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Live Reviews

Portico Quartet: Montreal, Canada, October 2, 2010

By Published: October 12, 2010
The increased use of electronics, heard at the show from Bellamy, Wyllie and Fitzpatrick—whose use of delay, reverb and looping while bowing his bass, created an orchestral effect, at times, not unlike Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen
Arild Andersen
Arild Andersen
b.1945
bass, acoustic
—is a hint at what's to come when Portico "begins to think about writing" the next album in January, 2011, as Wyllie described it. "Our writing process has really changed over time," Wyllie continued. "We started off doing a lot of busking, and sometimes we'd write while we were busking, or someone would bring an idea in and we'd jam that about...and it was all quite easygoing. But then, with the second album, we basically wrote it in a shed in the back of our garden—a big shed. That was much more of a group thing, taking ideas out of jams, and going a bit deeper into music. I don't know what it's going to be like this time around; I mean, we've been doing quite a lot of work on laptops, developing the production side of things. I think I may be playing more synth, and maybe not the hang on too many tracks, to change it up a bit."

Milo Fitzpatrick

Both Wyllie and Bellamy can be heard playing hang in the studio; live it was all Mulvey, who also acted as the group's spokesperson, introducing the band and the songs, during its two relatively brief sets. Improvisation is a part of what Portico does, and live it did take more liberties and time with its material, but equally, this was not a group about extended improvisation or, even when it did extemporize, a preponderance of "look at me" pyrotechnics. Instead, this group of four distinct players—who have pretty much lived in each others' pockets for the past few years, first, gaining a reputation busking in the UK and mainland Europe—were clearly about ensemble sound and collective interpretation. "We last busked two years ago," said Bellamy, "but when we played Philadelphia, there was a guy with his wife, who had seen us busking in London, and now they're back here, and saw us, which was cool. It's really fond memories: happy days, DIY [do it yourself] days, burning our own CDs with recordings from gigs that people sent to us; we didn't have any money [for a recording studio]."

Portico's Montreal show focused heavily on material from Isla, performing seven of its ten tracks (the American version expands the original's nine tracks with the addition of the vibrant "Su-Bo's Mental Breakdown," the second song in the group's first set). Comparison's to minimalist composer Steve Reich
Steve Reich
Steve Reich
b.1936
composer/conductor
are understandable, with the at-times Gamelan-like sound of Mulvey's hangs, and his predilection for repeated patterns that sometimes develop so slowly, and so hypnotically, that it's only after a few minutes that it becomes clear how much he's evolved—not unlike Swiss pianist Nik Bartsch
Nik Bartsch
Nik Bartsch
b.1971
keyboard
and his "Ritual Groove Music."

But Portico is more inherently song-focused than Bärtsch, with relevant comparisons to groups like Radiohead and, perhaps even more so, the boundary-busting Norwegian group Jaga Jazzist
Jaga Jazzist
Jaga Jazzist

band/orchestra
. But whereas Jaga leans towards heavily structured pieces with minimal room for soloing—and a much bigger group sound, ranging regularly from a nonet to a dectet—Portico finds a happy middle ground, building its material from the ground up but leaving some breathing space, mostly for Wylie, whose tenor and curved soprano may be conventional instruments, but his mix of acoustic techniques and electronics give him a sound like no other. The curved soprano creates a warmer sound in the lower register, a sound made famous by another Norwegian, saxophonist Jan Garbarek
Jan Garbarek
Jan Garbarek
b.1947
sax, tenor
; but Wyllie's tone is warmer still, and his approach—not unlike Garbarek, paying attention to the truth and tone of every note he plays—is equally more disposed towards the occasional rapid-fire passage, revealing a virtuosity that Wyllie keeps in careful check, only letting go when the time is right.

Duncan Bellamy

Surprisingly, perhaps, for a group that's been reaching cross-over audiences well outside the purview of jazz, in performance Portico is not a loud band. Instead, Bellamy played with a delicate and controlled touch, often employing brushes, and even when he switched to sticks and began delivering a backbeat-driven pulse, it was always sympathetic to the nuances of the hang, whose overtones are best heard at a near-acoustic level. Playing at a lower volume also encouraged its audience to pay closer attention; sometimes more people can be engaged by pulling them in to listen, rather than assaulting them with music so loud it that can't be ignored.


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