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Jasper Hoiby: In Conversation

Nick Davies By

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Scandinavian/British jazz trio Phronesis have been described in Jazzwise Magazine as "one of the most exciting bands on the planet today" and by Jon Newy in the same publication as "the most exciting and imaginative piano trio since the Esbjorn Svensson Trio." They have been nominated for numerous awards such as "The Best Jazz Ensemble" at the Parliamentary Jazz Awards and "Best Jazz Act" at The MOBO Awards, both in 2010. The band are currently working on their latest project which is due for release in the Spring of 2016. All About Jazz caught up with double bassist Jasper Hoiby for a conversation about their music and the inspiration for the "Pitch Black Project."

All About Jazz: Your band's been described as one of the best bands on the planet today. Would you agree with this statement?

Jasper Hoiby: I don't know; it's not really my job to big myself up in that way.

AAJ: You certainly didn't set out to have those descriptions; your goal was to play music. However you have been well received as a band. How did you, pianist Ivo Neame and drummer Anton Eger meet?

JH: I came to England in 2000 to study at the Royal Academy of Music and I met Ivo (just before I joined) in 1999 and I met Anton in 2005. It was through a roundabout route that we ended up in this group together.

AAJ: When did you put the band together, was it a natural progression for the three of you to start working in a band, or were you working on other projects before the band came together?

JH: Ivo and I had previously worked together on many different projects. I had another band prior to the trio which Ivo was also involved in and we played in some other groups as well. The trio actually started out when I had moved back to Denmark for a year and we had another pianist with Anton on drums.

AAJ: At what point did Ivo join the band?

JH: Ivo joined the band in 2007.

AAJ: The band in its current form was established in 2007 but it took you three years to release your first album. Were you preparing for that album release at the time?

JH: No it didn't take us three years to release the first album, there were a couple of albums released before this. The first was called Organic Warfare and this was recorded with the previous pianist. It was recorded in Copenhagen in 2007 and released on Loop Records. In 2009, we recorded another album called Green Day with Ivo and Anton.

AAJ: The third album Alive was released on Edition Records in 2010. Well received, it was nominated for a MOBO award. You were also nominated for "The Best Jazz Ensemble" at The Parliamentary Jazz Awards; did this surprise you?

JH: I don't know, all these awards have different kinds of agendas and people behind them so I am positively surprised when anyone is saying anything good about the band...I try not to get too hung up about these things really.

AAJ: You set out to write music and that is the purpose of having a band. Do you always feel satisfied at the end of a project with people's reactions to the music, or do you feel there is still some way to go?

JH: I always think that there are new things to explore but I am definitely as excited as everyone else and I very much enjoy playing with Anton and Ivo. I think that we really have a special thing...and we have managed to maintain that excitement. Obviously, we are better now and we are gradually getting better, which I guess you do when you practice that much or when you do something for that long.

AAJ: Do you believe you've built a natural bond with Anton and Ivo in your shared love of music?

JH: I think it is the combination of people and what kind of personalities you put together, how you complement each other; as you say that's the same in many different areas but particularly in music it's very important to have that kind of connection on one or more levels.

AAJ: Would you say that is more so in jazz music?

JH: Yes, definitely, but that is because I am a really opinionated jazz musician.

AAJ: I was thinking more along the lines that a lot of jazz is improvised and, working with the same people all the time, you'd know exactly how each other plays. Am I right to assume that when you play your music on stage, they can be played differently each time?

JH: Yes that's true. It very much a trusting relationship; you need to trust each other individually; in all the sort of combinations there are in a three man band. There are so many different ways that you can team up and complement each other. It's all those instant decisions in jazz. Jazz is an open form of music and, although some things are set musically, they are also organic and there should be room to explore new ways of playing the same material.

AAJ: The "Pitch Black Project" event was premiered at the Brecon Jazz Festival. Could you tell me a little bit about that?

JH: I have a story about my sister (whom I am very close to). She went blind and somehow that is connected to my life. The reason why I went back to Copenhagen from London in 2005 was because all of a sudden she went blind and it was very traumatic for the whole family so I decided to go back to help and be a bit closer to them. This is where the band started so that is one connection. The other connection is that she has always been a big part of my life so I thought I would do something that involved giving people the opportunity to reflect on how going blind might be for them. So, after some brainstorming with our manager, Sue Edwards, we came up with the idea of playing some concerts in total darkness. It was conceived in that way on a conceptual level and then we went ahead and performed it at Brecon, The Purcell Rooms in London, Belgium and Holland. That project is different from the album entitled Walking Dark which came after. It was a tip of the hat in her direction. The album was not recorded in the dark—we are often asked if it was.

AAJ: The album Walking Dark has a 5-star review from BBC Music Magazine and was the first album that all band members were involved in writing. Was it a natural progression for everyone to contribute?

JH: It was a very natural thing to do at the time. A lot of those tunes were arranged together, that's how we work, although one person can come up with a finished piece of work...and we will play around with it if necessary, adding our different opinions and tastes. However, we all know what we are doing together and what our strengths are so we arranged most of those tunes together.

AAJ: How did it all come together? Did it start with Anton playing a drum beat or Ivo on the piano?

JH: ...we have tried to write like that and this has led to some ideas being generated for songs but, mainly, it's everyone doing work on their own. When complete they will bring the finished score to the two other members with the parts they will need to play.

AAJ: Is it still very heavily improvised in the recording studio?

JH: We try and get the new material under our fingers and in our heads before we go anywhere close to the studio, just on a practical level, as it's expensive to be in the studio. The clock is ticking. Unless you can play the material live, you do not really have a sense of where you can go with it so we try and bring it out and take it on the road, throw things in the air and change it around before we get to the studio. This is also the reason why we have decided to record live in some instances... for that magic reaction of the energy from the audience and also from yourselves. For Walking Dark we knew all the songs when we came to the studio and then it was a matter of deciding the number of takes and then picking the final tracks, because you will often do more than one take of a song.

AAJ: I was going to ask you if it was done in one take or over a couple of takes?

JH: When we record live in front of an audience it's done in one take however, in the studio, if it does not feel right we will do more than one take. I am not very precious about the 'one-take idea' although there is definitely something in keeping the spontaneity and energy up. I don't think you can play a track 25 times and go "Oh Yeah" times 25 "that was great." You are in the studio and you do get a second chance. I think it's also the type of music being played because if you have a load of things which all line up and some intricate parts (which we have in some of our songs) that music needs to sit right, especially if you have never played it before. If you try to do it in one take, you have to be superhuman to make it work because everyone needs to get an idea of the entire song rather than their own parts.

AAJ: The album Live to Everything was recorded live in the round over a number of days at the EFG London Jazz Festival. What made you decide to record your 5th record as a live album over those shows?

JH: We have done that once before and it was a great success. I was very happy with the way it came out. What you get when you record live is that kind of energy from a fourth member of the band which, in this case, is the audience. You can't really get that from anywhere else and it can't be faked or simulated as people are participating in the moment at the concert and adding a special kind of magic.

AAJ: In terms of jazz, do you think the type of music you are playing is the future for the genre?

JH: I don't know if it's the future, that's too heavy a question. It's the future but it's also the past. I think [jazz] should have a little bit of everything in it but I don't consider what we do as particularly ground- breaking or new, to me it's a little bit of all the music I have soaked up, have been influenced by and what I think is fun to try out myself. I feel humbled by this massive tradition and the many great people doing many different things. Is what I am doing is the future? It's hard to say, but it's part of it. Maybe more part of the 'now' than the future. Just one thing to add, we all throw these things out there, ideas and new music at different times, but I am inspired by music that came before me. It used to be new and exciting to play in "five" like Dave Brubeck but today everyone can do that so people have to acquire a better skill set to be a standard jazz musician these days, it's enormous. To be able to play an extended harmony or different kinds of rhythms from all over the world, you need to digest it and make it your own in a way. I am still blown away when I hear a lot of young people and I think "WOW, how did you do that? It took me years to learn to play like that!" I think it is partly because they have grown up with a different level of music; the more they listen and practice the music it will become part of them.
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