The Portico Quartet: file under uncategorisable. They’re neither rock nor jazz, neither pop nor classical, neither mainstream nor experimental. Yet, at the same time, they’re all of these. And as tonight shows, labels don’t matter at all when such impressive musicianship is at play.
Amidst dimmed lights and a hushed ICA crowd, they deliver a familiar set: for the most part it’s a re-tread of their Isla album. But seeing such a rich and complex piece of work expertly re-created on stage is impressive indeed. It soon becomes clear that two things make Portico Quartet unique. Firstly, there’s the truly off-kilter blend of instruments: saxophone, double bass, drums and hang (a lovely-sounding inverted kettle-drum / gong set-up developed in Switzerland as recently as 2000).
Secondly, and probably more importantly, there’s a real sense of musical socialism here. No one musician is the centre of attention; there’s no virtuoso soloing or stealing of limelight. If you’re going to apply the jazz tag to the Porticos, it’s more about the collaborative, egalitarian spirit of the Dave Brubeck Quartet than the ego-driven showmanship of Miles Davis or John Coltrane. This is music played with shared love rather than self-centred fury.
This lack of hierarchy allows each instrument to be played across its full range, dipping imperceptibly between foreground and background. In particular, Jack Wyllie’s sax and Nick Mulvey’s hang take it in turns to lead the melody. Wyllie squawks like Charlie Parker one moment, then slips back into smooth accompaniment the next, much like Andy Mackay’s oboe-playing on the early Roxy Music album. And with a cluster of cymbal mallets in each hand, Mulvey somehow manages to draw melodies and chords out of a percussion instrument, enabling him to slide back and forth between the lead part and rhythm section.
The crowd drink it up in reverential, static silence; though there’s no beard-stroking or sage nodding here. Instrumental music of whatever kind – classical, jazz, ambient – is so often the preserve of a particular elite, but this is something altogether different. The inclusive spirit of the band extends to its audience – tonight is there to be enjoyed by three-chord rock fans just as much as by polo-neck-wearing musos. Like Sigur Rs and Radiohead, they’re classically trained musicians making music which can be appreciated at whatever level suits the listener.
Between compositions, Nick Mulvey speaks affably on behalf of his band mates (though, naturally, takes the trouble to introduce them as soon as he can). There’s only one new track heard here, but that’s not really the point. Portico Quartet’s short ICA residency is a triumphant cheer for fluid ensemble playing and sheer talent.