April 8, 2008
London's famous jazz club has been going through troubled times. In December 2007 its artistic director resigned amidst criticism that the venue's booking policy was veering away from the mainstream, hard jazz it is known for.
Considering such complaints, it was surprising to see Polar Bear in the listings. Led by drummer Sebastian Rochford, the group has recently established itself as a trailblazer on the UK's progressive jazz scene. Rochford is joined by a stellar array of musicians. The front line consists of saxophonists Mark Lockheart and Pete Wareham (also leader of Acoustic Ladyland), supported by electronics guru Leafcutter John and bassist Tom Herbert, formerly of Acoustic Ladyland and a long-time associate of Rochford and Wareham.
The musical relationship between this core trio drives the band forward on its journey into the realms of what many people see as the future of jazz. Intricate, interwoven compositions come as standard, with the two tenor saxophones moving between moments of complementing one another with rich countermelodies and fiercely duelling each other to a backdrop of frenzied polyrhythms and blasts of seemingly random noise. Such a group of talented players on the same wavelength, completely in the element and bringing the best out in each other, is gripping to witness.
However, much of the loud chaos of Polar Bear's Bristol gig in May 2007 was sadly not replicated. Most tunes took on a familiar feeldarkly cinematic, broodingbut a sense of increased sobriety, or palatability, may have been stipulated by the club. Lockheart and Wareham frequently stepped off stage as metaphorical dust settled. The band's collective emphasis shifted to accentuating the fine subtleties of Rochford's compositions, with occasional moments of sudden crescendo that disrupted the mood of the jazz diners. Not a bad performance, but the atmosphere was very subdued in relation to previous experience.
It is a shame that one of the country's most exciting groups may have had to tone itself down at a venue which should encourage the opposite. If outside pressure is not the explanation, this move simply represents a dramatic change in the band's dynamic. Perhaps all will become clear at the Colston Hall in Bristol on April 20, when Polar Bear returns, and with the upcoming album on Tin Angel Records.