Friday, April 02, 2010

New Directions

Polar Bear - Peepers (Leaf)

I don't always admire the work of Paul Morley, but his current Guardian video series investigating the nature of modern jazz in Britain is fascinating and important. So often, jazz cocoons itself in existential worries ('is this jazz?' 'is it too accessible?') and shields itself from other forms. Yet in this country right now, there is a very vibrant scene of improvising musicians forging connections across the contemporary musical spectrum. It was pleasing to see Polar Bear's Sebastian Rochford and Pete Wareham, in conversation with Morley, highlighting the likes of Zed-U and TrioVD, but also recognise that adventurous, compositional rock bands such as Grizzly Bear might offer inspiration to the aspiring jazz musician.

Rochford appears to see jazz as more of a concept or approach than a sound - it doesn't have to swing, but it does have to be 'liberating', confident and prepared to take risks. Rochford is something of an old-fashioned collector of music who enjoys making new discoveries in independent record shops. He has absorbed a massive range of music yet the result of his avid listening is a remarkably distinctive compositional voice. Perhaps there was a danger of this developing into a formula - many will probably feel that 'Peepers', a relatively concise and focused set, is exactly what was required after the dense, sprawling exploration of their previous self-titled work (for the record, I loved that album too).

There are two central relationships crucial to Polar Bear's alchemy - the powerful connection between Rochford and Tom Herbert, which is both steady and dynamic, and the relationship between saxophonists Mark Lockheart and Pete Wareham, as contrasting and complementary a frontline as you could hope to find. 'Peepers' sees Rochford now using this foundation to branch out into new territory. Electronics wizard Leafcutter John plays guitar on a number of tracks, giving the band harmonic accompaniment for the first time. If anything, though, the effect is largely rhythmic or atmospheric, either producing ska-infused choppiness or surprising tenderness.

The exhilarating burst of unashamed joy on the opening 'Happy For You' will be familiar to long time Polar Bear fans, as will the lurching groove Rochford deploys on the hugely enjoyable 'Drunken Pharoah'. These are unselfconcious pieces of music, rich in character and humour, but with a strong musical understanding and interplay cementing them. What will be less familiar are the moments of delicacy and vulnarability that mark 'Peepers' out as Polar Bear's most varied and immersing work so far. 'The Love Don't Go Anywhere' is an impressionistic piece tinged with sadness and regret, whilst 'A New Morning Will Come' is a shimmering delight.

Perhaps my favourite moment on the album is the subtle 'Want To Believe Everything', on which the internal dynamics of Rochford's drumming are brilliantly controlled. The piece takes Polar Bear's familiar off-kilter groove and plays it out in a lighter, more airy setting. The gentle closer 'All Here' has something of an inspirational feel - like a soft prayer. It sounds like a Stax soul ballad - a Mavis Staples song as played by a jazz ensemble. This is new territory for the group, and certainly not unwelcome.

'Peepers', contrary to its title, is not the sound of a band tentatively peeping at another direction. It's a confident, assured opening of new doors. It has a raw, unpolished sound that may infuriate some but which delights me - it sounds like a real band playing intuitively.

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