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Partisans: Never the Same Way Twice

Partisans: Never the Same Way Twice
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It's the energy that really excites me about playing with this band. And sometimes it's not really all that comfortable either. Sometimes it's very disconcerting: Gene and Thad will just stop behind you and you've got to hold your own. —Julian Siegel
It's been five years since Partisans—the British jazz group (not to be confused with the also-British punk rock band The Partisans) cited as the godfathers of the new wave of British jazz, first emerging in 1997 with the out-of-print self-titled debut on the EFZ label—last released an album, specifically the superlative By Proxy (Babel, 2009), which All About Jazz's Chris May called the group's "long expected masterpiece" and "one of the most exciting albums to be released on either side of the Atlantic in 2009."

High praise indeed, but the quartet that's been co-led by the group's two writers—guitarist Phil Robson and saxophonist/bass clarinetist Julian Siegel
Julian Siegel
Julian Siegel

saxophone
—has gone from strength to strength with each successive recording, managing to blend a plethora of ever-expanded stylistic interests into a unified gumbo that can only be described as: Partisans. With the band—also featuring bassist Thad Kelly and expat American drummer Gene Calderazzo— on the cusp of a new album coming this fall on, for the group, a new label (Swamp, to be released at the end of September, 2014 on Whirlwind Recordings Ltd), it's also getting ready to embark on a brief but important North American tour that will bring Partisans to Rochester, New York City, Seattle...and, for the first time, to four Canadian cities: Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa and Montréal.

Keeping things fresh is what's allowed the group to exist for nearly 20 years. As Robson explains, "The band has always had this old repertoire stuff that we've played a lot; but we've become very flexible at playing, say, one section of one tune and then going straight into another tune, and that really keeps the whole thing alive. We've started to think of tunes, rather than being these complete pieces where you start at the beginning and finish at the end, as something where, sometimes, we can just switch from one to another and use them as vehicles rather than a 'head in, head out' kind of thing. That's something that always makes these tunes mutate, because you're at the end of a bridge of some tune, and someone might just play a few notes or suggest the feel of another tune, and we can just go straight into it. It's very flexible; it's become a stylistic feature of the band to do that, and I suspect we'll be doing the same with the new material before too long. That's really great in terms of keeping things fresh; we're never going to play the same thing twice."

Julian picks up the thread, "The more we play—the more gigs we play in a row—sometimes four things can be going on at once, or two, where Phil and Gene are playing one thing and Thad and I are playing another; it's very funny what can happen."

So keeping things fresh, and finding new ways to bring the existing material together—sometimes in linear style, one tune morphing into another, but sometimes two separate tunes going on concurrently—is key to the Partisans sound and approach. It makes sense, then, that the group only road-tested the material on Swamp at a couple of local gigs before heading into the studio to record it. More than ever before, however, even the writing of the material was something that happened in relatively short order.

"The whole thing pretty much came together in about six weeks, from writing the music to recording," says Julian. "That was a new thing for this band. In the past, we would be playing a lot and then, say, Phil would come along and add a song to the set, but this time it was all written from scratch, so I didn't know what Phil was going to write, and he didn't know what I was going to write. I think, at one point, we called each other up and said, 'What've you got [laughs]?' We decided it didn't really matter, because even if we were writing a similar thing, it wouldn't really be the same; I hope we've got pretty distinctive writing styles."

And they do. In between Partisans projects, both Siegel and Robson have released albums under their own names, most recently Siegel's Urban Theme Park (Basho, 2011), which reunited the reed player with pianist Liam Noble, along with bassist Oli Hayhurst and Gene Calderazzo for an album as eclectic—but more electric—than Siegel's previous recording, the double- disc Live at the Vortex (Basho, 2009), with Americans Greg Cohen and Joey Baron
Joey Baron
Joey Baron
b.1955
drums
.

Robson, too, has stretched his stylistic purview beyond Partisans into a variety of side projects including 2009's heralded trio-plus-string quartet outing, Six Strings and the Beat (Babel), and 2011's highly successful transatlantic experiment, The Immeasurable Code, Robson's first encounter with Whirlwind Records.


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