Phronesis @ RNCM Manchester

When EST came onto the scene in the early to mid-1990s, the piano trio was one formation among a host of others in the vast repertoire of conceivable jazz line-ups. However, it would be no exaggeration to say that, along with other such as Brad Mehldau and of course the on going Keith Jarrett trio, the Swedish trio genuinely reinvigorated the traditional piano trio format, attracting a whole new and younger audience, and in a way that had seldom been witnessed since the 1960s and the zenith of both the Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson trios.

It is within this wider historical context that once should view the emergence of a new generation of trios in the last fifteen to twenty years and in this respect, tonight’s performers Phronesis are a shining example. Although the individual members of the trio do not all reside in the same city (bassist Jesper Holby for example has frequently moved between his native Denmark and London), Phronesis are a band that have reflected a good deal on how the trio format can be developed further beyond conventional parameters and are supremely well schooled in their illustrious trio predecessors on both side of the Atlantic.

Phronesis Photo: Linea Høiby

The concert took place in the cosy surroundings of the RNCM theatre and follows on from the trio’s most recent release, an excellent live recording ‘Life to Everything’ (Edition Records, 2014), recorded as part of the 2013 London Jazz Festival. Just as on that thrilling November evening, what comes across above all from tonight’s performance is the close rapport that exists between the individuals and the communal nature of the trio approach and ethos. In conversation recently on Radio 3, leader Jesper Holby indicated the extent to which the trio members present ideas to one another and share writing duties. This was wonderfully illustrated in a two set performance that personified all that is admirable about the art of the piano trio.

Bassist Holby leads by example and sets the tone and pace for the majority of the compositions, all of which are band originals. His own influences are wide-ranging, but seem to have taken in the likes of Eddie Gomez when part of the Bill Evans trio, fellow Dane Niels Henning Ørsted Pederson, and, quite possibly, the innovative technique of Dave Holland when part of the late 1960s’ Miles ensemble. While not a new phenomenon, the choice of bassist as leader has become increasingly commonplace in recent years with Avishai Cohen and Esperanza Spalding rightly earning reputations as major composers and practitioners.

Seemingly taking a leaf out of the Max Roach wardrobe, the dapperly attired drummer Anton Edger displayed an inventive use of the drum kit, frequently playing the rim of the drum for dramatic effect and regularly engaging in solos. This included both drum rolls and hand drum technique. However, whichever creative method favoured, it was always subsidiary to the overall needs of the trio. If both Holby and Edger are the more exuberant and outgoing constituent part of the trio, then pianist Ivo Neame certainly represents the more introspective side. Indeed there is a delicateness of touch which hints at Bill Evans, the acoustic periods of Herbie Hancock, whom Neame most resembles in terms of building up layers of intensity, and to an extent Brad Mehldau. It is, though, Evans who is invariably invoked on the gentle lowering of tempos within a given composition and Neame has that most endearing of qualities in a pianist; the ability to create a lasting floating melody. This is exemplified on the quasi-classical chamber atmosphere conjured up on ‘Deep Space Dance’, though it should be immediately stated that any classical tones are never at the expense of the opportunity afforded to trio members to improvise. Conversely, however, on the final piece of the first set, ‘Herne Hill’, Ivo Neame demonstrates that he is equally capable of shifting up a gear or two and this was a fine way to denote the half-way mark in the evening’s proceedings.

One of the pleasures of hearing a piano trio in full flow is to appreciate the symbiotic relationship between pianist and bassist and in the case of Phronesis Neame and Holby engaged in some joyous melodic riffs that had the audience on the edge of their seats. Early on in the second set, the trio departed from traditional script and headed off on a more free from excursion that became more expansive in the second part before returning to a more sedate tempo. What characterizes the Phronesis sound is the capacity to go up or down a tempo at will, with the surprise element of taking off into an energetic passage. Nonetheless, at the heart of the trio lies bassist Jesper Holby who is its epicentre and his solos, which sometimes included bowed bass with classical as well as Spanish-tinged quotes, was never anything less than deeply impressive. There was undoubtedly an intensification of the trio’s performance in the second half of the evening and arguably the most compelling interpretation of all came on ‘Dr. Black’. Bearing in mind the collective ethos of the band, this writer would ideally liked to have heard more of Ivo Neame the soloist and they were invariably circumspect, never exaggerated or over-embellished. To his credit, Neame was careful to strike just the right number of notes, a skill that Ahmad Jamal has perfected over the decades, and the pianist’s solos were always geared to be in harmony with Holby’s sure and steady bass lines.

For a well deserved encore, the trio started off with what, on first hearing, appeared to be a gentle ballad, but this soon gave way to a rapid change in tempo with a lyrical exchange between piano and bass and where Neame utilised the whole gamut of the ivories/keys to marvellous effect, in the process creating an intoxicating riff. Some might argue that the sound produced is a tad too slick and polished. That, however, would be to miss the point about what Phronesis are striving to achieve. All the trio’s efforts are devoted towards creating a cohesive ensemble sound where no individual reigns supreme and where an interchange of communication is of the essence. In that goal alone, Phronesis passed with flying colours.

Tim Stenhouse