Portico Quartet: Montreal, Canada, October 2, 2010
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 playerswho have pretty much lived in each others' pockets for the past few years, first, gaining a reputation busking in the UK and mainland Europewere 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 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 evolvednot unlike Swiss pianist Nik Bartsch 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. But whereas Jaga leans towards heavily structured pieces with minimal room for soloingand a much bigger group sound, ranging regularly from a nonet to a dectetPortico 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; but Wyllie's tone is warmer still, and his approachnot unlike Garbarek, paying attention to the truth and tone of every note he playsis 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.
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.