This may be one of the most defensive and downright contrary blogposts that I’ve written. As I start drafting it, I’m guessing that if someone was to do a word count on “but”, it will probably go off the scale.
GoGo Penguin were very good at Koko, but I (and also my friends) didn’t enjoy them.
Why didn’t we? It was probably us not them. It was probably an age thing. It was most definitely a venue thing.
GoGo Penguin are from Manchester. They are trio – pianist Chris Illingworth, bassist Nick Blacka, and drummer Rob Turner. They have been signed to the classic jazz label Blue Note who have released their third album, “Man Made Object”. It is an indicator of Blue Note’s desire not to rely on their huge and significant back catalogue that they are releasing music by the likes of GoGo Penguin and other artists such as Robert Glasper and Gregory Porter.
Whilst Blue Note is ostensibly a jazz label, Gogo Penguin’s music draws as much from contemporary electronic music as it does from jazz. Much of their material is written on a computer and then translated back to acoustic instruments. The piano is insistent, very much in keeping with a typical beats driven dance music approach. The bass player often picks up the lead melody line on his standup bass, sounding not unlike Peter Hook. The drummer is very impressive, with a skittering backbeat coming from the classic years of the drum’n’bass sound of the nineties.
It all should work in a venue like Koko, an old fashioned dance palais – but for myself and my friends, Steve, Ciaran and Raymond (the last two of the Everlasting Yeah), it just didn’t click.
The theatre had a lot to do with it. Whilst Koko (formerly Camden Palace) is visually impressive, the balconies, narrowing vista and exposed staircases affect the sight lines. We tried standing in a couple of places and in both, we could only see Nick Blacka on bass with any degree of definition through the letterbox like grid of the venue. The pianist was hidden behind the lid of his grand piano and a PA stack and the drummer was tucked in a corner.
So we lost a little a bit of interest, a little bit of the magic.
Then the musicians who were wedded to these large instruments were static. I find that in jazz and instrumental music, the joy is in watching the musicians at work – their manual dexterity, the interplay, the friction.
We couldn’t see any of this, so some more of the magic dissipated.
The trio are deliberately leaderless. This is very democratic but it makes for no particular focal point to concentrate on.
Our attention wandered a little more and soon, despite the wonderful efforts of the music on stage, we were listening to music to our own background.
Now I emphasise again, it was us not them.
It was marvellous to see a packed venue on a Thursday night enjoying something from the jazz genre. I would take a wild guess and say that the demographic was sub-30 years old and there was a decent gender mix too. This shows that there is an appetite for challenging jazz amongst generations younger that ours (we were all in our late forties and fifties). When the painfully hip American music website, Pitchfork, is producing a jazz magazine in print, the genre must be in reasonably rude health. If only a fraction of those attending bought a little more contemporary jazz or went back and explored the classics of Miles, Coltrane or Sonny Rollins, then it would enable the scene to flourish.
What clinched it for us though was a consequence of the methodology of composing. As Steve said to me at the gig, there wasn’t a sense of danger or peril. When watching jazz live, you always need that point that feels like you are leaning back on a school chair and if you lean a little more, backwards you go. But you don’t, you take it as far as you can without smacking your head open and come back to terra firma. The electronic composing methodology didn’t create these jumping off points. The songs were all short and direct and worked for the audience. It didn’t create the edge though, the ability to look beyond the existing horizons.
I’ll reiterate – this is an excellent band. I am sure if you offered any of the four of us tickets to see them at the Barbican or the Royal Festival Hall and they were relatively near the front, we would take them. Especially with nice big comfy chairs to sit in.
Finally a shout out:
Ray and Ciaran’s band, The Everlasting Yeah, are playing in Putney next week. They are blinding live band, as I can bear testimony to just here. If you are in London, please go and see them- you won’t be disappointed.
Tickets available here.