Review: Polar Bear at XOYO

Polar Bear

Polar Bear
(XOYO. 2nd April 2014. Review by Sarah Chaplin)

Polar Bear, a distinctively experimental band led by the wondrously inventive drummer and producer Sebastian Rochford had attracted a diverse but dedicated crowd to the achingly hip basement venue XOYO in Shoreditch on Wednesday.

Its individual band members are highly regarded as jazz musicians in other line-ups, yet when they play as part of Polar Bear it’s something of a genre-bending, even genre-blind experience. Jez Nelson, who was there to record the gig for a future edition of Jazz on 3, introduced them as ‘one of the most innovative bands of the last ten years’. You are never quite sure what kind of music they are going to play next, even within the same tune. In fact, calling them tunes is questionable: Seb himself introduced several simply as ‘tracks’.

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The band led off with a long ambient drone, with artist and electronic musician Leafcutter John slowly building up fragments of sound and rhythm from a digital base on his computer.

With Polar Bear, eyes and ears tell completely different stories: what you are watching is double bass player Tom Herbert and two tenor saxophonists Mark Lockheart and Pete Wareham, plus a couple of computers and a very unusual looking drumkit (featuring cymbals with multiple chains and piercings); but what you are hearing is something quite other: fierce quirky beats, various stabs and runs, some long persistent siren-like calls, a throbbing undertone or two, all contributing to the general sense of tension and unease. It was not until well into their third number that something burst through that sounded more like a melody line. That’s not a criticism; their music takes you on a journey through a complex avant-garde landscape with some familiar features placed here and there to keep it grounded in a musical idiom that can be at least half-recognised.

The two tenor players play fundamentally different roles as musicians in the band, and you cease to relate to them as two horn players from a traditional ‘front line’ at all, especially as both of them have effects pedals constantly on the go. But they don’t just produce effects for the sake of it: the defamiliarised sound gave both Wareham and Lockheart the opportunity to riff and improvise in a totally organic way, where there was no sense of a pre-ordained form, making it a real surprise when they both suddenly played a syncopated segment of tune in unison. The bearded Herbert on bass also employed an effects pedal to push and pull his sound and to give it much more texture and resonance than an acoustic instrument.

The whole thing also felt like one seamless experience. Seb did say a few things to explain their songs from time to time, but even his soft-spoken interventions seemed to merge with the overall delivery, and it was not until it was all over and the crowd was begging for an encore that you looked at your watch and realized they’d played an entire gig’s worth of material in what felt like the space of about 15 minutes.

The numbers they played were mostly taken from their latest album, In Each and Every One , opening with Open See. The two-parter Lost in Death was particularly wild and vivid, and the band closed the gig with Maliana and Sometimes. Both numbers were sophisticated, hypnotic and brooding. That was also the point when you got to find out what they sounded like without all the digital artistry: Rochford just drew us all into a trance, both horns playing perfectly in synch against a simple but mutating ethnic drum beat.

Recorded for Jazz on 3. Transmission is Monday 14th April at 11pm on BBC Radio 3.

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