Portico Quartet: Not Particularly a Jazz Band
After playing for a couple of years, the band signed to Babel Records for their first album, Knee Deep In The North Sea. But here again the process was not typical. Mulvey happily expands on what happened, despite a nearby car alarm vying for attention: "We developed a following and we were selling demo CDs [while busking]...then we met our booking agent, started to get better gigs, then were approached by a few record labels. We talked to one label for a while and that made us think, 'Well...if they think we can make an album then we reckon we can too.' So we thought, 'Rather than make another demo, let's pool our student loans'this is about 18 months after we started'go to a proper professional studio and make something properly.' Then in summer 2007, at the end of our degrees, we met Will Gresford who managed the Vortex jazz club and wanted to help us and get some co-ordination behind us. We already had the record made. He got it mastered and then put us in touch with Oliver Weindling at Babel. We'd liked their releases of people like Acoustic Ladyland and Polar Bear, so just after my last exam at university we signed with Babel...and to formalize Will's role we added the Vortex imprint to the Babel label, pooling together the club, the label and the band...their collective energies."
Knee Deep In The North Sea had an immediate impact on the British jazz scene and was nominated for the 2008 Mercury Music Award, one of Britain's most prestigious music prizes. While the album didn't win the overall prize, the award was a great stimulus for the band, as Wyllie is quick to acknowledge: "Essentially, it put three years' worth of press into three months, and suddenly there is this circus around you. I think that brought us to the attention of [record label] Real World and our publishers. For a small band I think the nomination means a lot; bands like Radiohead, who get lots of awards, don't need it so much. It brought us to the attention of lots more listeners and a greater variety of listeners, and it definitely boosted our sales. This meant that our publishers and record label are willing to take bigger risks with us than they would have done without the Mercury."
Real World is a substantial record label, able to put more resources behind a release than a smaller label such as Babel. The move has given Portico Quartet a greater potential for international markets, but Wyllie is grateful to Babel for its backing of the first album. "Babel were great," he says "we had made the album and we licensed it to them, basically. They are quite big in jazz circles and it was a nice way into that scene. For Isla, we wanted someone who could push it internationally, give us substantial distribution in Europe."
Comparing the two albums, it is clear that all four musicians have developed: the playing on Isla is stronger, more varied and more confident. Wyllie in particular has developed a harder edge to his playing, with more drive. Is this deliberate, or simply the result of greater experience? "It's a bit of each," says Wyllie. "Definitely playing more, having time to experiment with different techniques, mouthpieces and horns. Also, broadening what I listen to, getting more into some freer stuff. I've been to see [British free jazz pioneer] Evan Parker quite a few times and really enjoyed that. Also, I think, the difference with this album is that we wrote it over a period of four months in our back garden [where the band members have built a rehearsal studio]. So rather than making tunes up as we went along, as we were busking, this was four guys in a room in the middle of winter, getting much deeper into it. Some of the discussions got quite tense, and we got quite critical about the thing and I think that comes across. It's maybe a bit darker, deeper."
This darkness certainly does come across. In contrast to the first album, which is almost universally light and positive, there are definite dark tones on Isla. "The Visitor" is the best exampledark and even a bit scary at times, due mainly to Wyllie's soprano sax. "Clipper" sounds almost like an Acoustic Ladyland tune at times. Wyllie laughs, "Yeah, the four months of writing was quite intense. I think another reason is that a lot of the first album was written when we were busking, so the songs are written to draw people in...the structures are fairly simple, less hard-edged. But that scenario wasn't there when we were playing in our shed in our garden."