Talented musicians reworking the rulebook with hearts and minds at play.
Louis Pattison 2010
Polar Bear sit as something of an anomaly in the UK jazz community. This is a band notable for their youth, but real knuckle-down players, not crooning heart-throbs; experimentally minded, but not regimented to the familiar squeal and squall of free jazz-inherited improvisation.
Instead, Polar Bear feel cast more in the mould of an experimental rock band – a fairly makeshift and mischievous five-man unit, bringing together drummer Sebastian Rochford and tenor saxophonist Pete Wareham (both also of the more fiery Acoustic Ladyland) alongside electronica head Leafcutter John, plus second tenor Mark Lockheart and Tom Herbert, also of The Invisible, on double bass. Peepers, the quintet’s fourth album, sees familiar jazz styles – bebop, cool jazz, free improv – exhumed, tampered with, and gleefully crossbred with little regard for tradition or idiom.
So, Happy For You marshalls perky beat-group guitars and jaunty saxophone, although Rochford’s skittering drums and sudden swells of percussion give things a constant sense of jazzy motion. Drunken Pharoah adopts a stumbling, stop-start rhythm, sometimes halting a half-beat as Leafcutter John conjures all kinds of collapsing electronic sounds out of the ether.
There is abrasion here, but usually it’s employed with a certain tongue-in-cheek – Scream opens with saxophones clucking like angry chickens, and ends 30 seconds later in a single shrill squeal. Just as common, though, are moments of disarming beauty. The Love Didn’t Go Anywhere is subtle and gorgeous, yearning sax lines and quiet whispers of percussion that recall Miles Davis at his more wistful.
This is the sort of patchwork, irreverent treatment to a genre that will see an outfit critically overlooked, or even maligned. Polar Bear, however, have already drummed up plaudits from such a wriggly approach – 2005’s Held on the Tips of Fingers, you will recall, was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize – and Peepers is every bit as good, talented musicians reworking the rulebook with hearts and minds at play.