The idea of musical soulmates is one that seems silly – it makes no sense that certain musicians were meant to play together because of some kind of cosmic destiny. Following their spellbinding set at the Capstone Theatre last week however, jazz trio, Phronesis make the idea of musical soulmates seem possible, because if any three musicians were meant to play together, it’s these guys.
The stage was set in a way that suggested a quiet, serene performance; a light, artificial fog hung in the air and the back of the stage was illuminated by a wall of spaced-out, tiny, subtle lights. Despite the soothing backdrop however, following the first tune of the night – an airy, calming tune from the trio’s new album, We Are All, called ‘Breathless’ – the band dropped all pretence, and launched into an impassioned delivery of some of the most hard-hitting acoustic music you’re ever likely to hear. Bassist, Jasper Høiby followed the first song with the words “It’s all gonna explode from here!” He wasn’t wrong.
It was hard to decide which of the three musicians to watch at any one moment during most of the performance. Høiby is an incredibly animated bass player, leaping seemingly effortlessly up and down the fingerboard, never missing a beat or losing energy. Pianist, Ivo Neame often has the job of generating most of the harmonic and melodic content of the tunes which, considering the density of the kind of music the trio makes, often means his part is rather physically demanding. Watching his intense runs is simultaneously thrilling and exhausting. Drummer, Anton Eger is a force of nature, appearing to throw his entire weight and all available energy into his playing which he maintained, rather astoundingly, throughout the entire two-hour set. The only moment where it was easy to decide where to look was during the second number, ‘Emerald Horseshoe’, during which Eger knocked over his ride cymbal, to looks of childish delight from himself and the other band members, and just kept playing.
The first half closed out with ‘Urban Control’, a piece from 2014’s Life To Everything, and perhaps the most frenetic tune in the trio’s catalogue. The tune was, true to Høiby’s promise, explosive, opening with a punchy, rhythmic bass run which led into the most insane solo of the night from Neame. The pianist has this one improvising technique that he does better than nearly anyone else on the contemporary British jazz scene, which involves taking one note, repeatedly hammering it out in increasingly complex rhythmic patterns, before exploding it out into extended chords, dissonant tone clusters and frenzied melodic runs. The trio’s performance of this tune summed up everything great about their collaboration; their ostensibly telepathic communication and constant awareness of what each member of the band is doing at any one time, their use of texture building to bolster each other’s solos, and the phenomenal writing that’s fuelled over a decade’s worth of original music.
After a short break which gave the audience a chance to catch their breath, Phronesis retook the stage, opening the second half with the most enthralling, expansive number of the night – ‘One For All’, the almost symphonic opener to their new record. The tune was the most intricately pieced together of the night, opening with a beautifully slow and deliberate piano introduction, joined part way by sweeping bowed bass, while Eger sat patiently, sticks at the ready, waiting for his moment – and boy what a moment it was! The bass and piano’s introduction built and built until Eger came in with an explosive cymbal crash that shook the room before the band launched into some of the craziest, improvisational back-and-forth you’re ever likely to witness on stage. Høiby looked up, worried, as the piece came to a close, and then chucklingly apologised for its unintended 18-minute run-time. He needn’t have done so, as the audience appeared to have had just as much fun as the musicians on stage.
There’s something wonderfully bewildering about the balance Phronesis strikes between loose, yet controlled chaos, and terrifying discipline. Every moment of pure, joyous insanity is matched by another moment of breath-taking, unity and technicality, like the section of ‘The Edge’ – one of the two closing numbers – which is in total unison but gives the impression of call and response because Neame and Høiby leap, deftly from the high register to the low register of their respective instruments. Even more astonishingly, at no point did anything feel overly rigid or stiff; it was constantly apparent that the trio was throwing their all into the performance and were having an utter blast doing it. After playing together for so long, Phronesis would be forgiven for falling into cliché, habit or boredom, but this is a band that clearly loves to push itself – a trait that makes for a truly unforgettable performance.