Interview: Duncan Bellamy of Portico Quartet

It’s been quite a year for Portico Quartet. In a few weeks the group set off for their first 9-date North American tour (details below). I spoke briefly on the phone to drummer Duncan Bellamy. (photo: Real World Records)

In the last few months they’ve been touring extensively on the continent. In fact they will be tomorrow night at Jazz a la Villette in Paris. Any gigs which stand out in particular : “I really enjoyed the Festival Sous Les Pommiers in Coutances in Normandy. Nice one. A really good vibe. And there was a big venue we played at in Poland. That was a fantastic audience.”

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And how’s touring : “From outside it may sound glamorous. It often doesn’t feel it when you’re doing it. Early starts, motorway service station sandwiches. There are definitely things you can have too many of. “

But nice surprises too?: “I studied fine art at Central St. Martin’s. Went to a great exhibition in the Modern Art Museum in Frankfurt. Nice to have the space to do things like that.”

The cuttings say they don’t just spend loads of time on the road together, that they also live in the same house. “We did share a house until the summer, but the lease came to an end. And yes, we’ve been spending so much time in each others’ company, we decided it was better for us to each make our own arrangements.”

Looking back at the year I asked about highlights. Being the main act at the Barbican in March this year – they had been support for Maria Schneider in 2008 – certainly stands out. “It’s the largest venue we’ve played. It’s different, pushing your sound out into a big space like that, it felt a bit strange. I didn’t feel it was quite the best we’ve played. But it’s not the size of the venue, it’s what comes back from the audience. “

London gigs? “It feels like ages till the next one” (Note: it’s December 3rd/4th at ICA. The other UK date this autumn is the Bestival on September 11th)

And plans further out? “We’ve scheduled in a three month break at the beginning of 2011. It’s to get some writing done. to get creative. We’re starting to make plans for a new album…”


Wed 22 September 10
USA Minneapolis Cedar Cultural Center

Fri 24 September 10
USA Cedar Rapids CSPS

Sat 25 September 10
USA Chicago world music festival

Mon 27 September 10
USA Kent Kent Stage

Tue 28 September 10
USA New York Joes Pub

Wed 29 September 10
USA Brooklyn, NY Coco66

Thu 30 September 10
USA Philadelphia World Cafe Live

Fri 01 October 10
USA Cambridge Lily Pad

Sat 02 October 10
Canada Montreal L’Astral

Categories: Uncategorized

14 replies »

  1. Why is a band that has no improv. on a jazz site? Let's do a poll and see how many real jazz musicians from the scene actually believe these guys should get any attention in the jazz press. This site should be dedicated to real, improvising musicians.

  2. A promising thread! Thank you CJF and Anonymous for starting it.

    My intention with LondonJazz is simple: that the range of music covered should be as broad as possible. Nobody – myself included – is going to be bowled over by every musician or band we cover. But the range of what is on offer in London is so stupendous, let's celebrate it, draw attention to it, be inspired by it.

    I hope it is absolutely clear that we want the improviser's craft to be properly valued here. The one, the only, the fabulous Tony Coe wrote to me: “You make our efforts worthwhile.”

    But I also notice the phenomenon of this London band, yes, with the locking-in harmonies of the hang (?) which started playing to passers-by, and has gone to filling big venues.

    Surely there are lessons to be learnt about broadening audiences here, no?

  3. If one hears Portico Quartet live, there is certainly some improvisation in the way that they develop themes and hooks. On the albums, by their nature, there isn't the space to expand to the same degree. I see great similarities with a group like EST from that regard.
    But this desire for narrowness in definition just sends one into a corner. At the other end of the spectrum, Wynton Marsalis took the opportunity provided by the arrest of Larry Ochs at the end of last year to harangue against free improvisation and claim that, equally, isn't jazz.
    So where does that leave “jazz”. We mustn't let the music get boxed in like that. It completely goes against what jazz musicians are necessarily about.

  4. I'm not boxing anything in– if there is one thing jazz HAS to have (whether it is FREE or Blues) it is improvisation… without musicians improvising, there is no jazz. I don't care if you are talking about what Wynton plays or what Larry Ochs does. otherwise it is just contemporary acoustic music. Not Jazz. Jazz DOES have boundaries and this is not boxing anything in, nor is it going against anything that jazz musicians are about. Ask any jazz musician who spends hours a day working on their improvisational skills about bands with no improv and they will tell you what they think. There is something very unique and special about jazz and the art of improvisation, and this is what I'm talking about. There is nothing wrong with Portico Quartet being well known and all of that, but they certainly should do so as 'world music' because their fame will never connect their audiences of real, improv. based jazz music. And if cutting out improv. is what jazz music needs to 'broaden' it's audience base, then this would then not be jazz, and would be a very bad thing. There are jazz fans around the globe, and scores of venues supporting it around london alone, I don't see the big worry about 'broadening the scope.' as if jazz is dying out. No, it's thriving. More jazz is being played around the world than ever., and the art of improvisation needs to remain the focal part of this highly developed art form, or it will cease to be jazz. Portico Quartet does not use improvisation as it's central theme, so my question remains the same. Why do they need publicity on jazz sites, etc. and in the jazz press? There are many other improvising jazz musicians out there who would be better served with this publicity to further the art of jazz.

  5. Surely it is similar to the God question? If you believe in God the there is one for you; if you think it is jazz, then it is.

    Jazz for me has many aspects: improvisation, the spirit of the blues, syncopation, swing and some undefinable qualities.

    However, I say this without having heard Portico play, so it may be I will revise my opinion.

  6. Think Bach, Baroque and continuo – to borrow from a well-known source: 'The keyboard (or other chording instrument) player realizes a continuo part by playing, in addition to the indicated bass notes, upper notes to complete chords, either determined ahead of time or improvised in performance.' Think also 'interpretation' and the decisions made by classical musicians and conductors; again, think Bach and the continuing discourses about Gould's somewhat unorthodox (some would maintain) presentation. Of course, the key in all this is quality – the best are the best because ….

  7. CJF, you are right about the art and craft of improvisation. But I don't see PQ are actually taking coverage away from anyone.

    If they are, then please flag up someone we're not covering enough (?yet). Yes please. Go with your enthusiasms, the floor is yours.

    JaB “sleepy instrumental pop” sounds strangely comforting.

    Andy , there's a real touch of class in the way you gently slip in non-contentious subjects… like religion….into a jazz discussion.

  8. I've got to say, after having listened to the tracks on the Portico site, that I don't have a problem with them, nor with them being featured on a jazz site. I don't really see why they have been picked upon – they have a fair bit going in their favour, musically – it is important not to have closed mind as to what is in/out, acceptable/not acceptable. I also don't see that they lack qualities that excludes improvisational input – its not the same as – David Toop and John Butcher – whose elevated performance I witnessed on Saturday (and which others may find sits less comfortably with them) – OK, Portico are accessible, but I am not sure they are as dumbed down as has been suggested … and, anyway, are we already giving them too much consideration as part of a wider discourse about perceived boundaries? And these boundaries are in a continuous state of flux these days, thankfully, which is what makes the scene in London particularly vital these days. Just look at the gigs this autumn!

  9. I once wrote a paper on improv and how there is a continuum from composed music to improvised music. Soulless repetition of notated music is at one end and free jazz could be said to be at the other.

    Obviouy the PQ could be closer to composed music than Coltrane's Ascension, but it is finely crafted and well executed and is therefore IMHO a valid music. Whether it is good jazz is in the ear of the beholder however.

  10. well, i'm a jazz musician, i practice my 'art of improvising' as CJF calls on a daily basis now for over 25 years, and whilst I have no problem with PQ, or other bands like Neil Cowley, or Get the Blessing, existing as music, I do think it's a big shame that these bands which clearly are not concerned with improvisation in their music get all the headlining gigs at the jazz festivals, as well as being on the cover of jazz mags. like Jazzwise. There is a strong message here that the big jazz industry in the UK seems to want us musicians to 'dumb down' the most vital aspect of what real jazz is, improvisation. The most bizarre thing is that many of these bands would actually tell you that they don't consider themselves 'jazz musicians' at all… in fact many of them (and i've talked with some of them, or read interviews) are openly against jazz, calling it out of date and old fashion, etc. Yet they are quite happy indeed to take gigs away from real jazz musicians- whether they are mainstream or avant guarde– and also when it suits them, raise their profile through the jazz press. This then ponders the question, why are the festivals booking them? Well, the obvious answer is that they are popular and they draw a crowd… but are they real jazz? Not to me, a jazz musician. Now, I wouldn't expect a non jazz musician to understand my position, because people who don't spend their life dedicated to this artform, day in day out, learning solos, transcribing, working on our sounds, etc., could ever understand how a real jazz musician could feel even 'insulted' when we work so hard at our art, and then see the jazz press and festivals booking musicians in bands like these who have nothing to do with the music that we all hold as spiritual and sacred, and devote our lives to. I'm not saying that these bands aren't good at what they do, but when it comes to real jazz, they can't touch it.

  11. think theres actually a fair bit of improv on their album 'isla': most tracks seem to have improvised or solo sections. and shed song is an entirely improvised 8min section of an hour improvisation. yes they lean towards the composed but 'isla' is no less improvised than alot music you would consider quintessentially jazz: elington, nina simone, fitzgerald etc. all of these guys essentially use tools found in pop music as the structures for their tunes and have solo sections within them. inversely a huge amount of music you would not consider jazz uses improvisation to a far greater extent than these, just listening to the fantastic improvisations of tomani diabate and ali farke toure on 'in the heart of the moon'. its nigh on impossible to define jazz by the amount of improv in it, its something that jazz tends towards (no more than some other “world” music i might add) but i think (like gillad,) you have to go a bit deeper than 'its not improvised so its not good jazz'.

    you could criticise PQ for many reason, but to call them 'not jazz', or 'not real jazz' for their lack of improv has got to be wrong. Its quite simply not jazz you like.

    also, Good on londonjazz for supporting these guys, i sense some bitterness from the old gaurd.

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