Live Music + Gig Reviews

Portico Quartet @ Ronnie Scott’s, London

7 September 2008

Every year it seems there’s one Mercury nominee whose misfortune is to be labeled “the token jazz act”. This year Portico Quartet have been at pains to gently hint that there’s rather more to them than such tokenism.

For starters, their latest press shoot photos feature the band in items of clothing more akin to those worn by the denizens of south London – reasonable, as that’s where they’re from, but not immediately indicative of a jazz combo.

And just to push the bubble of perception a little further, earlier this week they added the fashionista haunt of the Hoxton Square Bar + Kitchen to their list of venues played. Their attitude to venue bookings reflects their widescreen view of jazz, spliced with Reichian minimalism and replete with hooks to hang their hanghang on.

For this gig the foursome are back entertaining their core vote in UK jazz central, otherwise known as the venerable Ronnie Scott’s. Affable baseball-capped front man Nick Mulvey, sat behind the three flying saucer/wok-type instruments called hanghang that define Portico Quartet’s Afro-tinged sound, asks: “Have any of you seen us busking?” But not for them the foot of a Northern Line staircase; their impromptu venues have so far included Paris’s Pompidou Centre and London’s South Bank Centre.

A confident yet Englishly diffident demonstration of musicianship follows. Double-bassist Milo Fitzpatrick looks like he might enjoy a spot of rugger from time to time, but there’s scarcely a sound or texture he’s unable to wring from his instrument with the subtlest nuance. Towards the set’s close and after a particularly jawdropping interlude, he receives the only unprompted solo round of applause of the evening; considering the skills of the three musos he shares the stage with, it’s no mean feat.

Jack Wyllie, in a stripey Nike top, parps and pootles away on his soprano saxophone, adding texture rather than melody with a precise, clear sound, while Mulvey and drummer Duncan Bellamy take turns to make the hanghang (all three of them) sound like steel pans. Even if they do look rather like inverse woks, these devices make the Portico sound a fluid proposition, fit for soundtracks and dreams.

There’s a mention of the “Mercury-nominated debut album” Knee Deep In The North Sea, the contents of which make up the bulk of the evening’s two 45 minute halves, and a rather atmospheric track from an early EP called November. Among the most impressive offerings from the album is the only number to feature vocals, Cittagaze, formed of a lolloping octave-hopping bassline and sax skit.

But Portico Quartet never cut loose into jazzy improvisation, preferring instead to stick to their tried and tested material. As such they have more in common with indie bands than with jazz collectives, but a loosening of the drilled precision of their live show would only improve it.

Afterwards they amble around the room, happy to chat to whoever wants their time, manning their merchandise stall and generally revelling in the attention. Their approach should see them building on their impressive debut; they’re not the definitive article yet, but with memorable hooks, raw talent and an inventive palette, they show every possibility of growing to become it.

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