|Jasper Høiby at the Pitch Black soundcheck
2015 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Photo copyright: John Watson / jazzcamera.co.uk
Phronesis: Pitch Black
(Cheltenham Jazz Festival. May 1st 2015. Review by Jon Turney)
Ten years on the road, and Phronesis are established as one of the great trios. Three players, moving as one – head, heart and hands.
They are great to watch, too. Long-limbed Jasper Høiby, centre stage, looks back and forth between Anton Eger at the drum kit and Ivo Neame at the piano, his glances alternatively quizzical, approving, amused, while his fingers conjure apparently impossible figures from the bass.
Tonight is not for watching them enjoy their work, though, but for listening. For the last few years, the three have played occasional unlighted, unsighted gigs – a set-up that invites contemplation of the sensory world of Høiby’s sister, who has lost the use of her eyes, and offers a different experience of the music.
And it is very dark in the well-appointed Parabola Theatre at Cheltenham Ladies’ College. It is an ideal venue for this set-up: they’ve even agreed to turn off the exit signs. As the trio dig into the first tune, Eight Hours, the lights gradually fade to extinction. For the next three quarters of an hour we, and they, really can’t see a thing.
It narrows the attention in a good way. When the trio go full tilt, there is often almost too much going on to appreciate when you watch as well as listen – too much information to process. Vision free, the sound comes across with astonishing clarity. You are intensely aware of hammers on strings, plucked and bowed bass strings, beaters on drums and cymbals, all working together seamlessly in spite of the absence of visual cues. Few trios could bring this off, I’d guess, but they rise to the challenge magnificently.
And the sounds, after all, are the point of this exercise, the reason they have pondered, composed, practiced, rehearsed and performed for so long. Do they play better in the dark? No. But in this space, our auditory awareness does seem sharpened, and it does sound different. Neame’s piano tone has a crystalline clarity; the bass is elemental; Eger’s hyperkinetic drumming seems to separate into logically articulated parts, that at times I could swear are come from different parts of the room.
The overall effect is, as ever, thrilling. Their music demands immersion whenever they play, and this is a great way to help make that happen. The 45 minutes pass in what seem like moments. Then as light dawns slowly over the closing piece, preceding a fully-lit encore, we can see again that these are not actually magicians, but people like us, using muscles, limbs and fingers skillfully to shape sound. It rounds off a musical experience of rare quality which reminds you how marvellous a thing that is.