The new album from Partikel, “Anniversary Song” (Berthold Records) is a belated celebration of ten years of the band’s existence. John Fordham’s feature/ interview with Duncan Eagles explains the history of the band and its name, notably how Partikel emerged from another, Tomorrow’s Warriors-nurtured, band called “Artikel”. His feature starts in the shadow of an “imperious voice” from jazz, that of one of Duncan Eagles’s inspirations and influences, Sonny Rollins…
Saxophone legend Sonny Rollins has recorded plenty of milestones over his 60-year career, but some of his most enthralling inventiveness has erupted in the most ruthlessly demanding circumstances – like playing marathon improvisations unaccompanied, or with only a bassist and drummer for respite or support.
Half a century after Rollins recorded the classic 1957 live session A Night At The Village Vanguard with just a trio, the New York master’s imperious voice became a significant model for a young London saxophonist called Duncan Eagles, completing his jazz studies in the late 2000s at the Trinity Laban Conservatoire.
As an adventurous and open-minded 21st century musician, Eagles was naturally drawing on many materials from inside and outside of the jazz tradition, but he was fascinated by the challenge of a stripped-down lineup.
After his graduation, the opportunity for that soon arrived, though by a fortuitous route. Eagles joined a young Jazz Warriors-nurtured quintet called Artikel, which included bassist Jerelle Jacobs and drummer Pharoah Russell. They and Eagles often showed up earlier for rehearsals than their bandmates, and began developing a playing rapport which led to them form a three-person splinter group they called Partikel, and find a regular Monday night gig for it at the Grey Horse pub in Kingston, close to where Eagles was living at the time.
But no sooner had that door opened, than Jacobs and Russell left for other opportunities, so Eagles kept the gig by inviting double bassist Max Luthert, a former school-friend and fellow Tomorrow’s Warriors alumnus, and drummer Eric Ford, who he had met by chance and formed an instant musical bond with. Ford was an English Literature graduate with a lot of self-taught musical experience, from jamming in bebop bands as teenager in Southport, to four years spent in Paris encountering percussion ideas from Africa, Madagascar, Cuba, Brazil and beyond.
From 2009 to 2019, the group developed from a straight-ahead-playing pub band hosting weekly jam sessions to a widely acclaimed cutting-edge outfit that has now chronicled its evolution across five diverse albums. Their intuitive trio conversations have always formed the core, but there have been digressions at times into electronics and multi-tracking, guest roles for outsiders including guitarist Ant Law, violinist Benet McLean, and a classical string quartet.
This month, Partikel return to their acoustic-trio roots with Anniversary Song, a release originally intended to flag their tenth birthday in 2019, but stalled by the pandemic until now. Despite limited rehearsal time and a few nagging anxieties about their match-fitness after a long stretch robbed of live performance – plus a few intriguingly knotty Eagles pieces opening up new ways for the three to converse – Partikel sound engagingly looser and closer to their old live-show vivacity than perhaps they ever have in a studio setting before.
‘In 2019, Eric pointed out that we were coming up to ten years as a band, so that got us all thinking about it,’ Duncan Eagles recalls. ‘We all play in other people’s projects too, but wherever we meet there’s always the sense of comfort and familiarity with Max and Eric that’s grown through the amount of time we’ve had playing together. So I listened back to the pieces we played on our first and second albums – Partikel, and Cohesion – and I realised I wanted to make a new record that reflected those beginnings, but also the language and understanding the three of us had developed together over those ten years.’
The empathy between the three first blossomed through their shared and intuitive enthusiasms for re-interpreting the classic jazz repertoire. But standard-song chord forms sometimes invited familiar melodic routes that could veer into cliche, and the Partikel members were already drawn toward diverting improvisations away from the seemingly inevitable punchlines the harmonies dictated.
‘At first at The Grey Horse we didn’t have any intentions to start writing music or anything, it was just a local gig where you could get a jam session going,’ Eagles says. ‘The fee was so low that you couldn’t afford to have a bigger group, so it just kind of picked up from there. I’d been listening to a lot of 1950s/1960s jazz when I was at college, and been very attracted to Sonny Rollins’ approach to a trio structure, and I felt I could be comfortable playing in a sparse lineup like that, if it was with the right partners. It immediately felt right with Max and Eric, I think we all felt there was a freedom between us that was different from other playing situations we’d known.’
Since their early days, Partikel have elegantly balanced unpredictable improv detours and free-jazzy edginess with inviting hooks and punchy rhythm playing, and though Anniversary Song sometimes finds Eagles pushing his compositional ambitions into structurally trickier territory than formerly – as in the ingeniously motif-swapping gambits between the players on the arrhythmically staccato ‘Butterfly Effect’ or the springy, zigzagging ‘Catford Muse’ – the music never sounds abstruse. Serpentine stories like those unfold alongside contrastingly direct and open-handed themes like the dreamy tenor-sax meditation ‘The Golden Bridge’, the gracefully waltzing ‘Suburbiton’, or the unobtrusively Latin-tinged soprano sax feature ‘Silhouettes’. A remake of ‘Citizen’, an early Eagles piece originally written for a quintet, features the set’s only studio-tweaked episodes in its subtly deployed overdubbed horn harmonies – while in closing homage to the standard-song agenda Partikel started life with, the saxophonist even unfurls a classic tenor-ballad reverie with the plaintively lyrical ‘Rose Bush’, a gently accelerating theme that sounds as if he could have written it for an absent singer.
‘I wrote “The Butterfly Effect” and “Catford Muse” really close to each other, and I remember thinking, “ok, let’s think of some new things that we could do for this album”. So that role-swapping, of establishing parts and then shifting them, having the tenor play a repeating single note and the bass a longer melody and then switching them round, or having the saxophone switch to the drum pattern – they’re not necessarily immediately obvious to a listener at first, but hopefully there’s a kind of underlying logic that is sensed. But “Rose Bush” I intentionally wrote to be like the straightahead standards music we’d played at The Grey Horse – with that more functional harmony, and I had in mind the classic ballads that Sonny, or all those other great swing and bebop saxophonists would play in imagining a melody for it. But I also really like and listen to a lot of younger players on the contemporary scene who also reference the tradition and understand it – like Walter Smith III, Ben Wendel, Ambrose Akinmusire. They all seem to draw from that past but have their own very distinctive voices.’
Eagles observes in the liner-notes to ‘Anniversary Song’ that he had mixed emotions about the album’s much-delayed recording – the band having rehearsed intensively for the lockdown-cancelled original session, and very little for the real thing. But with hindsight, he has concluded the delays had a silver lining.
‘Because it was one of the first things we did coming out of the lockdown,’ the saxophonist reflects, ‘when we finally got into it I think there was a different feeling about it. I was thinking, what happens, will happen. There was a bit of trepidation initially, but once we got into doing it, all that seemed to fade away. Maybe that time away lent some freshness to what we were doing and there was an excitement to be back, which I think was a creative thing. Even at the beginning of this year, things still seemed so unsure, and I was feeling a bit weird about music as something I could realistically carry on with. But now things have kicked off again, and I’ve rediscovered just how much I love music – and why.’
PP features are part of marketing packages
Partikel’s ‘Anniversary Song’ is out now on Berthold Records, and they play Pizza Express Jazz Club, Dean Street, London, on 9 August.