GOGO Penguin are pianist Chris Illingworth, bassist Nick Blacka and drummer Rob Turner — three Manchester jazz musicians, but just don’t call them a trio. That’s not how they roll. Maybe the clue is in the name — unlike so many similar lineups, the T-word is missing from the name.
“We wanted to be a band,” says Illingworth. “We wanted to avoid calling it any genre or labelling it or thinking of it as a piano trio or any kind of trio. It’s a band. I think Radiohead are a great example. As much as Thom Yorke is the frontman and the name people know, it’s the combination of people in that band bringing what they can to the sound that makes Radiohead what they are.
“When you combine elements together you can get a powerful sound and that’s what we were going for. If we don’t agree, we keep trying to get the right idea. That’s how we get our band sound. We all bring our own individual thing to it and that’s why a track will sound like a GoGo Penguin tune and not three guys playing the one guy’s tunes.”
The GoGo Penguin sound draws on everything from dance-floor beats to discursive, improvisational arrangements that fit more readily under the jazz rubric. The mark of Esbjorn Svennson is in there, but so too Aphex Twin, Massive Attack, the Bad Plus, and Claude Debussy.
All three members come from a conservatory background, but they are equally open to the influence of that training as to the records they might have listened to in teenage bedrooms. “In terms of what we listen to, there is too much to list and it’s always changing,” Illingworth says. “I come from a classical piano background and for a while I didn’t study any jazz, but then I got into improvisation. The main music I listen to has been electronic music, things like Massive Attack, but also a lot of rock as well, Queens of the Stone Age, Nine Inch Nails. Led Zep, that kind of stuff.
“We’ve all got overlaps in what we listen to. Myself and Nick have always really liked The Roots and the Beastie Boys, a lot of that kind of sound. Rob is into classical but also massively into Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, so he brings a lot of that — the beats, how he approaches the drums.”
GoGo Penguin’s second album, v2.0, was nominated for last year’s Mercury Prize and would make an ideal gateway to jazz for listeners more versed in electronica. A baseline might nod to a former Mercury winner, Roni Size, and Blacka’s skit-skitting drums might evoke a Chicago house tune, a piano might mimic a vinyl glitch, but at no point is the improvisational potential lost or enslaved to the beat. What we have is a wide palette, used by people at home in many musical cultures but firmly rooted in jazz.
As if to prove the point, GoGo Penguin was signed recently by Blue Note records. “It’s blown us all away,” says Illingworth. “They’ve got such a reputation and such a history, to get asked by people like that because they got into our music and got what we were doing, it’s massive. It’s really humbling as well, because we’ve kept our heads down and kept doing to work we’ve wanted to do.”
But has the imprimatur of a label with such a legacy, and such an association with hard bop jazz, led to some confused audiences? “More and more know who we are and what we do, so it’s nice that we are building a fan base. But we still do get a lot of people, especially when we go play somewhere new, who don’t have a clue what to expect and, luckily, we seem to be getting a really positive reaction.
“We did a gig in Manchester not that long ago and somebody much more from a traditional background told us that their favourite tune was one that had a four-to-the-floor house beat all the way through it. That really surprised us. But, at the end of the day, we just try to write good tunes that connect with people and try to say something.”
GoGo Penguin play Triskel on Sunday as part of the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival. For other Irish gigs, see gogopenguin.co.uk
The main music I listen to has been electronic music, things like Massive Attack, but also a lot of rock as well