The Anglo-Scandinavan trio Phronesis (English pianist Ivo Neame, Swedish drummer Anton Eger and Danish bassist Jasper Høiby) are one of the most consistently successful groups in European jazz of the past decade. They were formed in 2005 and have just released their sixth album in celebration of their tenth anniversary, “Parallax” (Edition Records), recorded in a single day at Abbey Road Studios last autumn. The album has nine tracks – three composed by each of its members (*).
Phronesis will embark on a seven UK date Parallax album tour tomorrow May 17th. Spanish jazz writer Marta Ramón, who writes regularly about the European jazz scene for JazzTimes, was fascinated by the holistic message that emerged from “all the contrasts, agile melodies, mysterious abstractions and an unbreakable groove” on the album. Ahead of the UK tour, Marta Ramón interviewed Jasper Høiby:
London Jazz News: My impression as a listener to Parallax is that after ten years, the creativity, the spark, the energy and the fun of Phronesis are all still there. Can that really be true?
Jasper Høiby: Yes! It is true. The spark that I knew was there when we first got together is very much still there and that, along with some deep friendships, is what keeps us going.
LJN: You have built a specific musical identity as a band, but listening to your music one can also feel your personalities as individuals. Is there a balance to be struck?
JH: I think we are negotiating that balance constantly, but I also feel like we have gotten better at playing with each other with much more patience than we had in the beginning. Sometimes for someone to shine and show their best in a certain setting, it takes the others’ willingness to want to make that happen. So in that moment it’s only really about one individual and making that individual sound the best they possibly can. The cool thing is that we all have a very equal amount of those moments in this trio.
LJN: This album offers wide spaces for improvisation and passages with a quite free taste, nevertheless structures are clear and keep the direction of the tunes. How does that work? Can each of you take the lead for the others to then respond?
JH: I’m glad you have picked up on that because for me this album plays around with the free aspect more than any previous release, which is something that we have been keen to explore live for a while now and something that we all really wanted to document on this album too. Everyone can take the lead but what often happens is that the music will develop naturally in a way that makes it clear who leads when and it’s up to the others to follow.
LJN: Is there such a thing as a “Phronesis essence?”
JH: That is certainly not for me to say although I do think we have worked for a long time to develop our own democratic trio sound.
LJN: I love the contrasts in this album, the light, the shade, and the combinations of both, and some moments of intensity out of which calm and softness emerge. Do you feel that variation in mood and feel is an important part of the way you are as a group?
JH: Thank you! For me it’s always been about the contrast and in fact the best music is music that manages to walk that line between the quiet and the loud, the light and the dark, the complicated and the simple – please make up your own never ending yin and yang list here – [smiles]. And I know that it’s something that we are all conscious of and we are aware that it’s one of the ingredients that make our music work.
LJN: Talking of light and shade, will you continue to do concerts in the dark?
JH: As I’m writing this we are on route to Oxford to play the Oxford May Music Festival and the gig will be in dark, so yes! We are still up for exploring that setting as it is and has been very rewarding.
LJN: What have you learnt from doing them?
JH: An enormous amount I think. In one way it has been a confirmation of the almost psychic interplay between us that I feel has been there since the beginning of the band. It’s also worked as encouragement for us to trust those senses even more when playing in any given situation. Not only trusting your ears but really being able to sense what the mood of the music and your fellow musicians are and where that is about to take you, and then go with it. It almost feels like the very core or source of music creation and to be able to access that on a whim is what we are all striving for I think.
LJN: Which are the external sources of inspiration in music and in other arts and in your lives?
JH: I think it’s very different for all of us. Personally I grew up with my mom being an artist and someone who always tried lots and lots of different things out and who was always very open and curious to new things, so that’s had a big effect on me from early on. Music is still my biggest artistic inspiration though.
LJN: Is the rhythmic variety you achieve something that has come from within, from your work together?
JH: The interest in rhythmic language is something that ties us all together I think and it’s been part of our DNA as a group from the beginning. There’s mostly a rhythmic framework to everyone’s compositions and we will often try and explore things we haven’t done before or develop things we have tried even further. In terms of rhythm I think we all crave the challenge that rhythm can offer so I guess it’s coming from within but it’s also something that each of us explores individually in the different projects we do.
LJN: You seem to have really high levels of empathy and professional understanding within the group. Are you still able to surprise each other?
JH: There’s lots of empathy between us and it’s part of the glue that keeps us together even after ten years I think, but having said that I still think we do surprise each other musically as well as personally on a pretty regular basis. We have spent ten years on the road together and we still enjoy each others’ company! Now that’s some serious human skills right there if you ask me [smiles].
LJN: Is “Parallax” a summation of recent work or is it the start of a new stage?
JH: It’s both! We are still developing as a band and as composers but we are also aware of our strengths and what makes Phronesis what it is. We want to explore new ground and stretch ourselves but I guess somehow still within the parameters of what we consider to be ‘our sound’.
LJN: Audiences – do people familiar with the band now start to ask for some particular tunes they know, or do you have freedom with that?
JH: It happens that people know and request specific songs but it doesn’t mean that we have to play old material necessarily. We are a jazz group and not a pop band, so having to play the songs that people know us for isn’t an issue in the same way thankfully!
LJN: Have you been emotionally moved by the reaction of particular audiences in recent times?
JH: Yes many times and also recently. We had a very emotionally responsive and appreciative audience when we played Cheltenham last year in total darkness, which I remember as a particularly strong experience. We’ve had people dancing and clapping along to our playing – even if the pulse hasn’t been obvious! And also we have had fans singing our tunes after a gig in harmony with different rhythmic variations, which are all quite mind blowing reactions I think! (pp)
PARALLAX TOUR UK DATES 2016
TUESDAY 17TH MAY 8.30pm – WATERMILL JAZZ, DORKING
WEDNESDAY 18TH MAY 8pm – THE STABLES, WAVENDON, MILTON KEYNES
THURSDAY 19TH MAY 8pm – BRIGHTON FESTIVAL at BRIGHTON DOME CORN EXCHANGE
SATURDAY 21ST MAY 8pm – TURNER SIMS, SOUTHAMPTON
FRIDAY 10TH JUNE 7.30pm – WILTSHIRE MUSIC CENTRE, BRADFORD ON AVON
SUNDAY 12TH JUNE 7pm – CADOGAN HALL, LONDON (Album Launch)
TUESDAY 14TH JUNE 7.30pm – BAND ON THE WALL, MANCHESTER
(*) Parralax is availavle on LP, CD & Download (MP3 & FLAC) (DETAILS)