Polar Bear – Polar Bear (Tin Angel, 2008)
In the rather sweet liner notes and acknowledgements that accompany this third Polar Bear album, Seb Rochford apologises for his latest album being so long. In this age of downloading and compiling, perhaps Rochford fears that his audience, maybe broader than your average jazz crowd, might not have the necessary patience or concentration span to digest it. Well, that would be a shame. For those of us who have been following the development of Rochford’s refreshingly original group, we’ve been waiting quite a while for this one, it having originally been scheduled for release by V2, before Polar Bear became a sad casualty of that label’s restructuring and downsizing. The value for money we’ve been offered seems like suitable compensation. V2’s loss, it would appear, is our gain. Great too for the small Coventry based label Tin Angel with whom Rochford is now collaborating for this release.
For those who find Polar Bear hard to appreciate or understand, the most common criticism is that perennial favourite: ‘It’s just not jazz’. Given how unconcerned I am with the precise definitions of musical genres, I can hardly summon the energy to address this argument. Nevertheless, I must concede my most immediate response to ‘Polar Bear’ is to pick up on the wide array of sounds and influences, many drawn from well beyond the radar of most jazz musicians. Most obviously, there’s Leafcutter John’s electronics, performed live and now more closely integrated with the overall musical landscape of Rochford’s compositions. Yet, the powerful opening one-two of ‘Tay’ and ‘Goodbye’ hints at the influence of Jamaican musical forms – particularly ska and dub. ‘Tay’ is ushered in on a remarkably simple but righteously groovy bass and drums figure that could easily have underpinned a Skatelites track. Given how well Rochford subsumes these ideas into a complete whole (‘Polar Bear’ is the group’s most coherent album so far), this seems far more of a strength than a weakness.
If Polar Bear are ‘more pop than jazz’, it shows in the playful exuberance of Rochford’s compositions. This perhaps comes through best on the superb ‘Tomlovesalicelovestom’, written after the happy occasion of Tom Herbert’s marriage and with every bit as joyous a sense of celebration as such a piece might demand. A more cynical listener might sense in the song’s journey into abstraction a hint at the uncertainty and vulnerability of commitment – but so solid and driving is the returning thematic narrative that its mood seems overwhelmingly positive. This is audacious, mostly improvised music without pretensions or any elevated sense of superiority above its intended audience.
The absence of a harmonic foundation allows this group its breathing space. With no textural support from a piano or guitar, the fundamental connection between Rochford’s conversational explorations on the drums and Tom Herbert’s full and clear bass patterns sounds even more significant. Similarly, the dynamic relationship between saxophonists Mark Lockheart and Pete Wareham is exploited to brilliant effect – with Rochford’s themes relying heavily on the careful interweaving of their distinct sounds. It tends to be Wareham who directs the group towards their more aggressive and incendiary moments, with Lockheart’s musicality and thorough grasp of time anchoring them in solid ground.
Whilst all the acclaim and publicity thrown at Rochford can sometimes seem like hype and bluster, the quality of his musicianship more than justifies the attention. Whilst his feel is relaxed and accurate, it’s the sound and timbre of his drumming that take precedence above technical showmanship. This means that his playing can assume a central and creative role without obscuring the contributions of his other musicians. Polar Bear is definitely a band – with all the sense of collective creativity that this implies. This is the group’s warmest, most coherent work to date, however indigestible it may be.