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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.

"It's a very new label, led by [expat American] bassist Michael Janisch
Michael Janisch
Michael Janisch
b.1979
bass
," says Robson. "He's got tremendous energy; he's an amazing person. He's doing a lot of good things in the scene over here: he's an entrepreneur; he's a great bassist; and he is also very conscientious and very aware of what's happening on the scene. And he's always checking out new people—he's very open-minded. So I think he's fabulous; certainly ambitious, but I think very interested in trying to make a label work."

But irrespective of Siegel and Robson's various side projects, Partisans is clearly the group they call home. "We really see Partisans as a long-term project," says Robson. "We see it as something that we'll always come back to. In a way, taking the long break like we did recently, where we go away to do our own things, we always come back to this band and really bring something back to it—the experiences from doing those other projects. But there's always a view to coming back to this band, and we tend to do it when we feel it will be at its freshest, when it's going to have a whole new lease on life."

Siegel adds, "I think that it feels like a really good time to do it now. Yes, there have been gaps between albums. But the time has always been right for each one; it feels like a natural time for it to happen. It's really been great to come back to the band and start fresh. We've been doing gigs around and people have been asking 'When is a new Partisans album coming about?' It feels like people have really missed the band, so it's been nice to get back together and play again. It's a really special group; I've always really loved playing with this band."

A sentiment clearly shared by Robson, Kelly and Calderazzo, based on an advance listen to Swamp, which finds the group back and doing what it does best: blending genres with a kind of serendipitous synchronicity, where Afro beat can mix with greasy swamp funk; where the band can respect the tradition with authority and credibility while, at the same time, introducing sounds like Robson's massively over- driven electric guitar—at times, one of the truly ugliest distortions heard on a jazz record ("That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me," Robson replies, laughing)—rude and totally unapologetic—but one that speaks to Partisans ethos: if they're going to swing, they're going to swing hard; and if they're going to rock out, they're going to rock out like they mean it.

"In response to the distortion, yeah, it's funny to me," Robson says. "But there is a serious side to it. One of the things that I noticed, when I first really started getting into jazz, is that some of the fusion aspects of jazz tended to kind of half go there, but not go all the way. I have a real desire to go there because I'm steeped in it; I grew up listening to that stuff—my favorite bands when I was a kid were bands like Black Sabbath. So it's natural for me that if I'm going to go there at all, it's not going to be a jazzy version of it; it's going to be as hard rock as I can play."

And it isn't just Robson whose genes contain the DNA of hard rock; Calderazzo, too, has always been interested in things beyond the broadest purview of jazz. "The thing about Gene is that he's an American drummer, but he loves Led Zeppelin, and he's massively into Mitch Mitchell
Mitch Mitchell
Mitch Mitchell
1947 - 2008
drums
and the Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
1942 - 1970
guitar, electric
Experience, so there's a lot of common ground from different sides of the Atlantic and a genuine love for that kind of thing. It's not an affect; it's real to us. I grew up listening to it; Gene grew up listening to it. So, hopefully, when we play that kind of thing, it's real to us."

"Some of my first gigs were rock gigs," Siegel adds, "and I just came back from this Afro beat gig, doing arrangements that were pretty diverse; doing a rock gig with real rock energy that was very exciting, but there was so much jazz in there, too. I really love the mixture and how it changes; expectations change. I love it when the energy's all up and kicking off. In terms of jazz or rock, it's the energy that really excites me about playing with this band. And sometimes it's not really all that comfortable either. I really like the challenging of playing with Gene, Phil and Thad. Sometimes it's very disconcerting: Gene and Thad will just stop behind you and you've got to hold your own."

Phil recalls, "I remember that very fondly on some of the first gigs; I'd never played with anybody who could put out that much energy and yet be willing to just stop. That was shocking, really."

The same unpredictability that Partisans demonstrate onstage—even catching a mere fifteen minutes of the group at a Jazzahead! showcase in 2011 was enough to know that this was a band that surprised itself as much as its audience—is in great abundance on Swamp from the opening "Flip the Sneck," a Siegel tune that moves from Afro-high life to greasy funk at the drop of a hat.

"Because we hadn't played in awhile, I've really, really enjoyed hearing Phil's sound again," says Siegel. "When I was writing, I really imagined his harmonic and melodic concept and was so looking forward to playing with him again. We try to write things that don't get in the way of the band trying to play and improvise. When it comes to getting together and playing the tunes, the writing hopefully sets the mood up, but the way the arrangements happen can be really flexible, in terms of soloists and what's happening. You try to just let it happen, let it take its course and see what happens. The form is what it is. It's often not too predetermined; it's about trying not to write too much."

So what's a sneck? "This tune speaks to Phil's being down in London a little bit before me," Julian explains. "Our hometowns are pretty near each other up in the East Midlands of England; Phil is from Darby and I'm from Nottingham, and there's always been a little local rivalry between the two towns—something sort of humorous—so it something we share. But a sneck is actually a northern English/Scottish word for a latch on a door and this comes from a gig we did in Nottingham, and there's a promoter there who'd say, about the dressing room, 'Can you flip the sneck on the way out?' And for us it was like, 'What the hell are you talking about? We've no idea what you're talking about.' So, it's just an expression that somehow reminds me of home."

Partisans came together in the typical way that groups often do. "I think that we [Julian and I] met each other doing some big band gigs, but really just being around on the scene in London," says Robson. "It's got a really major, very diverse music scene. And we just started playing together and jamming, and then we moved into a house together—a house full of musicians who played all the time, and who were very tolerant. And I think, even back then, we just started sharing and working on ideas together. And then gigs started to come in and it would be with this bassist or that drummer.

"But then we had that desire to write more," Robson continues, "which means you want to head towards a more consistent group of people. Then Gene moved to the country and I played with him, and I thought, 'Wow, this feels really natural to me; this is really a direction I want to go in.' The same thing with Thad. I'd been playing with him in all sorts of different situations around town. There was a huge scene back at the old Vortex [a still-legendary London jazz club that's moved locations]—that was a really important venue. You would see, maybe, the same bassist on two very different gigs, and there was a lot of musical experimentation going on. So that was a part of much of what was happening. And then, with the writing thing, it just became more natural to have the same guys playing it so we could develop the material that much more."

Calderazzo and Kelly may not be composers in Partisans, but both Robson and Siegel are quick to emphasize their importance, not just as players, but with respect to their input when new material is being worked through. "When we bring the material to the other guys, they have a huge impact on the way it ends up in particular on a recording, in terms of the form and just the general pacing of things," Robson says. "Thad is really brilliant at seeing, very objectively, what's happening with an arrangement. He has great suggestions, making it more concise or more punchy. And the same with Gene: he brings his own unique style of drumming to everything, and some things turn out completely different to the way we'd imagined them, and it's great; then it becomes a real group thing, which I think is the key to this band because, even with all the other projects I've done, this is the one that feels like a definite group—it's a real band."

And because it's a band, where there's a constant give-and-take, not just in the studio but on the bandstand, the music evolves over time. "It's funny," says Julian, "because this time the recording date was so soon after we played those two gigs that we were trying to imagine what the music could be like in maybe six months and kind of take an educated guess at where it could go with the form, while leaving enough flexibility and looseness. Still, that's what happened on that day [in the studio]; in six months, something completely different could happen."

The group is somewhat—and uncharacteristically, given most bands bring the music in and it's generally played as written—brutal about how it allows written music to be dissected and, sometimes, completely torn apart. "What instantly springs to mind is 'Overview,'" says Robson. "There was quite a lot of written material on that tune, and in the end some of it didn't get used. Not that it wasn't great written material, but some of it, in order to keep the nature of the band—which is to have this really open feeling for improvising—became a little constricted, so it could almost have been another tune. So that's the kind of thing that happens; but equally, it's also possible that another time it could be reintroduced in some way."

Julian interjects, "I think it's like there were three possible outcomes written and we were just happy to have one of them that worked out [laughter]. The great thing about working with this band for so long is that there's a trust in the guys, that the process of rehearsing and improvising will significantly affect the sound of the music."

"If I get a real idea in my head, sometimes I will write out whole bass parts, even if they don't ultimately get played, just so they give a kind of flavor," Robson continues. "I find that useful sometimes, but really it varies a lot. For example, I've been listening to a lot of this strange kind of voodoo drumming stuff from Haiti, and wanted to write something that had some of that feeling. But, of course, Gene is playing drums the way he plays them, and I'm not going to ask him to play some kind of authentic Haitian drumming. Still, I'd become fascinated by it, and wanted to write something with that flavor [Swamp's title track]. The tune is quite sketchy, basically, with two grooves. The coda melody is actually one of Julian's melodies, from another tune, that I just fiddled with to make it fit the groove I'd already written, so the very end minute is actually Julian's melody."

"Phil rescued it," Siegel interrupts, laughing.

"But that's an example of how additional written material can actually fit in somewhere, in kind of a humorous end to what is really quite a dark tune," Robson concludes.

Elsewhere, the music is more defined. "This is all very abstract," Robson says, "but with 'Thin Man' I was playing around with these shapes—these quite dissonant little shapes—on the guitar, and somehow there was something kind of scientific or geometric about them. So when I was looking for a title, trying to find something that was in some way connected to that feeling—which is what I try and do with these things—I was reading some things about [J. Robert] Oppenheimer, the man who made the atom bomb and who is kind of an interesting character, and the title became a reference to him [one of his nuclear bombs was code-named 'Thin Man'). But the actual origin of a tune varies: sometimes it's a melody; sometimes a bass line; sometimes it's other things. But this one had a real shape and something about it that felt kind of like a scientific formula that had to be unwound or deciphered.

"Sometimes the written material is quite dense," Robson continues. "'Icicle Architects' was definitely a sketch, although I had a strong opinion that it would have a certain feeling to it. But that's one that got helped by the other guys in terms of the groove. Originally I had very open chords at the end of it, in terms of the time. And Thad suggested that we use a groove thing for the final riff and put those chords to them. Originally that would've been floating chords over a kind of pulse, but what Thad did was to tighten the whole thing up and make it fit with what was going to happen afterwards."

Partisans is a band that's clearly about relationship and collaboration, but it goes even beyond the four musicians. For the last three recordings, the engineer has been Phil Bagenal, who Robson says, "is not a producer, but he certainly does play a part. In addition to being the engineer, we've bounced ideas off him, and he's been really, really helpful." Additionally, the cover art for Swamp, By Proxy and Max (Babel, 2006) has been Bron James, who Siegel explains, "is part of the [ex-anarchistic punk band Crass] Crass Collective under the name Eve Libertine. All the covers for all our albums have been produced by members of the Crass Collective—either Bron or Gee Vaucher, who goes by the name of G Sus in the band. It's really nice that we've also got a visual history, too."

With the North American tour looming, the band is already excited at the prospect. "I just did a tour in Scotland with [singer] Christine Tobin
Christine Tobin
Christine Tobin
b.1963
vocalist
and it's amazing, the connection with Canada there," says Robson. "We're very excited about going; we've never been to Canada before."

While the band will get the chance to perform a significant amount of Swamp's eight tracks—compositionally split equally between Robson and Siegel—there's no doubt that some of the group's earlier repertoire will be on show as well. As Robson explains, "I think it's going to be a mixture of stuff, because the band has so much repertoire at this stage, and certain things we know are really good to play live, so it would be kind of crazy not play some of those old things; but we'd like to play a good selection of this new material too, especially in venues where we're playing more than one set."

Siegel continues, "We'll try to play some of the old things that still feel fresh. For example, we just started playing the song "Partisans" again, which was on the first album. If you don't play something for awhile and then you come back to it, it can be really fun—and fresh—to play. I think Phil just called it on a gig and we started playing it and it felt like a whole new thing again."

With the upcoming released of Swamp—and despite its September, 2014 release date in the UK, copies will be available on the tour—a ten-day, seven-date trek that will cross the continent more than once— there's little doubt that North Americans are in for a real treat. Even if they've heard Partisans before, with music that will, no doubt, be as much a surprise to Robson, Siegel, Kelly and Calderazzo as it is the audience, clearly anything can and will happen...and for Partisans, that's exactly as it should be.

Photo Credit: Mike Stemberg


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