“Listening to jazz is not just recognising Gillespie or Coltrane, it’s recognising the philosophy of collective reinvention…and becoming part of it.”
Funnily enough, I hear this quote by New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff on BBC Radio 6 the morning I am anticipating watching GoGo Penguin’s sell-out hometown show: one of two consecutive sold out dates at Manchester’s Band On The Wall. ‘Collective reinvention’ is certainly a term that resonates when listening to any three of this electro-acoustic jazz trio’s critically acclaimed albums. Chris Illingworth, Nick Blacka and Rob Turner create intrinsic, intelligent and skittering break-beats, simultaneously accentuated by melodious piano and complex, in places, drunken bass lines. Their precise, frantic sound, experimental yet sharp time-keeping, and subtle electronic elements keep GoGo Penguin resculpting the boundaries of improvisational jazz.
The bands’ 2012 debut Fanfares received mild coverage and listening back now, four years and two albums later, their musicianship and slick attention to detail stands up just as proud as 2014’s Mercury Nominated V2.0 and hot-off-the-press January 2016 release Man Made Object. Perhaps more lush in sound and less experimental with the use of space, Fanfares was certainly no wavering start.
Sunday’s set comprises of tracks from the latter two albums, and their live sound is uncanny to the recordings; super tight and completely in sync with each other, it’s not surprising that this trio of incredibly talented twenty-somethings studied together at RNCM and have been composing music ever since. Their live sound (as explained by drummer Rob Turner following V2.0‘s release) has been deliberately characterised by a ‘fourth band member’ who engineers their sound wherever they go. This came about following the desire for a more produced yet simple sound and a clear progression from the more jazz-influenced Fanfares to the more classical themes and electronic structures of V2.0 – although still in essence a jazz album, it hails influences from Debussy as well as Flying Lotus and Aphex Twin.
The stage remains awash with soft lighting throughout the majority of the set, occasionally changing hue – all emphasis solely on the three musicians. No distractions and pure focus on the intricacy of the music and standard of playing. They begin with new single All Res and from there, move into another from the new album. Double bassist Nick Blacka takes centre stage and does all of the talking on behalf of the band (though perhaps as he is the only one furnished with a microphone). This being their second sell-out show at the venue, he asks whether anybody ‘doubled it’ to which there is a surprising handful of ‘whoops’. Contrary to Blacka’s central position and talkative manner, it is clear that there is no band leader in this outfit. By all accounts the song-writing process is evenly shared and ideas are worked on in an improvisational manner. Equally there is no dominating instrument in any song. The piano may lead us into one piece, accelerating towards a climactic conclusion, before it’s taken over by a hustling and frantic break-beat by the percussion. Rather than any instrument standing out solitarily, they each seem to swap and change roles in the progression and breaths in each piece: the bass line picks up a piano hook, then dives into a counter melody, the drums syncopate the beat set up by a bounding bass line, then the piano adds classical trills to a slowing and more brush-heavy style of percussion, while the double bass punches out a note signalling a breath in the performance. The live experience, much like the completed recordings, take the listener on a very distinct aural journey; with frequent time signature changes, key changes and atmospheric shifts throughout each piece, there truly is never a dull moment here – a sort of ‘push-me, pull-me’, intertwining instrumental experience.
Although an incredibly tight set, the very nature of this improvisational trio means that when enjoying a familiar piece, your ears occasionally prick up to an embellishment, an unfamiliar drum shuffle, a pounding chord from the piano – it’s a constant deluge of familiarity and unchartered listening. I found myself constantly moving; nodding, wavering, foot tapping. I wanted to shout ‘yes!’ during one particular show of technical prowess (the stammering, glitching ending to One Percent, definitely my favourite GoGo Penguin song) and during the race to an inevitable climax.
The end of the show, like many of their individual songs, finishes in an energetic torrent. The lights that were once a subtle wash turn into slow, pulsating colours and there are now bright spotlights on each band member. ‘Hopopono’ is the penultimate track and where outside influences start to give this show a more visual aspect. The musicianship is still the main focus but you feel as though you could lose yourself in the movement of the lights and take your gaze away from the frantic fingers and soporific head movements to gently nod your own head, look to the floor, to concentrate without the visual stimulant, to close your eyes. The show culminates with a track I don’t recognise that begins with a thank you from Blacka, a drone effect on the double bass and an RnB style drumbeat until the piano cuts through with strong, rising chords. The spotlights flash between band members and the crowd are impassioned. The bands’ encore reminds me of a King Creosote track at first: gentle piano, lulling and melodic, catalysing into speeding high-notes, a quick key change, before ending with a slow double bass line effected by a reverse pedal. I like the choice of song as the final farewell, leaving us reflecting on the sound as it pulsates through the room, rather than feeling built up then dropped as we depart en masse.
The splendour of GoGo Penguin’s live set really does lie within the artistry and intricacy of playing ability. The music is hugely intelligent and this is only heightened by actually watching the band: the piano and drum-kit face each other whilst the bass sits in the middle, mediating between instruments. There is a real sense of togetherness alongside creative complexity and the trio make it look absolutely effortless. If incredible musicianship and careful, genre-bending composition is something that excites you on record, this band only excels any expectations live.