Dating the emergence of a cultural phenomenon such as house music in the UK is notoriously difficult. While the tabloid furore probably reached full force in 1988, most would accept that the rise occurred the year before with the first (acid house) 'summer of love.' By any reckoning a lot of time has passed since those days and it seems remarkable how few credible crossovers between jazz and dance music there have been since then. While the looseness of hip hop beats has been a commonplace in a jazz setting for two decades, house music and techno have rarely been done justice perhaps because of the rapid evolution of club culture.
It is particularly odd when you consider how often Jazz musicians are like sponges, assimilating influences from often disparate musical sources that they release into their improvisations in sometimes strange juxtapositions and blends. So we might know that Vijay Iyer admires the techno musician and composer Robert Hood from the piece 'Hood' performed at his 2012 London Vortex concert but he is no more producing dance music than say Sven Vath is making jazz. Maybe some artists are able to hint at an influence without being fully immersed in the culture of the particular genrefor example Polar Bear clearly nod to electronica, while Masters at Work are clearly influenced by the latin jazz of the likes of Fania records. In either example the music is broad enough to encourage the more open minded fans of either genre to listen more widelyand for me, if possibly not Wynton Marsalis, that has to be a huge positive.
Manchester's Go Go Penguin, who record for Matthew Halsall's leading UK independent Gondwana records, have a similar potential as gateway artists to jazz for a younger audience versed in electronica. They have an ability to make clear musical references to dance music throughout this enjoyable, eclectic, collection while maintaining enough of the feel of a European piano trio a la Esbjorn Svennson Trio to keep the jazz police quiet. "Garden Dog Barbecue" might dazzle with the sheer nerve and ingenuity of the acoustic garage breakdown introduced two thirds of the way through, but it would need substantial remixing before it could fit into a club set and no-one is going to mistake it for Daft Punk anytime soon. That is just fine, of course, and in truth the tone here is much more like Craig Armstrong's wonderful downbeat orchestrations for Massive Attack from the late 1990s.
The Massive Attack reference works with the dubby echoes on "Fort" too and "One Percent" makes a game attempt at simulating a glitch on an acoustic pianobut these are signifiers of an inventive band of jazz musicians using different colours on a palette rather than some radical reimagining of dance music. Perhaps the most important point to grasp about Go Go Penguin, and the reason that this collection is being reviewed here rather than in the pages of Mixmag, is that the album remains primarily jazz. There are clear nods to the aforementioned EST in the filmic "To Drown In You" and "Kamaloka" that feel more like the soundtrack to the police dragging the lake in a cool Scandinavian crime drama than a hedonistic club night. Indeed both those pieces and the muted dynamics of "The Letter" are of sufficient quality to sit comfortably on say "Tuesday Wonderland" without sounding at all out of place.
So don't be afraid, Go Go Penguin are not really dance music, but they are a gifted and imaginative jazz piano trio who flirt with dance music textures and riffs in a way that references it. This exhilarating music is witty, playful and inventive enough to draw in a younger crowd unfamiliar with jazz while keeping the quality high enough to keep the hardcore jazz fans satisfied. For now that is enough and the band clearly have the talent and ability to communicate outside of the jazz tradition so it looks hopeful that the sound will continue to evolve in future releases. Truth is 'Version 2.0' is already looking very much like this year's UK crossover jazz record and the spring flowers have barely begun to bloom.
1. Murmuration; 2. Garden Dog Barbecue;3. Kamaloka; 4. Fort; 5. One
Percent; 6. Home; 7. The Letter; 8. To Drown in You; 9. Shock and Awe;
Chris Illingworth: piano; Nick Blacka: bass; Rob Turner: drums.
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