Cork Jazz Festival Special: interview with Phronesis

 Phronesis play Triskel Christchurch, Cork
"I remember a gig in Copenhagen 6 years ago when we played on the street corner and I used a cardboard box for a keyboard stand. The keyboard kept on falling off!"

The tying of a shoelace, the pouring of a glass of water, even walking in a straight line is not so simple when confronted with the uncertainty of the dark. Consider then, London jazz trio Phronesis' 2011 live project, 'Pitch Black'; Performed in total darkness and debuted at the Brecon Jazz Festival, the Telegraph labelled the show "a unique, unmissable triumph". Bassist and band leader Jasper Hoiby and pianist Ivo Neame chat to The G-Man about all things Phronesis, including the inspiration behind the group's bright idea and the odd Mighty Boosh quote.

The G-Man: How did jazz end up playing such an important role in your life/lives?
Jasper: We all come to this music from different angles, but what attracted me to jazz was the role of the bass. I was into hip hop and funk, and from there on I discovered bands like Weather Report , and of course Jaco Pastorius was a huge inspiration and that pulled me in the direction of more jazz.

Ivo: I listened to jazz from age 11 or 12 and I got totally hooked on Louis Armstrong, Stan Getz, Miles Davis and people like that.

What did you find out about yourselves as a band during the recording of Walking Dark?
Jasper: Well, I guess every time you record there are new things to discover and learn, and for me it's all about letting go when recording, not judging yourself during the creative process but also coming prepared and ready, and then things will turn out well.

Ivo: We found different ways of dealing with the studio environment. There's so many variables when it comes to making a record. There were lots of fraught moments but we’re still alive and playing together now.

Was there a particular theme or mood that you wanted to create on the record? If so how did you set about trying to capture it?
Jasper: The important thing for me was to make sure that the different compositions we all brought to the table would have a definite unified sound to them. I wanted people to be able to listen to that album, starting at any point, but still be able to identify immediately who the band was.

Ivo: The theme was to feature everyone's writing, arranging all the material so that it could hang together. We "workshopped" a lot of the ideas, so that we could create something collectively.

Jasper, Walking Dark is the first record that features writing contributions from all three players. What was it like relinquishing some of the control?
Jasper: It was a natural process I think. We have been playing together for a long time and have tried lots of different material along the way. I knew that Ivo and Anton [Eger - Phronesis' drummer] would both be able to contribute great vision and writing, and we normally arrange and make final touches as a unit anyway, so it felt good.

The reviews have been nothing short of incredible (5 star here, “incredible” there). What parts of the record are you happiest with?
Jasper: That’s a hard question. I guess I don’t really have a favourite part of the record. I’m extremely pleased with it as a whole and when occasionally listening back to it I can be proud and think "wow, we can really play now and it sounds good!" I think we have managed to capture something really serious but at the same time joyful and hopeful, which for me goes well with where we all are in the world today.

Ivo: I'm happy with the interplay that's on the record and I feel like we're all getting better at using dynamics in the music. Having done a lot of gigs over the last few years, we've sometimes played really quietly with a real consciousness of timbre, and we were able to bring that experience into the studio in a way that we weren't able to before.

Like all good jazz bands, Phronesis have garnered a reputation for being almost telepathic live. If you had to try put a finger on it, what do you think it is that makes the three of you click?
Jasper: As different as we all are, with different upbringings and backgrounds and different outlooks on life, I think that’s exactly why we compliment each other so well - because of our differences. We also all share a willingness to communicate openly with each other.

Ivo: I would say we share ideals about things - like working hard, not letting people down (if at all possible), and we are friends as well, which helps! Sometimes that can come down to playing a musical supporting role in the band rather than being confrontational. There is not too much "jazz macho bullshit" going on, which is refreshing.

What I like about Walking Dark is that the obvious mastery of the instruments are blended with melody so. Sometimes jazz musicians hone their skills to such a degree that their music, although incredibly technical, is simply not all that nice to listen to. How do you manage to combine both when composing? i.e. a balanced blend of creatively challenging yet easy on the ear music?
Jasper: Firstly I think it's a taste thing. I love melodies, but the combination of something very melodic as a base for a composition also allows you to explore the extreme opposite when it comes to improvising. Also, like everything, there needs to be a balance – if something is complicated on a rhythmic level, it can be simple on a harmonic or melodic level, or vice versa. It depends what's in focus musically in a given piece.

Ivo: I like melody, and jazz that has a story - where you can hear someone developing an idea and spinning it out. It's the oldest trick in the book! Art music becomes boring for me when a composer's rigid adherence to a concept overrides everything else. So you get science project jazz or something that isn't supposed to be listened to in an emotional way. The whole thing becomes too intellectual.

Jasper recently won the Copenhagen Jazz Festival Young Spirit Award and Phronesis nominated for a 2012 London Jazz Award. What do awards mean to you?
Jasper: Awards mean everything and nothing at all at the same time. It all adds up, and being given an award can help to give the music a level of public exposure that you wouldn't otherwise have been able to achieve. The best-case scenario is that could mean more people supporting this art form, which is always a great thing. The Copenhagen Jazz Festival award meant a lot –I felt honoured to get recognition from the place where I grew up.

Ivo: Awards are promotional tools created by the music industry. But plenty of deserving musicians seem to win them!

In what way have the reviews and awards helped raise the band’s profile?
Jasper: Reviews and Awards help to expose the music to people that might not otherwise have come across it, and that’s invaluable really.

Ivo: The Jazzwise/Mojo Album of the Year was a real leg up because I think people started to pay attention from that point.

The Cork jazz festival has welcomed various legends over the years
including Wynton Marsalis and Dizzy Gillespie. What legends have you witnessed live and what impact did these shows have on your life and career?

Jasper: I'm not sure I really believe in the whole legend thing, whatever it is. Just because someone has had a lifetime long career doesn't necessarily mean that the gig you are going to see will be the best one they have ever played. Having said that, I have seen some amazing gigs from a few legends and both Roy Haynes Trio (with John Patitucci
and Danillo Perez) and Wayne Shorter Quartet (ironically with John and
Danillo too!) spring to mind. I've also seen some quite shocking legend performances that I won’t mention here.

Ivo: I remember seeing [Joe] Zawinul at Ronnie [Scott]'s when I was 18 and I felt so energised - it was like a ridiculous natural high! Michael Brecker as well. I think there's still something about seeing a legend at a place like Ronnie's - it can be so special.

A great part of the Cork Jazz (and many festivals) is that it is not just the jazz aficionados who attend. What would you say to entice a passer by into your gig or the festival in general?
Jasper: Depends on what impression I get of that person. I'd probably try and relate what we do to something they already know and love. I'd try and explain how closely connected to the audience this music is and how, by putting in just a little bit of energy they will be rewarded tenfold (smiles).

Ivo: "You fear jazz - Don't be afraid of jazz!" (Howard Moon from The Mighty Boosh.)

The venue you will play during the jazz is an incredible, restored church. What other non-traditional venues have Phronesis played over the years and what did you make of the experience?
Jasper: Wow, we have played everywhere from street corners to amazing churches, old German castles, beautiful arts centres, and high-tech modern jazz venues and it’s always a different experience. Mainly I think it depends on the audience - if they are great, the location could be almost anywhere.

Ivo: I remember a gig in Copenhagen 6 years ago when we played on the street corner and I used a cardboard box for a keyboard stand. The keyboard kept on falling off! There were about 10 people there having a barbecue!

Speaking of non-traditional, how did the Pitch Black project come about?
Jasper: My older sister lost her sight some years ago due to a form of cataract, so the idea for the show subsequently came about in a discussion between my manager Sue Edwards and I - we were talking about how it would be an amazing thing to be able to turn my sisters sad situation into something positive and to be able to share that positivity with everyone. So it was a dedication to my sister, and also a way of focusing on what music is really all about, which is sound.

Ivo: It was to make people question how in touch they are with their senses. There are some restaurants in London that are completely in the dark as well, so that people relate more to their sense of taste. I warmed to the idea after we'd done a few concerts and I got really into it by the end.

Were people a bit freaked out at points or was it received?
Jasper: Just a few were freaked out I think. I heard that one person had to leave from the first gig at Brecon Jazz Festival, but that’s probably got more to do with them and how they feel about darkness in general.

Ivo: The reactions varied wildly. Some people couldn't handle it – most really loved it!

What other projects are in the pipeline?
Jasper: We are playing a big concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the South Bank in London in April 2013, which will include new compositions by the trio and some arrangements for an extended ensemble. Also, we hope to commission an amazing composer, Dave Maric, to write a piece for us and a small orchestra, which we are looking to perform sometime later next year.

Your recent tour schedule has seen you jumping from Serbia to Sligo and various out parts of the world. What opportunities are available to a jazz band that are not available to a rock/alternative band?
Jasper: I’d love you to interview a rock band and tell me what they think! I’m quite far removed from that world so it’s hard for me to say. It seems to me that as a jazz group, you have to work your way all the way up, so you get to try everything along they way and it’s a long road…
Having said that, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

Ivo: I would say you get the opportunity to play for an older audience!! particularly in the UK anyway. Also, there is a longevity to jazz bands that rock bands don't have as much, which is a positive thing.

What’s next for Phronesis after the Cork Jazz Festival?
Jasper: Tours in Australia, Europe and North America! Also recording our fifth album next year.

Ivo: A nice relaxing cup of tea.

An extract from the above interview appeared in Cork's Evening Echo on Thursday, 18th October

For more on Phronesis visit:

- Phronesis play Triskel Christchurch Saturday, 27th October as part of a double bill with Michael Coady's Synergy
- Tickets are priced at €20 and available from the Triskel office and
- For more details on Cork Jazz Festival see here.

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