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GoGo Penguin: A Humdrum Star

Phil Barnes By

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If 2016's Man Made Object, their first for Blue Note, was an exercise in consolidating past triumphs while signposting potential ways forward, then there can be no doubt that with A Humdrum Star GoGo Penguin have stepped into a version of that future. Ostensibly the title is a self-effacing reference to a Carl Sagan TV series "Cosmos," emphasising how small and insignificant our world is and by extension our own petty concerns are. The quote reads "We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people."

It's a quote that fits some in the jazz community's penchant for self-important navel gazing too of course—following the release of Man Made Object one or two of the more reactionary elements of the UK jazz scene questioned whether the group could even be called jazz. Its a debate that we can deal with quickly—as Mats Gustafsson reflected in Sammy Stein's excellent book All That's Jazz: ..."there are actually huge numbers of great players and great music these days but I have no idea what to call their music...." GoGo Penguin are a beautiful blend of elements of jazz and improvised music with clear nods to modern classical, electronica and old school house music. Jazz fits as well as any descriptor but none is entirely adequate for a group that exists in the gaps between those genres. So why would a few conflate a personal view of a record with a declaration that music they don't like is somehow invalid as "jazz"? If we take genre purity to its logical conclusion, then we would never have moved beyond the harp, lute and descant recorder. Absurd yes, but no more ridiculous than defining jazz as something that must have roots in, say, the 'Great American Songbook,' Kind of Blue or even Bitches' Brew—however fine we may find some or all of these. Use what works, play what you enjoy, listen freely, discuss the music you like and ignore the rest. Life really is too short.

A Humdrum Star is a definite jump forward in the incorporation of electronic music into the GoGo Penguin sound and, like it or not, jazz. The signs were certainly there in 2016, when bassist Nick Blacka spoke of the greater freedom, or at least absence of rules he saw in electronic music, yet this time there is a greater confidence in realising their intentions. Its an openness that allows the group to take compositional inspiration from different sources and methods—they have, for example, sometimes started the traditional way on bass and piano while on others used modern production packages such as Ableton and Logic to make initial sketches that they can collectively develop. It's a 'whatever works' attitude that has allowed them to capture that creative spark in the most efficient way, not losing the moment in requiring a certain set of instrumental pre-conditions to be met.

There is a rush to the opening trio of compositions that serves as a good weather-vane to your likely reaction to the record. The moody "Prayer," soulful piano underpinned by electronic rumble and effects, leading rapidly into the higher register chiming piano of "Raven" that starts in jazz before heading towards the sort of territory explored by Roni Size's Reprazent in the 1990s. Its neither entirely drum & bass, nor acoustic jazz, but it does include a great improvised piano solo from Chris Illingworth in a modern classical style, and is generally fantastic. The album's killer, the immense "Bardo," is better still. Illingworth's high register piano seeming to float over the bass and sub-bass rumble to give a remarkable sense of acoustic space. The track is currently getting attention in the UK from the likes of Mary Anne Hobbs on the BBC's enlightened 6music station, and is an extraordinary piece of music, quite possibly the best thing they have done to date. The use of piano over electronic beats has echoes of the mid-1990s progressive house of Brian Transeau or the more European take of Shazz on the French F-Communications label— although for the good of your continued membership of the jazz community it is probably best to keep this to yourself.

There is an increased confidence to the performance on "Strid" too, the audacious way that the piece jumps like a DJ's fader has been flicked to another tune and back. The structure is inspired by the way that fate can randomly intervene in our lives, specifically by a beautiful yet perilous stretch of the River Wharfe where Nick Blacka grew up. The piano led "Transient State" is perhaps the most similar to the style of previous albums but even here there is a greater assurance in the way that the rhythm shifts and crunches yet remains in keeping with the original theme. It also features some great cymbal work from Rob Turner at the final breakdown that builds the excitement and would sound fantastic live.

For GoGo Penguin, A Humdrum Star is the culmination of the musical development they have been building towards since their debut Fanfares appeared on Matthew Halsall's Gondwana records back in 2012. The influences from electronic music have been absorbed, developed and interpreted from the standpoint of musicians with interests in modern classical, jazz and improvised music which means that, like Mats Gustafsson trying to define jazz, heaven only knows what we should call it. What we can say is that it is an exciting, exhilarating and original blend that freshens up its sources and takes them somewhere new. 2018 has its first classic—highly recommended.

Track Listing: Prayer; Raven; Bardo; A Hundred Moons; Strid; Transient State; Return to Text; Reactor; Window.

Personnel: Chris Illingworth: piano; Nick Blacka: bass; Rob Turner: drums.

Title: A Humdrum Star | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Blue Note Records

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