Hoiby’s propulsive asymmetrical rhythmic patterns withprecision and flair.
It’s something of a dirty word these days but Led Bib definitely play atype of fusion. In contrast to Phronesis, they make full use of electricinstruments, with Liran Donin aggressively attacking his bass guitar andToby McClaren producing all manner of weird and gritty sounds from hisFender Rhodes keyboard. Led Bib blast through their fiery, rampant music butthe pieces have an identifiable shape, with moments of calm occasionallypuncturing the group’s muscular clatter.
The band’s set consisted mainly of new material from a forthcoming album, due inJanuary 2011. Those catching the band for the first time and hoping to hear musicfrom Sensible Shoes might have been disappointed, but it has always been theprerogative of jazz musicians to be one step ahead of their audience. Thiscan raise the excitement levels, as the music can be in perpetualdevelopment and improvised music is always full of risk. The group arecertainly now less heavily reliant on jarring intervals between the twosaxophone lines, although the playing remains blisteringly intense.
Some of the new themes composed by Mark Holub and saxophonist ChrisWilliams had a mysterious, subliminal quality reminiscent of Wayne Shorter’swork on Miles Davis’ Nefertiti. Sometimes, the improvised sections veered sofar from the memory of these themes that they were almost renderedredundant. As impressive as Holub’s unfaltering, breakneck speed drummingis, some more moments of clarity and directness would have helped. Sometimesthe intensity was so overwhelming as to suggest chaos.
It was often an enjoyable, spirited performance though, and there’ssomething admirable about Led Bib’s dogged, unrelenting insistence. It’s noteasy to compare them with the classic groups in the jazz-rock tradition.They lack the strong blues element found in Nucleus, or the strongmelodic craft of Weather Report. Ultimately, they might be morereminiscent of the likes of King Crimson or Soft Machine, butwith a smattering of Ornette Coleman-inspired freedom. Their music provedless subtle and intricate than that of Phronesis, but it compensated with asense of momentum and energy.