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Partisans: Never the Same Way Twice

John Kelman By

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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."

So what's a sneck? "This tune speaks to Phil's being down in London a little bit before me," Julian explains. "Our hometowns are pretty near each other up in the East Midlands of England; Phil is from Darby and I'm from Nottingham, and there's always been a little local rivalry between the two towns—something sort of humorous—so it something we share. But a sneck is actually a northern English/Scottish word for a latch on a door and this comes from a gig we did in Nottingham, and there's a promoter there who'd say, about the dressing room, 'Can you flip the sneck on the way out?' And for us it was like, 'What the hell are you talking about? We've no idea what you're talking about.' So, it's just an expression that somehow reminds me of home."

Partisans came together in the typical way that groups often do. "I think that we [Julian and I] met each other doing some big band gigs, but really just being around on the scene in London," says Robson. "It's got a really major, very diverse music scene. And we just started playing together and jamming, and then we moved into a house together—a house full of musicians who played all the time, and who were very tolerant. And I think, even back then, we just started sharing and working on ideas together. And then gigs started to come in and it would be with this bassist or that drummer.

"But then we had that desire to write more," Robson continues, "which means you want to head towards a more consistent group of people. Then Gene moved to the country and I played with him, and I thought, 'Wow, this feels really natural to me; this is really a direction I want to go in.' The same thing with Thad. I'd been playing with him in all sorts of different situations around town. There was a huge scene back at the old Vortex [a still-legendary London jazz club that's moved locations]—that was a really important venue. You would see, maybe, the same bassist on two very different gigs, and there was a lot of musical experimentation going on. So that was a part of much of what was happening. And then, with the writing thing, it just became more natural to have the same guys playing it so we could develop the material that much more."

Calderazzo and Kelly may not be composers in Partisans, but both Robson and Siegel are quick to emphasize their importance, not just as players, but with respect to their input when new material is being worked through. "When we bring the material to the other guys, they have a huge impact on the way it ends up in particular on a recording, in terms of the form and just the general pacing of things," Robson says. "Thad is really brilliant at seeing, very objectively, what's happening with an arrangement. He has great suggestions, making it more concise or more punchy. And the same with Gene: he brings his own unique style of drumming to everything, and some things turn out completely different to the way we'd imagined them, and it's great; then it becomes a real group thing, which I think is the key to this band because, even with all the other projects I've done, this is the one that feels like a definite group—it's a real band."

And because it's a band, where there's a constant give-and-take, not just in the studio but on the bandstand, the music evolves over time. "It's funny," says Julian, "because this time the recording date was so soon after we played those two gigs that we were trying to imagine what the music could be like in maybe six months and kind of take an educated guess at where it could go with the form, while leaving enough flexibility and looseness. Still, that's what happened on that day [in the studio]; in six months, something completely different could happen."

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