Polar Bear at Coventry Taylor John’s House, 26/5/07 » Sebastian Rochford (drums), Pete Wareham (tenor sax), Mark Lockheart (tenor sax), Tom Herbert (double bass), Leafcutter John (electronic percussion) «
It was down to Taylor John’s House, at the Canal Basin, after Stan Tracey’s big band on the Saturday night… The seats taken out of the stage space, standing room only. A mixture of Jazz Coventry Biggin Hall regulars, and a decently wide age cross-section of jazz festival attendees, local fans, and, presumably, those visiting because it was at Taylor John’s.
To this point, I had followed Polar Bear only on record (not that this required a lot of detailed skill). Apart from one song and a half from a gig at the old Vortex, years ago, this would be the first time to see a proper live set, and I admit to pretty ‘eagerly awaiting’ this gig… As it turned out, I reckon I’m pretty lucky to have seen them at this venue… The intimate setting of the small space, close stage, packed and hot audience brought it all magically close.
After a hesitant start, the band assembled and started to move out… A mixture of new tracks (a third studio album patiently awaits) and older tunes off Held on the tips of Fingers (The King of Aberdeen and To Touch the Red Brick are the only names I can remember…). Things sounded a bit free-er than Held on the tips…, but that may have been from the freedom of the live situation itself… Polar Bear seem to have the perfect concept of the jazz tune; the melodies are distinctive hooks that can move and evolve conventionally, but it’s the freedom and fluidity that sets them apart from anyone else. The twin sax line-up of Lockheart and Wareham seems distinctive in it’s unity; they’re playing a single front line for two saxes, rather than two sax lines that meet in the middle. Their playing revolves and weaves around each other, though the standard heads, and through their solo playing. Seb Rochford’s drumming is maybe just the best in the country, just in terms of the movement and detail of the lines, the spontaneity, the constant shifting, and the power that can just crack out at once. It’s all very immediate but constantly surprising.
Leafcutter John was to add a detailed extra dimension from his (I think, mostly) laptop-processed live percussion. Whether it’s glitching a spoon rattling inside a coffee cup, or straining a deflating balloon (on The Balloon Song, no less), he adds an important layer of abstraction to the sound, complementing Rochford’s drumming which sculpts with the rest of the band more directly. The electronics also add a rich extra sound base, to boost the acoustic instruments, and move closer towards the wall of sound.
They played for about two hours straight, including the much demanded extended encore… but it all seemed over so quickly… I was reminded of seeing Tim Berne in his small groups at the Vortex. It’s a wide and detailed sound without necessarily any real definable center; it just envelops you and carries you along wherever. “Play some jazz” someone called out as they closed up… I suppose their music is pretty well within the conventional jazz tradition and the lineages are fairly well intact and observable. I think what I find so special about their act is their union of the hooks of this jazz tradition, with the more extended profundity, raw emotional aspect of the Free music… Does that make sense?