The history of Portico Quartet is brief, but it's also eventful. Since forming in 2005, this young British band have seen their first album, Knee Deep In The North Sea (Babel, 2007), become a Mercury Music Award Album of the Year, they've gathered rave reviews for their second album, Isla (Real World, 2009), and they've introduced a brand new acoustic instrument into the jazz repertoire. Although much of their music is recognizably "jazz," their use of the Hang creates a distinctive, instantly recognizable, sound that lies outside the expected sonic boundaries of contemporary jazz. The quartet's formation, development, working methods and even living arrangements are more akin to those of a rock band than a jazz ensemble. They are, in short, one of the most original and intriguing groups to emerge on the British scene for some time.
Portico Quartet (l:r): Jack Wyllie, Nick Mulvey, Duncan Bellamy, Milo Fitzpatrick
Saxophonist Jack Wyllie and percussionist Nick Mulvey were more than happy to discuss Portico Quartet's past, present and future over the telephone from East London, taking it in turns to share Nick's mobile phone after some technical problems arose. They are friendly and articulate interviewees and their insights into the band and its activities are illuminating.
Unlike many in the new wave of young British bands, Portico Quartet isn't the result of meetings at music college. Wyllie and bassist Milo Fitzpatrick were friends in Southampton on the south coast of England, where they both played in the Southampton Youth Jazz Orchestra. Mulvey and drummer Duncan Bellamy were friends in Cambridge. All four moved to London to studyWyllie and Mulvey at the School of Oriental and African Studies, Bellamy at art college and Fitzpatrick at Goldsmith's College. None of them studied music, although three of the band did music-related degrees, as Mulvey explains: "Milo studied popular music, different styles of Western music... Me and Jack both studied ethnomusicology. So there has been related study, but not of performance techniques or styles. I'm quite happy about that...it gives a certain liberation."
Mulvey agrees that the band's formation was not typically that of a jazz band: "We met and formed along the lines of many other bandsnot jazz bands, just mates with shared musical interests and an appetite to make music. We started in our first year at university, which is a great time to make music. We were aware of some British jazz but not so aware of the 'normal' way for jazz bands to formfrom one institution or centered on one writer or soloist. That chimes with our feeling that in the general operation of things, we're not particularly a jazz band." This sensibility pervades many other aspects of Portico Quartet's activity. For example, they jointly compose all of their numbers: "It's completely equal," Mulvey continues. "There may be one or two songs of all the ones we've written where one person has led [the writing] more than the others. Usually one person has a riff or motif, a nugget, and everyone will sit around and work on it and take it from there."
The band members may not have experienced a formal musical education, but the education they did get was perhaps better preparation for the life of a working musician. For much of their time at university, Portico Quartet's members supplemented their incomes by busking, particularly on London's South Bank. Mulvey expands on this experience: "Parallel to our degrees, we were playing all the timeone or two gigs a week, then five or six hours on the South Bank busking, which in gig terms is like four or five gigs more. So, for quite a few years we were doing the equivalent of six or seven gigs a week in terms of playing together, honing our rapport, and that really helped us in terms of playing and getting our sound together."