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."

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