PHRONESIS are one of those bands that you think of as young but which, in fact, have been around forever. Well, 10 years, which is a very long time by the standards of most jazz ensembles, which tend to form and dissipate with regularity.
The highly-rated group is instrumentally traditional enough: a piano trio. But the fact that they have that memorable name (it’s an Aristotelean term meaning practical wisdom), without the word “trio” tells you a lot about how they think of themselves.
For founder Jasper Hoiby it’s all about audience expectations.
“It was a conscious think to pick a band name, yes — not to call ourselves the something trio,” he says on the eve of a six-date Irish tour.
“With that, everyone thinks: ‘Oh, look, you’re those guys who play 60-year-old songs or whatever’. But I think our music is pretty involved, it’s extrovert for a jazz trio. We are not so melancholy, we involve all moods and try to communicate that with the audience. We play with a lot of energy.”
Hoiby grew up in Copenhagen, then moved to London to study the bass at the Royal Academy of Music.
“I wasn’t really into jazz at all then,” he says. “I started into jazz late. Early on, I was listening to a lot of hip hop. I was playing electric bass and some of the people I was playing with left Denmark to go to the Royal Academy. I thought, these are my friends and the people I’m playing with, so I felt I had to go. I followed those guys. I auditioned for electric bass. They had no idea I was going to throw it away.”
At the academy, Hoiby met pianist Ivo Neame. “He was four years younger, 18, and killing it even then.” Completing the group’s Scandinavian flavour is the Norwegian-born drummer Anton Eger.
Hoiby was, from the start, the artistic centre of the group, composing all the music for the group’s first three albums. It led to them being often described as a bass-led trio, and there is some truth in that: the rhythm is always strong in their tunes, and the authority and rich, deep tone of Hoiby’s playing is one of its noticeable characteristics.
The bassist usually occupies the centre of the stage, but with Phronesis there is something more emphatic about it than just where Hoiby happens to stand.
“Yeah, we’ve used the term bass-led, but I think that, equally, being a democratic group is very important for us. The kind of music I enjoy is almost always that where every instrument has the possibility of stepping to the forefront, or to the back, or leading or supporting. We blur those boundaries.”
That democracy could always be heard in the intricacies that Neame’s lyrical playing brought, overlaying the groovy melodies that are Hoiby’s trademark. But it is now reflected, too, in the shared approach to composition, with all three contributing material to the current album, Life to Everything, recorded live during the 2013 London Jazz Festival. It’s the second live album from the group, following 2010’s Alive, the Jazzwise album of the year that signalled a maturing of their sound.
However, Alive did have Mark Guiliana as a stand-in for Eger, so Life to Everything is the first live album from the group, proper.
Also, while both albums bear Phronesis hallmarks, Life to Everything has a lighter, brighter sound, with more reflective music, and more intricate interplay between the instruments: no theme-solo-theme here. With each member contributing three compositions, there is rich variety and personality.
“The previous album we shared some of the writing,” says Hoiby, “and on this it’s shared equally, all of the writing. That keeps the other two focused, and it’s fun to exchange compositions and challenge each other. I think to some extent [the music has evolved], but I think it’s based on strong identity that we’ve created. We try to think about that, and feed that and make that grow. The groove thing is a big part, the melodic is a big part but we all love playing crazy time signatures and challenging each other.”
However, it’s not the Phronesis way to simply tour the current album. “We’ve been making new songs,” says Hoiby, “that we’ll mix in with that. We make a different set every night, or almost. We might stick with something for a day or two. We have about 35 tunes in rotation, so that’s a lot of stuff to be able to pull out. It keeps us fresh.”
Keeping it fresh, for Hoiby, is the key to keeping the show on the road for 10 years. “Audience energy is such an important part of what we do, it’s where jazz comes to life mostly. It’s where this band comes alive best too. We enjoy playing together and that comes across well when it all works. Playing for ourselves or in the studio, we just wouldn’t have that lifespan. Playing live keeps us going.”
- Phronesis Irish tour: Wednesday, Riverbank Centre, Newbridge; Thursday, Triskel Christchurch, Cork; Friday, The Dock, Carrick-on-Shannon; Saturday, Cultural Centre, Letterkenny; Sunday, Whelan’s, Dublin; Feb 9: Linenhall, Castlebar
His was the performance of the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival a few years back. The young Armenian pianist took the Everyman by storm one afternoon.
From an extraordinary opening solo vocal, through Armenian and Irish folk songs, he oozed natural ability. Still only 27, his first record for Nonsuch is due next month.
It’ll be interesting to see if, now, he’s made the record to reflect his talent.
If you think Scandinavian jazz is all atonal humorlessness, and its young practitioners all po-faced instrumentalists, check out this new take on the big band style. They’re a blast.
The debut album last year, Living the Dream, was a breath of fresh air, despite featuring some — but by no means solely — arrangements straight out of 1920s New Orleans.
Hopefully we’ll see them on these shores soon. Would suit a certain Cork festival very well...
Avishai Cohen is another big beast of the bass-led trio.
Having cut his teeth with Chick Corea, Cohen has gone on to forge a boundary-traversing career.
He’s not been afraid to draw on the Sephardic tradition of his native Israel, from classical, or from a funkier hip-hop inspired straight-ahead style. He’s even had his trio perform with a chamber string group to lustrous effect.
Judging from the preview track to his new latest album, From Darkess, he’s bringing things back to basics with Nitai Hershkovits on piano and Daniel Dor on drums.
This young solo pianist from Slovenia was a wonderful addition to the 12 Points festival in Dublin in 2011.
Still only 26, she brings her beautiful mix of compositional and improvisational skills back to the capital as part of the Improvised Music Company’s Solo Piano Series.
Also appearing will be the more experienced Alexander Hawkins, Bojan Zulfikarpasic, and Ilro Rantala. It’s a strong line-up, and, what’s more, the gigs are free. See improvisedmusic.ie.