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Polar Bear: Raw and Spontaneous

Bruce Lindsay By

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During the six or seven years since its formation, British quintet Polar Bear has garnered extensive praise from critics, fans and fellow musicians. Most famously, perhaps, the band was described by music critic Paul Morley as "dream jazz"—high praise, indeed. The band's second album, Held On The Tips Of Fingers (Babel, 2005), was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize. The band has a great reputation as a live act, attracting audience members from the jazz world and beyond. On the eve of the release of its fourth album, Peepers (Leaf Records, 2010), Polar Bear's leader and percussionist, Seb Rochford, and its bassist, Tom Herbert, met at Herbert's house to take part in a telephone interview about the band's development, the creation of Peepers and their plans for the future.

Polar Bear, from left: Tom Herbert, Seb Rochford, Mark Lockheart Pete Wareham, Leafcutter John

Both Rochford and Herbert are quiet and thoughtful. Rochford is an exceptionally softly-spoken individual whose voice betrays only occasional hints of his Scottish origins; his considered and thoughtful responses belie the stereotypical image of the loud and manic drummer. Together, Rochford and Herbert offer many insights into an innovative and exciting band that is based on friendship and mutual respect.

Four of Polar Bear's members have been together since their first album, Dim Lit (Babel, 2004), but there had been an earlier incarnation of the band. Rochford explains about the first Polar Bear lineup: "I can't really remember when, but I started the band with Rachel Musson, a saxophonist, and Amy Baldwin on double bass. We had a bass clarinetist as well, Ben Harlan. We recorded demos, just four-track stuff, but it didn't work out. Out of the current people, I think Pete [Wareham] was the first person I met. I asked another saxophonist if he wanted to join a band, but he didn't want to do it and said, 'Oh, you should phone Pete.' So I did, and there was an instant connection."

Herbert and Polar Bear's other tenor player, Mark Lockheart, joined soon after Wareham. Herbert explains his own entry to the band: "I was the next one to join. ... I got involved because I knew Pete. He was on the post-graduate course at the Guildhall [School of Music in London], and I was on the undergraduate course. We'd done quite a lot of playing together and got on well. I'd been hearing about this really good drummer called Sebastian, and we ended up doing a standards gig together in a pub in Margate [on the Kent coast in southern England]. I felt immediately that there was an unspoken connection, both musically and personally. Seb's not the loudest person in the world, and one of the guys said that he found that slightly unsettling, but that's what I really liked about him. I'm not the loudest person in the world, either, but Seb seemed really comfortable in himself. Sometimes you meet someone and you think, 'I really want to play with this musician,' and he invited me to a Polar Bear rehearsal in Pete's flat. We played through some of his tunes, he asked me if I wanted to join the band, and I said yes."



Lockheart joined after Rochford saw him playing a standards gig at London's 606 Club. "I thought he was amazing—the amount of personality he had, playing tunes I'd heard so many times before," Rochford says. "He has a really positive presence on stage, and I thought that he'd go brilliantly with Pete's way of playing." The two tenor lineup has been a constant in the band since then, but was this intentional? Rochford is happy to admit that, initially, it wasn't. "Actually, I called Pete because the guy who gave me his number told me that Pete played bass clarinet," Rochford says. And does Wareham play bass clarinet? "No," Rochford says, laughing. "I don't think he's ever played it. But by the time I found out, I didn't really care anymore; I just loved his playing."

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