Live Music Reviews

Portico Quartet + Basquiat Strings @ Union Chapel, London

22 February 2008


Drum and double bass, anyone?

If the answer’s yes,you could have had an obscenely large helping of it atIslington’s Union Chapel, as one-timeMercury Prize token jazz band nominees BasquiatStrings played support to the less well-known butequally wonderful Portico Quartet.

The Union Chapel can generally be relied on toprovide a musical experience as far away from theX-Factor as it’s possible to get and this evening wasno exception.

Amid flickering tea-lights, in front ofa ten-foot high stone pulpit, Basquiat Strings took tothe stage looking like a sixth-form music class intowhich a malicious post-rock imp had teleported SebRoachford, secure in the knowledge that he’d nevernotice through all that hair.

The resulting music is sublime, a 21st centuryevolution of Steve Reich‘s dream of ensuringthat classical doesn’t disappear up its own backside,mixing minimal plucked strings with brushed percussionand hypnotic orchestration that might brush up againstjazz but far, far surpasses it. Tonight, BasquiatStrings lull us into complete submission, recreatingthe sounds of gentle seas and crashing waves as theyplunder the spoils of the music styles history haswashed up on their diamond rocks.

They’re a hard act to follow, but the PorticoQuartet are more than equal to the task. One of themany reasons for this is how completely they embodythe very essence of 21st century music, right down tothe fact that band leader Nick Mulvey’s instrument ofchoice is two Hangs. Last century, Hangs didn’t evenexist.

Created in 2000 by science nerds and described bywww.hangfan.co.uk as ‘a new musical instrument,suitable for playing with the hands, consisting of nitrided steel’ (you did ask!) a Hang might look liketwo upside-down cymbals made out of a steel drum butthe sound that comes from it – coaxed out by Mulvey’sfingers, drumsticks and brushes – is as haunting,full, empty and awakening as anything you’ll everhear.

Along with the rest of the band – Jack Wylie(soprano saxophone), Milo Fitzpatrick (double bass)and Duncan Bellamy (more Hangs and drums) – Mulveyswings from ethereal beauty to music that might havesoundtracked a 1970s remake of Johnny Staccato,celebratory one moment, mournful the next, utlisinginstruments from opposite ends of the sonic scale. Thejuxtaposition of double bass and soprano sax worksbeautifully, the unfamiliar and exotic Hang bridgingthe world between them.

This is music that defies classification andrightly so. More than classical, more than Jazz,filtered through the minds of pioneers from Reich toRa (not to mention Roachford), they are a band for theurban jungle, experimenting with more than just thefree jazz label they’ll be filed under.

It’s ironic to realise that this music is far morecutting edge, far more creative than the latest in thelong, long line of spiky, identikit indie guitar bandsthat right now are resonating through the back roomsof pubs the length and breadth of the country.

You need to go back at least a century to pick upall the influences that have come into conjunctionhere this evening. From classical chamber music,though trad and free jazz, to post-rock’s sonicexperimentalism, this is music that’s informed ratherthan angry, knowing rather than smart. WhateverBabyshambles might tell you, clever can be wise. It certainly has been tonight.


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