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Partisans: Never the Same Way Twice

John Kelman By

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It's the energy that really excites me about playing with this band. And sometimes it's not really all that comfortable either. Sometimes it's very disconcerting: Gene and Thad will just stop behind you and you've got to hold your own. —Julian Siegel
It's been five years since Partisans—the British jazz group (not to be confused with the also-British punk rock band The Partisans) cited as the godfathers of the new wave of British jazz, first emerging in 1997 with the out-of-print self-titled debut on the EFZ label—last released an album, specifically the superlative By Proxy (Babel, 2009), which All About Jazz's Chris May called the group's "long expected masterpiece" and "one of the most exciting albums to be released on either side of the Atlantic in 2009."

High praise indeed, but the quartet that's been co-led by the group's two writers—guitarist Phil Robson and saxophonist/bass clarinetist Julian Siegel—has gone from strength to strength with each successive recording, managing to blend a plethora of ever-expanded stylistic interests into a unified gumbo that can only be described as: Partisans. With the band—also featuring bassist Thad Kelly and expat American drummer Gene Calderazzo— on the cusp of a new album coming this fall on, for the group, a new label (Swamp, to be released at the end of September, 2014 on Whirlwind Recordings Ltd), it's also getting ready to embark on a brief but important North American tour that will bring Partisans to Rochester, New York City, Seattle...and, for the first time, to four Canadian cities: Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa and Montréal.

Keeping things fresh is what's allowed the group to exist for nearly 20 years. As Robson explains, "The band has always had this old repertoire stuff that we've played a lot; but we've become very flexible at playing, say, one section of one tune and then going straight into another tune, and that really keeps the whole thing alive. We've started to think of tunes, rather than being these complete pieces where you start at the beginning and finish at the end, as something where, sometimes, we can just switch from one to another and use them as vehicles rather than a 'head in, head out' kind of thing. That's something that always makes these tunes mutate, because you're at the end of a bridge of some tune, and someone might just play a few notes or suggest the feel of another tune, and we can just go straight into it. It's very flexible; it's become a stylistic feature of the band to do that, and I suspect we'll be doing the same with the new material before too long. That's really great in terms of keeping things fresh; we're never going to play the same thing twice."

Julian picks up the thread, "The more we play—the more gigs we play in a row—sometimes four things can be going on at once, or two, where Phil and Gene are playing one thing and Thad and I are playing another; it's very funny what can happen."

So keeping things fresh, and finding new ways to bring the existing material together—sometimes in linear style, one tune morphing into another, but sometimes two separate tunes going on concurrently—is key to the Partisans sound and approach. It makes sense, then, that the group only road-tested the material on Swamp at a couple of local gigs before heading into the studio to record it. More than ever before, however, even the writing of the material was something that happened in relatively short order.

"The whole thing pretty much came together in about six weeks, from writing the music to recording," says Julian. "That was a new thing for this band. In the past, we would be playing a lot and then, say, Phil would come along and add a song to the set, but this time it was all written from scratch, so I didn't know what Phil was going to write, and he didn't know what I was going to write. I think, at one point, we called each other up and said, 'What've you got [laughs]?' We decided it didn't really matter, because even if we were writing a similar thing, it wouldn't really be the same; I hope we've got pretty distinctive writing styles."

And they do. In between Partisans projects, both Siegel and Robson have released albums under their own names, most recently Siegel's Urban Theme Park (Basho, 2011), which reunited the reed player with pianist Liam Noble, along with bassist Oli Hayhurst and Gene Calderazzo for an album as eclectic—but more electric—than Siegel's previous recording, the double- disc Live at the Vortex (Basho, 2009), with Americans Greg Cohen and Joey Baron.

Robson, too, has stretched his stylistic purview beyond Partisans into a variety of side projects including 2009's heralded trio-plus-string quartet outing, Six Strings and the Beat (Babel), and 2011's highly successful transatlantic experiment, The Immeasurable Code, Robson's first encounter with Whirlwind Records.

"It's a very new label, led by [expat American] bassist Michael Janisch," says Robson. "He's got tremendous energy; he's an amazing person. He's doing a lot of good things in the scene over here: he's an entrepreneur; he's a great bassist; and he is also very conscientious and very aware of what's happening on the scene. And he's always checking out new people—he's very open-minded. So I think he's fabulous; certainly ambitious, but I think very interested in trying to make a label work."

But irrespective of Siegel and Robson's various side projects, Partisans is clearly the group they call home. "We really see Partisans as a long-term project," says Robson. "We see it as something that we'll always come back to. In a way, taking the long break like we did recently, where we go away to do our own things, we always come back to this band and really bring something back to it—the experiences from doing those other projects. But there's always a view to coming back to this band, and we tend to do it when we feel it will be at its freshest, when it's going to have a whole new lease on life."

Siegel adds, "I think that it feels like a really good time to do it now. Yes, there have been gaps between albums. But the time has always been right for each one; it feels like a natural time for it to happen. It's really been great to come back to the band and start fresh. We've been doing gigs around and people have been asking 'When is a new Partisans album coming about?' It feels like people have really missed the band, so it's been nice to get back together and play again. It's a really special group; I've always really loved playing with this band."

A sentiment clearly shared by Robson, Kelly and Calderazzo, based on an advance listen to Swamp, which finds the group back and doing what it does best: blending genres with a kind of serendipitous synchronicity, where Afro beat can mix with greasy swamp funk; where the band can respect the tradition with authority and credibility while, at the same time, introducing sounds like Robson's massively over- driven electric guitar—at times, one of the truly ugliest distortions heard on a jazz record ("That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me," Robson replies, laughing)—rude and totally unapologetic—but one that speaks to Partisans ethos: if they're going to swing, they're going to swing hard; and if they're going to rock out, they're going to rock out like they mean it.

"In response to the distortion, yeah, it's funny to me," Robson says. "But there is a serious side to it. One of the things that I noticed, when I first really started getting into jazz, is that some of the fusion aspects of jazz tended to kind of half go there, but not go all the way. I have a real desire to go there because I'm steeped in it; I grew up listening to that stuff—my favorite bands when I was a kid were bands like Black Sabbath. So it's natural for me that if I'm going to go there at all, it's not going to be a jazzy version of it; it's going to be as hard rock as I can play."

And it isn't just Robson whose genes contain the DNA of hard rock; Calderazzo, too, has always been interested in things beyond the broadest purview of jazz. "The thing about Gene is that he's an American drummer, but he loves Led Zeppelin, and he's massively into Mitch Mitchell and the Jimi Hendrix Experience, so there's a lot of common ground from different sides of the Atlantic and a genuine love for that kind of thing. It's not an affect; it's real to us. I grew up listening to it; Gene grew up listening to it. So, hopefully, when we play that kind of thing, it's real to us."

"Some of my first gigs were rock gigs," Siegel adds, "and I just came back from this Afro beat gig, doing arrangements that were pretty diverse; doing a rock gig with real rock energy that was very exciting, but there was so much jazz in there, too. I really love the mixture and how it changes; expectations change. I love it when the energy's all up and kicking off. In terms of jazz or rock, it's the energy that really excites me about playing with this band. And sometimes it's not really all that comfortable either. I really like the challenging of playing with Gene, Phil and Thad. Sometimes it's very disconcerting: Gene and Thad will just stop behind you and you've got to hold your own."

Phil recalls, "I remember that very fondly on some of the first gigs; I'd never played with anybody who could put out that much energy and yet be willing to just stop. That was shocking, really."

The same unpredictability that Partisans demonstrate onstage—even catching a mere fifteen minutes of the group at a Jazzahead! showcase in 2011 was enough to know that this was a band that surprised itself as much as its audience—is in great abundance on Swamp from the opening "Flip the Sneck," a Siegel tune that moves from Afro-high life to greasy funk at the drop of a hat.

"Because we hadn't played in awhile, I've really, really enjoyed hearing Phil's sound again," says Siegel. "When I was writing, I really imagined his harmonic and melodic concept and was so looking forward to playing with him again. We try to write things that don't get in the way of the band trying to play and improvise. When it comes to getting together and playing the tunes, the writing hopefully sets the mood up, but the way the arrangements happen can be really flexible, in terms of soloists and what's happening. You try to just let it happen, let it take its course and see what happens. The form is what it is. It's often not too predetermined; it's about trying not to write too much."
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