Friday, October 31, 2003

Polar Bear - 30/10/2003, Heist-op-den-Berg

Ingrid Labrock (?) - ts
Pete Wareham - ts
Tom Herbert - b
Sebastian Rocheford - d

As promised, I returned to the Hnita-Hoeve to see the English quartet Polar Bear. We don't get non-free improv English jazz very often, so that stoked my curiosity. Apparently, many others felt the same, as Peter Anthonissen from the Hnita noted that he was happy that the audience trusted him enough to come to see a virtually unknown band. Considering people's reactions after the concert and a whole box of CDs sold, that trust was rewarded.

They played 11 originals penned by Sebastian Rocheford, the leader with the improbable hair. The melodies were generally low-key and deliberately paced, but with a kind of sad beauty. The two-tenor frontline weaved in and out of unisson and counterpoint and the music was precision-crafted, yet retaining a loose, open feel. Underneath, rhythms were established and deconstructed, as on "The Shapes in the Clouds Aren't Always Happy," when Herbert and Rocheford took apart a slow 12/8 to re-fashion it into minimalistic but irresistable pointillistic groove.

There were no microphones on stage (only the double bass was amplified), which suited the room and the music just fine. Saxophonists Wareham and Labrock (or is it LeBroque?) were subtly different. The former had a thinner sound and his fragmented explorations were more interior and dark blue, seeming to never take the direct route to get his point across, whereas the latter had a warmer, fuller and more generous sound and flowing lines, more golden, something like a Dexter Gordon to Wareham's Wayne Shorter. When they duetted, the saxophonists were careful to not step on each other's toes: not quite as unfettered as Chris Potter and Robin Eubanks can be in the Dave Holland Quintet, then, but still interesting.

An interesting aspect of both of their playing was how their respective foundations transferred themselves to their freer playing. Without reaching screeching extremes, Ingrid seemed to favour the more extroverted and joyous end of free jazz, whereas Pete built more on post-bop complication and minimalist soundscapes. For example, on the last song of the first set, Rocheford brushed a light drum'n'bass groove which steadily built up as Wareham moved from riff to riff throughout his solo. At maximal volume (which, in absolute terms, was not that loud), Labrock joined in with an ascending motif and Wareham moved on to grating harmonics.

Playing both inside and out was but one aspect of the band's palette. While many of the songs had binary rhythms, some veered towards up-tempo swing, such as "Argumentative," which was "inspired by the movie 'So I Married an Axe-Murderer,' with that guy from 'Wayne's World'," said Sebastian. Towards the end of the song, Ingrid went up high to somehow manage to sound like a dixieland clarinet.

I just listened to the CD, which, interestingly, is on a Belgian label ( and was extremely surprised by how different it was from the concert. Many of the tunes played last night are not on the CD, and were arranged differently, drawing on a larger palette. For example, in concert "Urban Kilt" began with arco scrapes and Wareham beating out a percussion part on his saxophone keys, over a slow and dark binary groove, but on CD none of this is present.

The quartet (with Mark Lockhart instead of Ingrid Labrock) is joined by cello and viola on several tracks, to very good effect. Just yesterday I was thinking about how strings are used. It seems to me that jazz musicians use strings mainly harmonically, which tends to be a bit boring, whereas in pop strings tend to be used to double or expand on the melody. Rocheford writes for the strings in a very interesting way, drawing on both approaches. "Snow" has a vocal part and I think it could appeal to the Portishead/Björk fringe of pop radio.

In a few hours I'll be heading up to Antwerp to interview the band, so maybe you'll get some more info then.

You can listen to some mp3's on the website: