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Polar Bear and Theo Travis/Steve Lawson: Live At The Vortex, London

Chris May By

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How sweet it is—to have the Vortex back, having being forced out of its original premises by the greed of a property developer and spending a year in limbo. In the space of one week, Polar Bear and Theo Travis, and in the days between them Loz Speyer's Time Zone, Penny Rimbaud and Eve Libertine's Last Amendment and the Bobby Wellins Quartet. Where else could you hear jazz of such breadth and diversity in so short a space of time? And that's the quality of programme the newly reopened club is presenting week in, week out. The life cycle of most jazz clubs is depressingly similar: they open, and then they close. Very rarely do they re-open. We should raise our hats to David Mossman and the rest of his crew.

Polar Bear - 28 June 2005

Mark Lockheart and Pete Wareham, tenor saxophones; Tom Herbert, double bass; Sebastian Rochford, drums; Leafcutter John, electronics; Ingrid Laubrock, tenor saxophone.

Though their label and lineup mates Acoustic Ladyland are getting most of the media attention right now (Pete Wareham, Tom Herbert and Sebastian Rochford are in both bands), Rochford's Polar Bear is for my money the outfit that's likely to make the biggest dent in history. Ladyland is a total blast and gas, of course, a throbbing over-amplified assault of grindcore and punk infused jazz, and they'll shave your ass at one hundred paces. They are, in every sense of the word, sensational. But the quieter, mainly acoustic Polar Bear have magic ingredients of their own: an emphasis on intuitive, in the moment improv, and Rochford's anarcho-prankster writing—playful and life-affirming, yet spiced with shafts of darkness too.

Polar Bear played some of their earliest gigs at the original Vortex, and tonight's sell-out performance had a warm sense of occasion and comradeship about it, as fans and friends met up to congratulate the band, and each other, on the success of Held On The Tips Of Fingers. The band were on fire and, appropriately, so were the heavens—a massive thunderstorm, with spectacular sheet lightning, periodically lit up the sky outside the club's floor-to-ceiling upstairs picture windows.

They played four tunes from Fingers—most memorably "Beartown," "Fluffy (I Want You)," and "King Of Aberdeen." Regular recording and performing guest Ingrid Laubrock joined in on the last two, romping all over the tenor on "Fluffy" including taking the mouthpiece off and blowing down the neck, and contributing the night's most incandescent solo on "Aberdeen," an astonishing, genius structured torrent of anger and energy. Laubrock is fast becoming an artist of major world stature, whose profile is going to extend way beyond the UK. Her own Quintet is already playing some of the deepest jazz being made anywhere. Uncompromising, emotionally articulate, touching the intellect and the soul. Watch out for her.

And there was more...electronicist Leafcutter John, live even more of a revelation than he is on metal. The absolute antithesis of the stereotypical digi-nerd, this boy is a performer. The sounds he creates are intense and visceral and galactically out there and he has stage presence to match, playing the mouse like a drum kit, his body at times convulsed in spasm with the sonics. Give the drummer some, yes.

Flashback! Postmodern, futuristic, and innovative as it is, Polar Bear's music is also rich in jazz history. Tonight's surprise guest was Gerry Mulligan's original piano-less quartet. Some of the improvised counterpoints between Lockheart and Wareham, and the textures created by Rochford's arrangements, had an unmistakable Mulligan/Baker vibe to them.

Other standout tunes performed this heavenly night were "Urban Kilt", from Polar Bear's first album, Dim Lit, and three band new tunes, "Goodbye," "It's Snowed Again," and "I Am Alive."

Theo Travis & Steve Lawson - 5 July 2005

Theo Travis, soprano saxophone, alto flute and loops; Steve Lawson, six-string fretless and fretted basses and loops; Orphy Robinson, vibraphone and piano.

A week later, and something very different and in its own way just as magical....

Theo Travis is probably best known within this community for the quirky, sometimes trippy, but mainly analog jazz of Earth To Ether, Heart Of The Sun, and View From The Edge. He's also involved in several other scenes, including free improv, prog, ambient, and—in Cipher and this duo with Steve Lawson, augmented tonight by guest Orphy Robinson— subtle and very beautiful loop music.

Along with their acoustic instruments, Travis and Lawson carry a truckload of effects pedals and looping and other new music technology. Typically, a tune starts with either Travis or Lawson setting up a motif and a series of processed-sound layers which the other player then adds to and develops—and so it goes, back and forth, until it might sound like half a dozen bass guitars, a few lead guitars, a dozen saxophones or flutes, and a couple of Unidentified Melodic Objects have beamed down onto the bandstand. The instrumentation credits on their CD For The Love Of Open Spaces read like the contents of a computer manual (lexicon mpx-g2 or ashdown abm-500 anyone?).

Despite this considerable technology the duo's music is 100% organic. There are no synths or midi-triggered sounds, and all the processing, looping and layering happens in real time. The technology is there to serve the music, not the other way round.

Some of the tunes have heads and structures, others are wholly free, and improvisation is at the heart of all of them. Unencumbered by the technology, instead empowered and enriched by it, Travis and Lawson bounce and feed melodies and harmonies, textures and layers off each other, like any two improvising analog musicians, but with a sonically different canvas.

Three of tonight's tunes came from Open Spaces—the relatively wired and rockish "Uncle Bernie," "Lovely," a perfectly titled tune, tonight given an almost Villa Lobos treatment by Lawson, and "In A Place Like This"—one from Travis' Heart Of The Sun ("All I Know"), one from Lawson's Not Dancing For Chicken (the Latin-infused "Amo Amatis Amare," geddit?), while the remainder were free improvisations. Orphy Robinson's guest appearance with the duo was an interesting experiment, and one which gelled deeper as the evening progressed and he felt more at home amongst the almost telepathic communication which Travis and Lawson have established with each other.

Meditative and centering, Travis and Lawson's music clears and nourishes the mind. It feels like it's doing you good, kind of like miso soup does. We all like to go hogwild sometimes, but it's also good to step back, breathe deep and revive yourself. One of the most refreshing gigs at the new Vortex so far.


Photo Credit
Sebastian Rochford - Sarkis Boyadjian

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