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Phronesis at Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast

Ian Patterson By

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Phronesis
Crescent Arts Centre
Belfast, Ireland
May 30, 2014

You had to feel sorry for the couple, rocking up at Belfast's Crescent Arts Centre fifteen minutes before show time only to be told that the concert was a sell-out. Slightly sorry, that is, because in times when jazz is often a hard sell, a 'sold out' sign is music to the ears—certainly for those lucky to have bagged a ticket for Phronesis' penultimate date of its UK tour promoting Life to Everything (Edition Records, 2014). It's also tremendously encouraging to the promotors, Moving On Music, the venue and the band itself, all of whom can be sure they're doing something right.

One of the few modern jazz piano trios of the past decade that really doesn't sound in any way like the Esbjorn Svensson Trio, Phronesis music is built on the equality of the three voices. Even when pianist Ivo Neame soloed with free-flowing gusto on "Urban Plan" there was never the feeling that bassist Jasper Hoiby and drummer Anton Eger where anything less than vital components in the mix; an essential part of Phronesis' make-up lies in its constant rhythmic vitality and flexibility—Hoiby's grooving ostinatos, Neame's elastic vamps and Eger's array of colors are the bones of the closely-knit interplay.

Eger's Afro-Caribean-flavored rhythms on mallets announced the dancing "Songs for Lost Nomads," which moved from tightly coiled collective groove to a looser improvisational dynamic. "Behind Bars" shifted through the gears, from the delicate piano and arco intro—with Eger's hands gently animating snare and cymbal—to flowing collective freedom; Neame and Eger sent a flurry of little messages back and forth, escalating the drama, with Eger winning the prize hands down for best face contortions. Even on brushes, as on the lyrical, piano-led "Phraternal," Eger's quiet industry was impressive. The first set closed with tightly woven interplay on the punchy "Herne Hill," which Hoiby dedicated to Sue Edwards, a tireless jazz advocate on both sides of the Atlantic for three decades.

Eger launched the second set with a nuanced solo to introduce "Deep Space Dance," a more spacious, light-textured number. With barely a pause, deep arco and rumbling mallets introduced "Wings 2 the Mind," which took shape around Hoiby's bass ostinato, and Neame's folksy melody that evoked Czech jazz pianist Emil Viklicky's Moravian folk vocabulary. The pianist's solo in the higher registers—fluid yet light of touch—was followed by features from Hoiby and Eger. The episodic "Blue Inspiration" saw an exhilarating extended solo from Neame, driven by Hoiby and Eger's tremendous rhythmic energy. The bouncing "Eight Hours" continued with the same high energy levels. The encore, "Dr. Black" evolved from the classically-inspired opening melody to thrilling collective and individual virtuosity where the line between both was satisfyingly blurred.

During the gig—and reflecting a commonly made observation by many musicians—Hoiby spoke of the constant demands of promoters for novelty: "You have to reinvent yourself and keep making up these excuses to play gigs," Hoiby told the audience. It's a pity such value isn't placed on evolution as opposed to revolution, as Phronesis nine years playing together has forged a supremely tight unit whose thrilling live performances are founded upon deep familiarity. Phronesis doesn't need an excuse to play, nor are excuses necessary to see Phronesis in concert. Even between studio albums there's no such thing as fallow time with an active trio this fertile, for the music is constantly in a state of growth. It is advisable, therefore, to book your tickets in advance.

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