Thursday, October 06, 2005

Polar Bear - 04/10/2005, Brussels

I went to the Ancienne Belgique's ABClub for the first time. Had I known earlier how nice a space it was, I'd have gone there sooner and often: small, but uncluttered (no chairs), roomy and elegant (wood floors and wall panels, semi-circle bar at the back). A rare sighting: someone else taking notes. He had a proper notebook, I had an old, folded-up bank receipt and a pen that happened to be in my jacket pocket.

Polar Bear's "Held on the Tips of Fingers" isn't a radical break with "Dim Lit" (except, perhaps, commercially, as they went from winning BBC Jazz Awards to being shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize), but does expand the band's palette, notably through the addition of Leafcutter John on laptop. On tour, the latter is billed as "featured" and performed on about half the songs. At times he used a PlayStation-type joypad to trigger sounds: in duet with drummer/leader Sebastian Rocheford, zoink!s, crashes and screeches that flew from left to right and sounded like a THX demo gone mad, or atmosphere-solidifying metallic drones behind the full band. On the CD, his contributions tend to be chiseled, here they were often wild. While that made for some satisfying wall-of-noise or frantic electronic ping-ponging moments, a little carefully-crafted clickety-click would have been welcome. In quieter moments, Leafcutter John used a microphone to sample a triangle, a bit of crinkly plastic or Tom Herbert's bass playing.

The chiseled/wild distinction also holds for the core Polar Bear unit: the CDs don't give much indication of how aggressive the band can be on stage. Polar Bear is, for me, a concious or unconcious continuation of the late 60s/early 70s guys who had grown up on hard bop, matured with free jazz and were trying to mix the two over a loose version of contemporary funk/soul grooves. The improvising of the two saxophonists make this connection clear as they tread between refined free jazz hollers and guttural bop exclamations. The other two times I've seen them, Ingrid Laubrock subbed in for Mark Lockheart, but not last night. Overall, the music was perhaps a bit tighter for it.

The quartet + 1 wound liberally through its repertoire: new songs ("I wrote this one when I woke up," Rocheford explained, without specifying whether he meant that very morning), old songs that still haven't been recorded and, of course, album tracks, the composer's sensibilities were made quite clear. Rocheford's harmonies, simple compared to those of bop's high modernists, sometimes give off a folksy feel and allow the soloists to take off in any direction. On one tune in the second set, Pete Wareham took the bass and drums into heavy, Acoustic Ladyland-ish territory, but during Lockheart's solo, he and Herbert often hinted at calypso. The bandleader's playing makes plain the lessons drummers have learnt from hip-hop/electronica producers: orchestration (how/when each kit element or sound source participates in the beat) is as crucial to the beat's identity as the rhythm itself. The melodies often call for intertwining saxophone lines: one providing a background to the other's melody here, a pleasing clash between ascending and descending motifs there. In contrast to the barn-storming solos, the themes are often melancholy, tender or worrying. That's not always the case: before the two encores that ended the concert, Polar Bear played "The King of Aberdeen," which has a fast 'n' furious two-beat (kitted out with Herbert's Mingusian shouts), one of the band's characteristic sounds.

Rocheford seems less stage-shy than he used to be, presenting a guileless persona who seems to say whatever pops into his head. Presenting a song called "Fluffy" that used to be called "I Want You," he said, almost putting the microphone down between each sentence, "It [the title] sounds like I want a cat. But I prefer dogs. I do like big cats, though. Especially leopards."