Phronesis – Above and Beyond

Phronesis

Since their breakthrough 2010 album, Alive, Scandi-Brit jazz trio Phronesis have been building an unrelenting momentum thanks to the special energy that sparks between bassist/band director Jasper Høiby, pianist Ivo Neame and drummer Anton Eger. Transmuting their visceral, highly kinetic live performances once again into a bristling, melodically-charged new live album, Life To Everything, Selwyn Harris spoke to all three members about the band’s success in Australia, America and Europe, their collective bond, their fight to get their music to audiences beyond the jazz world and, of course, their latest album 

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is the Copenhagen-based, Swedish drummer Anton Eger’s response to my question as to why Phronesis has chosen to release another ‘live’ CD. Life to Everything follows in the footsteps of 2010’s Alive that was also recorded live onstage. That album was the one that propelled Phronesis to a whole new level. With their invigorating take on the art of the post-EST contemporary piano trio it grabbed the attention of critics and audiences alike, making most end of year jazz polls, including the top spot in both Jazzwise and MOJO. So it’s a valid point Eger makes. On the other hand it’s clear speaking to all three of them that Phronesis could never be the kind of band content just to rest on its laurels.

“I think we can just let go more ‘live’ than in the studio obviously,” says the pianist Ivo Neame, currently the trio’s only London-based member. “It just feels a bit fresher. There are more possibilities for interpretation of the music rather than it being tightly arranged. It just allows the music to breathe a bit more. It’s that thing about jazz as well; it’s best in front of an audience. It’s an interactive thing. The presence of the audience influences the course or direction of the music. It’s the oldest rule in the book in a way and doing that, improvising and playing in front of an audience, you’re going to be playing so differently to doing it in front of a studio microphone. And jazz musicians in a way need that, they need the presence of the audience to maybe give a weight to what they’re doing.”

“That’s where you get the energy from and in a way there’s a tension as well,” says the former London-based, Danish acoustic bassist/band director Jasper Høiby who’s sitting alongside Eger, speaking to me on a Skype connection from his home in Copenhagen. “We had three shows on two days and that’s it. If you really don’t get it, then you don’t even have an album. I think it brings the focus and some kind of nervous energy for everyone playing but also an extra focus I think that makes you really concentrate, bringing everything you can to it. It doesn’t need to be in the studio. The only thing is, you can’t really hear as you can in the studio of course. You can still do some edits but you can’t go and really tweak things around and chop things.”

“And that was the nice challenge I think in the whole process,” adds Eger. “Nowadays it’s so easy to edit everything into perfection and if you’re in the studio you use the studio as a tool in that sense as well. But a live recording is what it is. You can’t mess around with it. People were there to witness it and that’s what you’re documenting.”

But as well, as Neame explains, practical issues were a big factor in the decision to record the CD live at The Cockpit in Marylebone in a series of three sell-out gigs at the London Jazz Festival. “The trouble as well with the UK is there aren’t decent relatively low cost recording studios with a good piano,” he says. “The only one was Real World, Peter Gabriel’s studio. In my opinion that recording studio is the best, the conditions are optimal there in terms of making a good record in terms of sound, room, the quality of the piano and the booth for the drums. If you had the money to go to Abbey Road you could go there but no one’s got that kind of budget really so in some ways the conditions in The Cockpit are just as good if not better than a professional recording studio in the UK, I would say. That’s also the problem with the piano because a lot of these recording studios are rock and pop and they’re the ones with the budget and they don’t need a very good, well functioning piano. The thing is if there wasn’t piano in the band you’d be all right because there are lots of really good studios around.”

 

“The whole commercialisation of the US is a terrible thing and it affects jazz. It means the best jazz musicians are having to tour in Japan and Europe to get paid.”

 

Life to Everything is their third on the growing jazz indie Edition Records, and the fifth since their 2008 debut Organic Warfare, which was released on the recording offshoot of North London’s LOOP Collective, from which the band initially emerged. Taking their initial cues from Esbjörn Svensson Trio and the globally rhythmic jazz trios of Chick Corea and Avishai Cohen in particular, Phronesis has evolved into a piano trio with their own distinctive soundworld. Rather than looking outwards for inspiration and extending the sound palette with other instrumentation or electronica for example, as has happened with other piano trios, Phronesis has maintained a focus on developing a deeper, closer, more equal relationship between the members of the band. You can hear on Life to Everything how that focus has reached an entirely new level.

“I think you wouldn’t be able to change anything without actually changing one of the strongest, fundamental things about Phronesis,” says Neame. “There is the sound to the music, rhythmically the grooves and the whole approach and when you start tinkering with that too much, you lose the intrinsic qualities. In a way those are the parameters and it’s working and then that’s obvious in the way Jasper used to write all the tunes and now Anton and I are writing the tunes as well. We’re writing music for Phronesis or I’m writing for Jasper and Anton. The frenetic rhythms and polyrhythmic approaches, bass lines being very important and leaps in the register of what the bass plays. Jasper is good at orchestrating that on his instrument and obviously Anton with all the metric things that he’s good at, implying different pulses, playing one pulse over another, and exploring metric modulations, there’s a lot of that on the new album because that’s the way Anton approaches writing.”

Most of the writing was done on a whirlwind worldwide touring schedule in 2013. It included a range of international venues almost unprecedented for a young European-based jazz ensemble. The year started off in Europe, and then Australia. Both Neame and Høiby pick out Australia as a highlight. Says Høiby, “I remember playing Melbourne in a massive concert hall. It was so big and I thought no one’s going to come! It was just a great, great feeling to do that on the other side of the planet, it was just mind boggling.” In the summer the ‘tour bus’ arrived in Canada with appearances at the Montreal, Vancouver and Edmonton Jazz Festivals followed by New York’s Jazz Standard and receiving a live review in The New York Times. This was followed by autumn dates on the west coast including the world-renowned Monterey Jazz Festival. Says Eger, “That’s also a box ticking adventure because it’s so hard for European bands to get a space there on the programme. Financially it doesn’t make any sense but it makes sense in the meaning of getting a new fan base and playing and reaching out to new people and spreading the music.”

Making inroads into the American jazz motherland is no small achievement for a European-based band. Traditionally a hard one to crack for any British band, let alone one playing under a ‘jazz’ banner, Get the Blessing, Empirical and the Neil Cowley Trio are among the very few to have given it their best shot when the opportunity has presented itself. Neame’s optimism is tempered by some frustration at the problems he perceives of keeping this momentum going.

“It was interesting in America because Phronesis went down really well over there,” he says. “It wasn’t like, what are these Europeans doing over here? It wasn’t like that at all. They were delighted. I think that’s because it’s a Scandinavian-British trio and there’s not many of them playing in America. My eyes were opened in that way because there’s a massive audience actually there for jazz from Europe because it’s different, of course culturally it’s always going to be different. It would be great in the future if there was some strong support structure for UK artists to be able to tour America and to play there regularly just to get round the funding issue because it’s difficult.” Høiby points to a few other obstacles. “You know what it’s like when Americans come to Europe to play, they pay like £10 and they have a sponsor who says he’s cool and that’s it you know. When European artists go to the States they have to pay like two grand in visa costs, then the travel comes on top of that, so that’s definitely a challenge. And also to travel with the double bass, airlines are really tightening up on the rules. That also makes it more challenging.”

European jazz festivals have increasingly been more open to scheduling homegrown artists in preference to those Stateside – especially with the imposition of tighter budgets of late. But Neame suggests that American musicians are still likely to be top of the menu in terms of programming.

“At the moment there’s a big imbalance I would say,” he states. “Because traditionally jazz is exported from America, and festivals book American artists because they’re thought of as the ones that are keeping jazz alive, and in a way they are, I’m not denying that. But it doesn’t really matter where you’re from, it should be valid wherever it’s from. Their music isn’t appreciated over there as well with the commercial music scene dominating radio. The whole commercialisation of the US is a terrible thing and it affects jazz. It means the best jazz musicians are passing round the hat in the 55 Bar and having to tour in Japan and Europe to get paid because it’s not appreciated and not subsidised by the state, even though it’s a very American artform.”

On connecting with new listeners outside what could be considered the core jazz audience, Neame thinks that “we’re getting there a little bit with Phronesis anyway after seven years. It’s so obvious there’s a massive potential audience but so many things stand in the way. It’s just the same old stuff, you know, trying to get rid of the prejudice that it’s an intellectual music, and performers not engaging with the audience.”

Part of the mission for Phronesis is to bring those barriers down. Their intoxicating energy and visceral onstage presence continues to draw in the kind of audiences the band speaks about reaching out to. But it’s the unswerving commitment and passion of what it means to be in this band, that has had the most positive impact on Neame’s other artistic projects.

 

“It would be great in the future if there was some strong support structure for UK artists to be able to tour America.”

 

“Some of the success can be counted in that we don’t do things by half and we don’t cut corners,” he says. “We just put a lot of effort in, Anton and Jasper both share these ideals. Taking things seriously. Not like this is an amazing thing we do but more like we’re just going to do as well as we can. It sounds very earnest but for me that’s actually important to give it as much of yourself as you can and to take it seriously in that respect but not in other respects like pretending we have huge opinions of ourselves. That’s definitely influenced what I do and it’s good in that respect if you’ve got people as well who are going to expect that kind of commitment and if you don’t give it to them they’re going to be very upset. That experience of being in a band where that shared responsibility exists, forces you to meet the requirements, to be on the same level. If you’re in something together if someone’s letting the side down or not pulling their weight or whatever it’s a natural way of everyone giving it the effort it deserves.”

In spite of having such close artistic and personal bonds to each other, Phronesis has always been split geographically. Having lived in London for years, Høiby moved back home last year, joining Eger in Copenhagen. Which leaves just Neame in London.

Phronesis

“I wouldn’t say I’ve had enough of London and I never thought I’d move back in some ways but all of a sudden I started feeling like it,” says Høiby. “To see and reconnect with old friends and be closer to my family, that’s been on my mind a lot. I’m not that old yet but I can really appreciate having a little bit more space too, he says. “Not having to drive around three hours of traffic from one side of London to the other to play a 50-quid gig or whatever. It can be really challenging and I’ve done that so much. I know England better than I know Denmark. So I’ve really fancied getting more time. In between playing and travelling around it’s been really hectic. At least when I’m here I have that focus where I have a little bit more time when I can write, practice and be close to my family and friends and Anton’s here so that’s not bad!”

Neame though hasn’t any intention of joining them, at least not yet: “It’s too cold and dark and everyone speaks Danish.” Joking aside the pianist tells me that now just isn’t the time. “With all the problems in the UK and the crap things about this country, I still like living here,” he says. “There are problems here especially in terms of the arts and jazz. But there’s loads of great stuff going on somehow. People are making interesting music and it’s inspiring and important to be in that environment. There was a gig at Cafe Oto recently, Fofoula, Brass Mask, Tom Skinner’s band Hello Skinny, all of that music is London-centric and if I’m really honest you don’t get that kind of variety in places like Copenhagen, it’s more homogeneous racially and I like the diversity in the UK on every level. I love Scandinavian people and their approach to life and culture and music in many ways, and in terms of politics the equality that is at the heart of a lot of Scandinavian people that we don’t have over here. Here you get millions of people voting for Boris Johnson. I don’t think he’d get in over in Copenhagen.”

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This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Jazzwise. Subscribe to Jazzwise

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