Portico Quartet: a review

Probably one of the most exciting bands on the avant-garde edge of the contemporary/jazz music scene is Portico Quartet. Nominated for the Mercury Music Prize in 2008, the East London group has been honing and developing its sound for the last four years, winning new fans and accolades with each album and every performance.

Comprised of drummer Duncan Bellamy, bassist Milo Fitzpatrick, saxophonist/keyboardist Jack Wyllie and keyboardist/hang player Kier Vine, the group’s early career has undergone both a lineup change, and a natural evolution of the music itself. Pioneering for their use of the ‘hang’ –a convex steel drum type instrument that produces a mellifluous, warm tone- the group has maintained a unique feel to their music, despite a quite radical recent shift in their sound.

Although having enjoyed their earlier work I was expecting not to like the band’s third album, the self-titled Portico Quartet. This has little to do with the quality of the music (which is actually excellent), but rather is down to some pitiful internal contradiction: like many jazz fans who profess to love the genre for its sonic exploration, improvisation and reinvention, I have a more conservative relationship with the music than I would like to admit.

The radicalism of improvised music -in the way Coltrane could turn a phrase inside out and flip it on its head, breaking with all appreciable understanding of melody- isn’t really all that radical anymore. This is probably because A Love Supreme is nearly fifty years old, and what was ‘far out’ then is now considered classic. But that, ultimately, is the standard to which many of us secretly want our jazz to conform. If we could have it our way Portico Quartet would have been put behind bars after producing Isla in 2010: a solitary, structural confinement of bebop and cool jazz within which to brood and meditate on their next opus. Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Wayne Shorter would be the prison guards; fraternisation with electronica, ambient and dance music would be strictly prohibited.

But such a way of looking at it is of course utterly reactionary. A once potent and transgressive genre has been whittled down over the years, and that which constitutes ‘proper’ jazz has become an ever more elite selection.

Portico Quartet would find itself outside of this snobbish categorisation, but it is all the richer for it. The album does indeed mark a considerable departure from the band’s previous outings, Knee-Deep in the North Sea (2007) and Isla (2010), both of which had a more straight-up, albeit innovative, acoustic sound. Although if you listen closely Isla does hint at the direction the band was starting to take two years ago, it is only on Portico Quartet that the influence of ambient and electronic music has become explicit -the album’s series of soundscapes has catapulted into prominence the mesmerising and chilling atmosphere that emanated from the hang, underpinning their previous work.

In this respect they have a much more successful and organic relationship with contemporary music than many of their predecessors -Courtney Pine’s Modern Day Jazz Stories (1995) used a lot of samples and processed beats to augment Pine’s sax playing, but the overall effect was pretty clumsy and simply didn’t gel with the music.

Ultimately one can approach Portico Quartet’s work from a couple of angles: We can choose to re-evaluate what ‘jazz’ means, for this generation, and accept that the new frontier is probably more to do with the cross-pollination of genre than it is to do with insular percussive and melodic subversion –in which case Portico Quartet might still be thought of as a jazz band. Alternatively we can just accept that these London musicians have moved out of that particular niche and settle for saying that they make great music, and enough said.

The whole is it jazz or isn’t it? question isn’t one Portico Quartet seem all that bothered by. When I spoke to Kier Vine, the group’s new keyboard and hang player, he summed up the band’s attitude:

“It’s definitely been a big part of all of our listening, but we never really have been a jazz band. It’s the classic thing: people that don’t really listen to jazz or like it would call us jazz; for people who do like and listen to jazz, we aren’t. The debate’s a bit tired now; we don’t really care.”

Having always preferred just to play whatever they’re into, it certainly seems a like a moot point. As the group’s influences have developed and changed over time, so too has the music they produce. I asked Kier about the new direction since original hang player Nick Mulvey’s departure from the group in 2010. As he explains, the band was already exploring new sonic horizons before his arrival:

“If you listen to Isla in relation to the first album, there’s more of a shift to a fuller, richer sound that’s starting to become a bit more electronic and effected -and live, that’s what the guys were doing. After Nick left, as a three piece they’d been writing for a couple of months. It was quite a big rebirth… it really suited what I was craving at that timeand my joining was probably the crystalising point [for the new sound].”

The album is very clearly influenced by the scene around them, with the group particularly citing ambient, contemporary classical, dance and electronic music.

“Exciting things are going on with electronic music: what we’ve been hearing on dance floors and on radio; there’s a real buzz and collaborative community sense right now…We’ve been really interested by that.”

When I asked whether the new album would have sounded different had the guys been geographically rooted in, say, Bristol or Leeds rather than London, Kier seemed to dismiss the notion: “We’re not trying to recreate anything from what we’re hearing. The city’s played its part but we’re not defined by the geographical area we represent –it’s more wide reaching and far searching.”

If the band has stayed true to one of jazz’s core sensibilities, it is without a doubt this sense of exploration. As they embark upon a new tour it remains to be seen how their fan base will react to Portico Quartet, but my guess is that it will be well received. Without going so far out as to alienate their existing fans, they have managed to craft a majestic and ethereal piece of contemporary music, and in doing so, announce themselves to a wider audience.

This piece was commissioned for the Chelsea and Kensington Review

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