Jasper Høiby's new band announced themselves with a bass riff like a drum roll and a near fanfare from the frontline. It was a prelude to what was nearly two hours of high-quality music that just flew by.
Høiby is well-known as one third of hugely popular and critically acclaimed trio Phronesis. With his Fellow Creatures band he wanted to fulfil "a dream... to start a larger ensemble... in an attempt to cover different ground". Høiby was also inspired by Naomi Klein's book on the environmental crisis, This Changes Everything, and by the memory of his late sister. Written by him for a quintet with a frontline of sax and trumpet, the group's eponymous debut album garnered much praise on its release last year.
Tonight's set consisted of almost the complete album played in near enough the same running order, but the music is a different, ahem, animal when performed live, so much so that the band are going to record a live version during the final gigs on this tour. Alterations in the formation of the band meant that it was inevitable there would be differences. Jim Gold on alto joined the stellar frontline of Mark Lockheart's lyrical and occasional honking tenor sax and the rich purity of Laura Jurd's trumpet, making the quintet a sextet and the sound of the unison-playing even more glorious. Also, the excellent and versatile Will Barry was on an electric keyboard rather than piano and more to the fore than on the album, introducing a touch of funk and prog to proceedings.
But the changes went still further, with the band pushing and probing into what were often much extended explorations of Høiby's songs, while still being true to their central motifs. Opener, 'Folk Song', was the extreme example, clocking in at about 20-minutes, as compared to six on the album. Yet the flow of fresh ideas combined with the heft, subtly and richness of the sonorities meant there was no flab on this or other songs. The angular and wild attack perhaps took the Fellow Creatures closer to the spirit of Phronesis than expected, and with sudden bursts of improv there were moments where they sounded downright angry. These more aggressive passages, however, were always resolved, generally by diminuendo finishes and Høiby's love of melody and perhaps also his optimism steering the music into calmer waters. There was much joy in this playing too. The delightful 'Song for Bees', with it's underlying South African vibe, just danced along. 'Before', a sinuous duo between Lockheart 's tenor and Høiby's bass, was delicious and the bright witty staccato rhythm of 'Suddenly, Everyone' skipped beneath flowing horn lines, with everything was framed by Corrie Dick's inventive drumming.
If the album was partially about Høiby's skill as a composer, this gig demonstrated his skill at working with an ensemble as an arranger. With Phronesis' tunes now having been arranged for big band by Julian Argülles (see Jazzwise, April 2017), it may only be a matter of time until Høiby himself tries his hand at writing for a big band.
– Colin May