Polar Bear - The Front Room, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London - Gigs - Reviews - Soundblab

Polar Bear - The Front Room, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

by Charly Richardson Rating: Release Date:

I've never seen such as long queue outside Queen Elizabeth Hall. Clearly their appropriately named 'Friday Tonic' gig series has been a success. Taking place in the Front Room at 5.30pm on Friday afternoons, it attracts a surprisingly varied audience eager to experience an array of new musical talent for free. Today's offering is experimental 'post-jazz' outfit Polar Bear, part of F-IRE Collective, a revolutionary music community including, amongst others, Acoustic Ladyland, Basquiat Strings, Fulborn Teversham and The Ingrid Laubrock Quintet.

Narrowly grabbing a seat as the room filled astonishingly quickly, I am surrounded by elderly gents happily discussing jazz magazines and Polar Bear's recent performance on 'Later with Jools Holland'. The band quietly take the stage, bursting into a funky number with a gentle guitar skank, shuffling drums and a resonant bass pedal, immediately followed by a wonderfully contrasting wave of meditative, lush electronics. Floating on top are the tenor saxophones of Pete Wareham and Ex-Tomorrow's Warrior Shabaka Hutchings, who replaces regular Mark Lockheart. They duck and dive between each other with amazing fluidity, effortlessly flicking between rasping, free-jazz attacks and beautifully delicate, almost violin-like passages. They work together, creating mournful, minimalist harmonies, but also purposefully push against each to initiate electrifying improvisation. Their obvious technical prowess gives them powerful battle tools, and split-notes, rapid-fire false fingering and trills, and head-spinning multiphonics are effectively deployed.

Although virtuosic in their own right, together the members of Polar Bear construct a surprisingly restrained and reflective soundworld, within which neo-classical and even folk sensibilities surface. The use of dynamics is superb; gentle, filmic soundscapes and modal melodies slowly build to furious, free-wheeling group improvisation. Yet they never stay in the avant-garde arena long enough to alienate free-jazz sceptics, and their tunes are always structured carefully to give the band somewhere to return to. The use of build and release is exemplary, and the cyclic grooves which emerge are engaging and fresh, clearly pleasing the young trendy-types in the audience who bop their heads in appreciation. At times the band sound closer to the trip-hop styling of groups like The Herbaliser than to other contemporary-jazz outfits. They are certainly more accessible.

Double-bass player Tom Herbert provides the solid bass ostinatos, and takes a wonderful solo towards the end. Leafcutter John drums utilises an electric guitar, laptop, and even a Nintendo Wii and Xbox controller to create soundscapes which brilliantly fill the void between the rhythm section and saxes. Drummer Seb Rochford (whose vast afro looks even wilder than usual) is quietly fierce and responsive, yet never too busy. He plays with disjointed beats, effortlessly pulling around time signatures to great effect. It's just a shame he's not quite as confident on the microphone. His mumbles are almost incoherent, prompting one punter behind me to quip that David Cameron's PR agency should get to work on him. Still if the audience's applause tells us anything, it's that Rochford is the star of the show.

Polar Bear end their second set with a punky, thrashy number with screaming saxes. It is the only time they get close to the balls-out brashness of their contemporaries Acoustic Ladyland, yet it is an effective end to an impressive show by one of the UK's most intriguing instrumental outfits.

Charly Richardson

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