I have been an admirer of the unique European jazz trio, Phronesis, since their award-winning third album, Alive, which came out in 2010. It was a live recording, as was their last album, Life To Everything, which was released in 2014. Parallax sees the band return to the recording studio – Abbey Road, no less – with each band member contributing three new compositions.
The band has now been together for ten years, and has toured extensively over this period, building up a near-seamless rapport. The level of communication between the musicians is quite extraordinary, allowing them to improvise more freely than most jazz bands, taking the music in different directions each time they perform. At it best, this spontaneity generates genuine excitement, sparks flying as they react to one another.
The press release for the new album suggests there are some new elements to the band’s approach this time around. Bass player Jasper Høiby’s Stillness, as the name suggests, explores a more contemplative mood than is normally associated with Phronesis, whilst pianist Ivo Neame’s Manioc Maniac captures some of the humour that is present when they perform on stage.
To my mind, there is another important difference between Parallax and the band’s previous studio albums. I sense that they relied less on formal compositions this time around, encouraging a higher degree of improvisation in the studio. In this respect, the results are somewhat mixed. There are moments – numerous to be fair – that encapsulate the spirit of the band’s live shows. Some of the interplay is quite dazzling, capturing what Høiby has described as the “invisible thread of energy between us”. But there are times where the listener begins to wonder if the original tune – sometimes little more than an idea – got lost along the way.
Opening track 67,000 MPH, named after the earth’s speed around the sun, begins with some frenetic – perhaps that should read ‘phronetic’ drumming by the tune’s composer, Anton Eger. Neame’s piano is quite percussive at first, and there is some fast-paced interaction between the two as the tune breaks down just after the one-minute mark, before the pianist opens up. There are numerous tempo changes as the tune progresses, and a result, it feels somewhat fragmented taken as a whole.
OK Chorale is credited to Neame, and begins with some Bley-like improvisation before the band comes in after a couple of minutes. It sounds like a spontaneous composition, but is accessible nonetheless.
Stillness, credited to band’s founder, Jasper Høiby, is my favourite piece, and if it is indeed more contemplative, it perhaps captures the calm before a storm, Høiby’s bowed bass and Eger’s menacing drumming suggesting the brewing of dark, ominous rain clouds.
A Kite For Seamus, written by pianist Ivo Neame, is perhaps closest to a tune in the traditional sense, his beautiful playing giving way to a fine solo by Høiby, whose rich, commanding tone never fails to impress. Likewise Høiby’s Just 4 Now is a fun tune, with the rhythm section dancing around Neame’s fast-paced solo.
Elsewhere, some of the tunes are less memorable. Ayu starts well enough, but seems somewhat directionless, and Manioc Maniac, whilst imbued with a sense of humour, is not particularly compelling.
I’ve listened to Parallax extensively over the last few weeks, and whilst there is much to admire in the playing, and passages that are startling in their execution, I find it easier to admire than to love. Call me old-fashioned, but I found myself yearning for some stronger tunes around which the musicians could improvise, and to this extent, I prefer some of the band’s earlier albums.