Phronesis is a Greek word denoting the practical wisdom which comes from the intersection of shared values with knowledge. It is also the name of one of the most in-demand European jazz trios.
Phronesis, the band, is Jasper Høiby (double bass), Ivo Neame (piano) and Anton Eger (drums). Neame is an English multi-instrumentalist, composer and arranger. Both Neame and the Norwegian Eger are members of the Marius Neset Quintet. Eger is also a member of the supergroup JazzKamikaze. The Dane Jasper Høiby is one of the most inventive double bass players on the planet. His acclaimed 2016 solo debut, Fellow Creatures, features Polar Bear saxophonist Mark Lockhart and trumpet sensation Laura Jurd. Birds of a feather!
The popularity of Phronesis may be attributed to three things: a strong lyrical sensibility, an ability to stick to a game plan, and a less-is-more sense of self-restraint. Did I mention musical virtuosity and telepathy? Mark Rothko said “there is no such thing as good painting about nothing”; you must always start with something. The Phronesis approach is to take a simple phrase or motif and to build on it. While the constructions arising from this improvisatory process are elaborate the three have an uncanny knack of knowing just how and when to rein in and channel their exuberance.
‘The Behemoth’ celebrates ten years of stellar music-making by Phronesis. The decision to get acclaimed band leader, musician, conductor and music professor Julian Argüelles on board was an inspired one. He was tasked with coming up with new arrangements of tunes from the band’s six-album back catalogue. With the Frankfurt Radio Big Band on board the arranger had a rich palette of sounds from which to work. This is not the first time Argüelles has worked as an arranger with the band, of which, incidentally, he is a former member, as they feature on ‘Let It Be Told’, his 2015 tribute to South African jazz.
From his early days with the band Loose Tubes Argüelles has, over the decades, worked with many luminaries of the jazz firmament. As well as being a much in demand sideman he has more than a dozen releases as leader. Ivo Neame is a member of his current quartet TETRA.
Argüelles is to be praised for his ability to fit in so seamlessly with the trio as he tackled this project. With a proven ability to produce “beautiful melodies whilst staying cliché free” he has not gone for the straight-forward route of cutting and pasting or of laying the big band sound on existing song templates. He has, instead, largely treated the chosen tunes as mere source material and transformed them into richly coloured kaleidoscopic gems. Comparing the re-arranged tunes to the trio’s originals is akin to looking at the same landscape in different seasons. This is not a criticism, more an observation as to how a savvy, risk-taking and innovative arranger with a big band to play around with can work his magic.
This necromancy is in evidence from the first notes of the first track, ‘Ok Chorale’. What the original recording, on the 2016 album Parallax, has in slow-burning scene-setting, this version has in glorious technicolour joie de vivre. The hymnal intro of the horns gives no clue as to the epic trip ahead. Everything leads to, and wraps itself around, the clarion-call refrain, the brass adding real heft.
‘Untitled 1’ first appeared on the album Organic Warfare. The original is a dreamy affair opening with a 3-note repetition on double bass and a gentle lick of percussion. The Behemoth version takes off from a completely different place, a sombre brass intro giving way to Neame’s playful piano. The theme repeats and builds to the high point of the track, a rocking guitar solo by Martin Scales.
The Eger composed ‘Herne Hill’ is a stand-out on the album ‘Life to Everything’ and it is a stand-out here. Argüelles recognises a good thing when he sees it and he doesn’t try to mess with the structure. The effect of the brass is to turn an already brilliant tune into a 3D immersive experience! Lovely trombone solo.
‘Charm Defensive’ is, despite its title, a charm offensive of the most shameless kind! Trio and big band are totally at ease together. The effect of the brass is to give the whole thing a warm feel-good vibe. Think in terms of those glorious soundtracks of 1970s made-for-tv cop shows!
The instant-groove sax intro to ‘Zieding’ brings to mind the American alt rock group Morphine. There is great variation of pace and intensity ensuring that one is engaged throughout. Axel Schlosser’s trumpet solo is perfect. The grooveometer really clicks in when a simple repeated motif on piano allows Eger to take off on a percussive odyssey.
Listen to the way ‘Phraternal’ builds into a pastoral colossus. Again the brass fits so snugly that one cannot imagine the tune without it. And yet Argüelles knows when to back off.
Nothing pastoral about ‘Urban Control’. Composer Eger’s all-over percussion is anything but bucolic. This is highly caffeinated city living! While the trio anchors it the brass really sparks it to life. Lovely tenor sax solo by Argüelles. He gets it.
Argüelles and Eger join forces to come up with a prelude to ‘Urban Control’. It is the simplest of things yet perfectly formed and pitched just right.
The album closes with the joyous ‘Happy Notes’ from the album ‘Green Delay’.
Final words? While Argüelles arrangements may do away with some of the finer brush strokes of the originals his bold primary colour swooshes make for a more broad-based appeal. For anyone approaching the music of Phronesis for the first time ‘The Behemoth’ is a good place to start. For those already aware of the Phronesis phenomenon this is a must-have cd.