Partisans: Blowing a Storm in Cyberspace

Bruce Lindsay By

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Partisans has been gigging in cyberspace—playing a virtual nightclub in Second Life. Over 13 years and four acclaimed albums, Partisans has developed a strong reputation as one of the most exciting and innovative bands on the British jazz scene. One of the band's strengths is its willingness to keep up to date with technology and experiment with it whenever this might help to expand their work. As a result, the night before saxophonist Julian Siegel and guitarist Phil Robson took part in this telephone interview, they had been involved in an unusual performance.

Partisans Partisans, from left: Thad Kelly, Phil Robson, Gene Calderazzo, Julian Siegel

The night of Friday November 6, 2009 saw Partisans' debut gig in Second Life, the online virtual world, when their concert at London's Crypt in Camberwell was video-streamed into the Crypt's virtual venue. While the live audience enjoyed the band's set in the small club, in Second Life avatars with exotic names and appearances watched and "danced" as the gig was presented on four large screens. The experience was an obvious subject with which to begin the interview: did playing to a virtual audience as well as real people need any special preparation for the band?

"We were asked to do the gig" explains Siegel, "then we were told about this element of it. What was different about it? Well, the club put a screen up so that the audience could see the various avatars dancing to what we were playing, although with a time lag of five or ten seconds, but we couldn't see the screen. So for us it was pretty much a normal gig although in the back of our minds was the thought that this was going out to a potentially world wide audience, which is a pretty unique thing."

Robson has a slightly different opinion about the event: "I am actually surprised that it hadn't happened before. I visited the Knitting Factory during one of the first trips I made to New York and they were putting on online gigs, which I think were live. So I am surprised it hasn't happened earlier. I think it's a good thing to be involved with and I hope it's going to happen more." The experience wasn't trouble-free, however: for much of the time when listening in Second Life the sound of a louder-than-normal live audience obscured the sound of the musicians, and there were occasions when the sound broke up badly in the virtual nightclub. "Yeah," agrees Robson "it was a pretty loud audience. But I think it was almost frontier stuff and I'm sure it'll get a lot slicker as people do more gigs. That's why I wanted to be involved in it for the first time."

The addition of a large screen to the club environment may have had a slightly negative impact on the live event, as Siegel noted that the people at the rear of the club tended to watch the screen rather than the band on stage: "They were less involved with the gig whereas the people at the front were into the band itself." "But that brings up another point..." adds Robson. "We, like most jazz musicians I guess, are keen to play to younger audiences, but what comes along with that sometimes is that you play to people who've never been to see jazz music before. So in a way they don't know how to deal with it. Last night there was a pretty noisy birthday party in there. But we love playing places like that even though it can be a little bit hard with the noise—which got a bit too much towards the end—but mostly we get a great vibe off of playing to people like that. Quite often they'll say 'Oh, we didn't think we liked jazz but we really loved that.' So it's really worthwhile for us to do these things."

Partisans performing on Second Life

Technical problems are there to be overcome, and both of the musicians are optimistic about the future of the virtual jazz gig. Siegel's experience of the virtual gig has made him more ambitious: "Now we've done that, can we put in a request to play the first gig in space? I'd love to play a weightless saxophone." Robson agrees on a trip into space, but not for performance purposes: "We could do with a holiday" he suggests.

Partisans / Julian SiegelWhile Partisans' future might involve playing virtual gigs from inside the Space Station, the band's past has been firmly on Terra Firma. Individually the quartet's members have strong reputations and all are active across a range of projects, but they have a firm commitment to Partisans: a commitment that has enabled the group to flourish for so many years in an environment where ensembles seem to form, perform and split up in the blink of an eye. Partisans formed in the mid-90s and have been in existence with the same line-up for almost 14 years: "It's frightening" declares Robson about the band's longevity. The first album was called Partisans (EFZ, 1997) but was credited to Julian Siegel and Phil Robson. Despite this, it was a band album. Robson clarifies the point: "It started as the Julian Siegel, Phil Robson Quartet but we certainly wanted to start a band. We started off in the jazz scene and it was a co-led project so it seemed natural to name it after us both. Pretty soon we found a line-up that worked and then it became a different animal."

The addition of Thad Kelly on bass and ex-pat American Gene Calderazzo on drums created the band that soon became known as Partisans. "The name from the first album just stuck" Robson continues: "Other people, not us, just started to call the band Partisans. It was originally just the name of a tune." Siegel takes up the point: "On the record it was the name of the first track. Some people have asked if there was any sort of political connotation to the name, because of its link to World War 2." In fact, the track was originally a song written by Robson for singer Christine Tobin, about the French Resistance. The song was never performed, Robson says, "because it worked so well as an instrumental. It almost became the theme tune for the band for a while: the tune we had to have in every set. It's a feel-good, almost The Rolling Stones type tune. We would finish the set with it and we just got known by that name."

Later in the interview Robson returns to the band's history, making a specific point that clearly is important to him. "We started out in a conventional setup, albeit with us as co-leaders, but once we found the lineup we've had for 13 years—a long time for a band in this day and age—taking on a band name just seemed really apt. The combination of Gene and Thad we knew was right. Although [Julian and me] take on the organization, musically speaking it's a real four-way thing."

It has been said that the band was originally The Partisans, dropping the definite article to avoid confusion with a Welsh punk band of that name. Both Robson and Siegel quickly correct this perception. "It never was," Siegel states emphatically. Robson expands on this: "We were never called The Partisans. We always try to make it clear that it is Partisans." Siegel notes that "We get one email a year—"Hate mail" interjects Robson, laughing—from a punk asking 'Who are you?' but we've never had any contact from The Partisans. I'd never heard of them, I'm ashamed to say."

"It's funny" continues Siegel, "but we actually have a connection with the band Crass, who were contemporaries of The Partisans...They came to gigs at the old Vortex club and we got to know them: people who would sit at the front and shout out and be much more vocal than your average jazz crowd. They became our friends and offered to do art work for us. In fact, all our album artwork has been by members of Crass...we really like what they do." As a result of this connection with Crass, Partisans album covers are very distinctive and have a strong impact: something that is often lost since the 12-inch album lost its popularity. The By Proxy artwork, for example, is a beautiful design by Crass vocalist Bron Jones [aka "Eve Libertine"]. Siegel explains the importance of art to Partisans: "It's so easy to buy music and, unfortunately, to steal music that it's worth making that extra bit of effort to create something that people want on their shelves, want to own. I don't think that will ever die out." Robson is also a lover of album art, explaining that "I absolutely treasure my Black Sabbath records. I love the first album's cover—just great, I think. I personally love interesting artwork on albums."

Partisans / Phil RobsonThe group's fourth album, By Proxy (Babel, 2009) doesn't just have outstanding artwork: reviews for the recording have been uniformly excellent and something for the band to be proud of: "Dead chuffed" in Siegel's words. The previous album, Max (Babel, 2005), featured guest musicians, but the fourth release sees the quartet back on its own. Siegel expands on the band's approach: "It was a real treat to play with those amazing musicians...but the core thing is the quartet. The essence of it is the dialogue we have, the way it goes in certain directions. The more people you have the more arranged it seems to need to be." Robson concurs with Siegel's perspective: "I agree. And also, and I don't mean this in any disparaging way, it tends to smooth things out. This band is always such an edgy band that it just seemed natural to go back to the quartet...We did do a year of gigs with various different guests, which was fantastic, but when we made the record we thought about what we really are and it seemed natural to make that move back."

"We're always up for collaborations" Siegel points out "and there's always things being talked about. We did a couple of gigs with Wayne Krantz for example, which was really brilliant. He's said that he really enjoyed the feeling of being in the unknown. I did it myself recently, with a French band called Thot. I sat in with them at the Pizza Express in London—and I know how Wayne felt."

The band's approach to recording By Proxy was different from preceding albums, as Robson explains: "Normally we play all the tunes a lot before we record them, but this time we could hardly play the tunes when we went into the studio—real edge of the seat stuff. We had to put a massive amount of energy into getting through a whole take of this brand new music. It makes it really exciting for me and I think this is my favorite album. When I came to mix the record I didn't remember any of it...it's been the closest thing to the feel of the band live. If we do another album I'd be keen to do it in the same way."

Siegel also seems in favor of edge of the seat recording: "Normally you learn a tune, go through rehearsal, then when you play it at a gig you finally think 'That's the one, we've got it.' I think we got those first takes in the studio, which is a really exciting thing." Getting that excitement down is a vital part of the Partisans philosophy, according to Robson. "We tend to go for the performance element of the first take. The only reason we might do another one is if we thought that the tempo wasn't quite right, perhaps. We just go for it and leave some of the rough bits in there—that's the nature of the group. We don't try to fix solos or anything like that: it's warts and all."

PartisansAnother reason for the success of By Proxy, as Siegel is keen to emphasize, was their choice of studio, Eastcote in London, and engineer Philip Bagenal. "We've done some other work there, and now we've done two Partisans albums there. We just know that he gets the sound we want." Robson also loves Bagenal's work: "He co-produces with us. I really trust him...he's got incredible ears. I wouldn't trust many people to do what he does, but if he says something, then we'll listen. He's almost the fifth band member." Siegel adds to the praise: "He's in Lindsay Anderson's film If...: he plays a kid with glasses, a swot. He moved to New York in 1971 and ended up being the front-of-house engineer at the Gaslight-A-Go-Go Club, where Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra started...His experience is crucial—if you want to get it on one or two takes you need someone who can achieve that."

Most Partisans tunes are credited to Siegel or Robson as individuals, but this is not to suggest that the other band members have no say in the writing process. According to Robson "We don't sit down and write together as such, but we do collaborate in the sense of talking about what we're writing. We might say, for example, that we need a ballad: someone will almost be allotted that role. For example, on By Proxy I wrote the only really pure ballad...But then, of course, when everybody starts to play on it the tune becomes a real four-way thing."

Siegel takes over, pointing out that not all of the tunes are written specifically for an album. "Some of the tunes on By Proxy have been around for quite a long time. We just got to the point where we felt we could record them. "Mirrors," for example..." "But we never played it" interjects Robson. "No, we never actually played it on a gig" Siegel responds, "it took time to work out arrangements to the point where it's recordable. There are other tunes that we've got on the go that might appear in 5 years." "But 80% of the album was brand new," says Robson. "Yeah," comments Siegel, "some things fall out of the sky, other things you've got stored up and they find their home at the right time."

One specific aspect of composition is the creation of titles for the pieces. Some writers of instrumental tunes go to great lengths to ensure that a title evokes the atmosphere of the tune itself, others are less concerned. The loveliest tune on By Proxy is titled "Munch"—but why should its writer, Phil Robson, name such a beautiful ballad after the sound made by people chewing food? It turns out that he didn't, and he is happy to correct my misapprehension: "It's actually Moonk, as in Edvard Munch the painter of "The Scream" among other things. But there is a dry humor in having an ambiguous title like that. It is actually a tribute to him—it's a dark piece and I was thinking of the painting when I wrote the tune."

From left: Thaddeus Kelly, Phil Robson, Gene Calderazzo, Julian Siegel

Siegel is also happy to use ambiguous, opaque, titles for some of his contributions. What, for example, are "MBadgers"? "Anyone out there who's into Monty Python's Flying Circus should get that reference—so perhaps I'll leave it there" says Siegel, somewhat enigmatically, before returning to the question of titles. "I collect titles. You write a tune and sometimes you need a name. I'd been planning on using "MBadgers" for some time. There's no rhyme or reason to any of it." Siegel dissolves into laughter as Robson takes up the issue. "Some of our titles are from little phrases the band use when we're touring around: "Advance" is one. I find it very difficult to find a title that somehow represents a tune—the music is too abstract to try to pin it down. Titles become little more than nominal labels, but if you can find something that's a bit of fun then I think that's cool."

One track on By Proxy that didn't require the band members to think of a title is their cover of Duke Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss." This is a genuinely innovative take on the original tune, combining documentary audio and electronic effects layered on top of the band's own performance to create an almost entirely new piece of music. On the sleeve notes the arrangement is credited to Siegel and Kelly, with the remix credited to Kelly alone. Siegel explains the genesis of this track: "I did an arrangement of the tune, with a drum and bass pattern, but I didn't think it was as happening as other things on the record." "I think that's partly because it was written in a completely different era" Robson interjects, "It really was an old song. Although it was a great arrangement it just felt like it was from a different era."

Siegel agrees that age is a fundamental issue with the tune: "Phil's right, but I'd always wanted to add something to the quartet version, an acoustic version. We were due to master the album in a week's time so I told Thad to just go for it, just do it—and he did." Kelly's version appeared in time and closes the album. Robson echoes Siegel's praise for Kelly's work on the tune: "Thad completely transformed it—it's almost an arrangement of an arrangement. There's only a tiny bit of the original tune left." "I think it's really moving" says Siegel, "I think he's really got the original essence of the song." So effective has Kelly's work been that for some people "Prelude to a Kiss" is the best tune on the album.

PartisansWith By Proxy receiving critical acclaim Partisans are, unsurprisingly, planning more work as a band. "We're working on getting more gigs on the European circuit" explains Siegel "and, hopefully, in the USA." Recordings have been infrequent, just four albums in the band's 13-year history, and the band are not yet ready to start planning their next collection. As Robson points out, "We've been doing a lot of playing over the last few months to promote By Proxy...so we'll probably take a break and go off to do something else for a while. Yes, I'm sure there will be another album in the future but we haven't planned anything as yet...A lot of people have told us that we're not particularly prolific in terms of recording, but I'm quite a fan of that. We are so bombarded with music, especially now that you can do it yourself on the Net, that I'm a fan of waiting until you've got something different. I think that if we went into the studio now we'd produce something quite similar [to By Proxy]. I'd rather wait until I feel we can produce a slightly new vibe or new direction."

In the weeks prior to this interview, band members' work with vocalists had gained some attention: in particular, Phil Robson's appearance in the quartet that backed Barbra Streisand on her first live performance on British television. Partisans is a resolutely instrumental band, but what is their take on working with singers? Does it come as part of the territory for a jazz musician or are there particular attractions in such collaborations? "When they are really good singers I absolutely love it" Robson declares, "but as for singers per se that a different question. [Siegel interrupts with a heartfelt "Blimey, yes."] When it's a great singer I enjoy it as much as anything—I really do love it. Part of my instrument, the guitar, is being an accompanist and I really love that role...I really enjoyed the Streisand thing because it was all about creating a vibey, quiet backdrop for her to be the absolute focus. It was really interesting to do that. At first glance it may look like not a lot was being played, but it took every bit of my experience to do that gig. I had to know how to blend; I had to know how to play incredibly quietly...things that demanded a lot of experience. It was as fulfilling for me as playing a really burning solo in an instrumental piece."


Siegel has his own take on working with singers, but starts with a complement for Robson: "I'd like to put a plug in for Christine Tobin and Phil's work with her. The way that band has developed over the years has been a really great thing to see. As for the singers I've worked with: Ian Shaw's fantastic, I love playing with Lianne Carroll who has such an open spirit. Joe Lee Wilson is a highlight, a fantastic vocalist who I've recorded with. Also, Laurie Anderson is someone I've played with. Of course, there's a whole audience that only listens to singers." Robson interjects "I'm a massive fan as well: I love Betty Carter and Cassandra Wilson..." "There's no difference between a great singer and hearing Wayne Shorter play," responds Siegel. "On the way back from the gig last night I listened to Wayne Shorter play "Iris" [from Miles Davis' E.S.P (Columbia/Legacy, 1965)]. Any good instrumentalist is going to 'sing.'"

Robson emphasizes that instrumentalists can learn from vocalists: "From all the years of playing with Christine I've learned a tremendous amount. She's got such a strong character. It's been very good for me. I feel it's added an element to my playing that I wouldn't have gained without that experience."

As the interview draws to a close it's obvious that Siegel and Robson have a close working relationship. It's also clear that Partisans is very much a band, not just four musicians who occasionally get together for a few gigs, despite their relatively infrequent album releases. If Julian Siegel gets his way, Partisans could be appearing on a Space Station near you in the not too distant future: if not, then another virtual Partisans gig is highly likely. With moves into the European and American jazz circuits hopefully on the cards in the near future more and more fans should get the opportunity to see Partisans perform live as well. The success that could potentially follow will be richly deserved. This is a band that is happy to acknowledge its influences and happy to engage with emerging technologies—four outstanding musicians whose 13-year history as a unit looks set to inform a rich and varied musical future.

Selected Discography

Partisans, By Proxy (Babel, 2009)
Julian Siegel Trio, Live at the Vortex (Basho, 2009)

Phil Robson, Six Strings & The Beat (Babel, 2008)

Partisans, Max (Babel, 2005)
Partisans, Sourpuss (Babel, 2000)
Partisans, Partisans (EFZ, 1997)

Photo Credits

Page 1, Group: Bill Shakespeare, courtesy of Partisans

Page 1, Performing on Second Life: Captured by Bruce Lindsay

Page 2, Julian Siegel: Leonie Purchas, Courtesy of Julian Siegel

Page 3, Phil Robson: Courtesy of Phil Robson

Page 4: Lee Paterson

Page 5: Anthony Statham

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