Phronesis: ‘Improvising is like walking the plank’
The jazz act might have made a few headlines with their concerts in the dark, but their mix of jazz chops and rock nous means they are no strangers to the musical limelight
Phronesis: the jazz trio consists of (from left) English pianist Ivo Neame, Danish bassist Jasper Høiby and Swedish drummer Anton Eger. Photograph: Peter Van Breukelen
Popularity is not a condition that afflicts many young jazz musicians. Even for the best, writing, rehearsing and performing challenging creative music – and getting it heard above the din of the commercial industry – is difficult enough. The added inconveniences of being recognised in the street, having your appearance commented on or, you know, selling a lot of records are visited on only an elite few.
But that is what has been happening to Danish double bassist Jasper Høiby and his trio Phronesis since the release of their widely acclaimed second album, Green Delay, in 2009. Being a young trio with Scandinavian connections – the group’s drummer Anton Eger is from Sweden; pianist Ivo Neame, meanwhile, is English – the press began comparing them to world-beating Swedish piano outfit Esbjörn Svensson Trio (EST), and suddenly they found themselves subjected to new kinds of public scrutiny.
“Yeah, people started commenting on our clothes,” says Høiby with something approaching disgust. “What sort of ties we were wearing on stage, that the drummer looks like animal from the Muppets, stuff like that. And I was like, well, f*** that, man, it’s about the band. Come and see the band, but don’t look at it, just f***ing listen to it.”
The trio’s response was radical. At the Brecon Jazz Festival in 2011, Phronesis staged the first of their Pitch Black concerts. All lights are extinguished for these performances, and the trio and their audience are bound together in complete darkness, free to concentrate on the music without any extraneous distractions.
“It makes everyone stop thinking about the other aspects of the music,” says Høiby. “You have to be 100 per cent with the music in that moment.”
The concerts in the dark provided the inspiration for the trio’s fourth album, Walking Dark (2012), which continued the band’s rise. So why not play every concert in the dark?
“The thing is, it doesn’t really work unless you’ve prepared the room. There’s always a light. For the Pitch Black concerts, we even had to cover the exit signs, and we had six people standing with torches ready to help people out if they wanted to go. Some people don’t like it. It’s very weird for me too, standing up with the double bass, just keeping your balance. It’s not easy to do. But it’s fun. That’s good for the soul, man, doing stuff like that”
Høiby attributes the inspiration for the Pitch Black idea, and for the whole Phronesis project, to his sister Jeanette, who was born with a learning disability and had been cared for at home in Copenhagen by their mother. When cataracts meant she lost her sight, her care became more challenging, and Høiby decided to leave London, where he had been carving out a career as a jobbing bass player, to return to Copenhagen.
“I had finished college and was running around London trying to get gigs, and I thought I could actually move home and still do those gigs, so I moved back and became a sort of helper. And,” he adds with a smile, “that’s where Phronesis started, so it wasn’t all bad. I was there in Denmark and I didn’t have anyone to play with. Then I heard Anton, and I started to play with him, and another pianist, Magnus Hjorth, and we ended up doing the first album [2007’s Organic Warfare]”.
When Neame came on board, the band assumed its current identity and started getting some media attention. The pianist, a mercurial talent with a dense harmonic and rhythmic concept, brought a level of excitement and unpredictability that changed the dynamic of the trio. With such a strong piano player, was there not a danger that Phronesis would become the Ivo Neame trio ?
“The trios I like most are when it’s really democratic, like Bill Evans Trio, or like that Chick Corea album, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs  – that’s f***ing unbelievable. They all [bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Roy Haynes] had really strong personalities. That album is what really sparked me off.”
“Plus, I think it’s a lot to do with the material you bring forward, and what you do with it. I always like giving the other guys the freedom to play whatever they want. To the point,” he adds, laughing, “where it’s hard to get them to play exactly what I want.”
Høiby lapses into silence, trying to figure out why Phronesis isn’t a traditional piano trio. Finally he says, “Okay, it works like this: I’m in the middle, I’m the dude hopefully saying which way it’s going to go as a whole unit, and they’re both pulling in different directions. Anton is bringing that rock element – he likes everything to be very structured and very precise. Ivo has this whole demon side – he wants to f*** it up, to make it wild, to make it unpredictable. So I think Phronesis is the balance between those two things, which is often my taste anyway.
“But I accept that this group is now ours, not just mine. And we’ve talked about it, that no one should come with something preconceived. What you bring, even if it’s one of your own compositions, that’s not so important; you have to play to the strengths of the band.”
Phronesis are to the fore of a new wave of European jazz groups that are ditching the format of using a lead player’s name followed by a word such as “trio” or “quartet” in favour of long-standing democratic ensembles with names that sound more like rock bands. Contemporary jazz groups such as Polar Bear, Ibrahim Electric, World Service Project and Trio VD, not to mention Irish groups such as OKO and Alarmist, concentrate their efforts on creating a band sound, where the whole ensemble acts as a single, improvising unit, not as a collection of soloists.
Høiby sees the same thing happening in the younger generation of musicians. He is particularly enthusiastic about Blue-Eyed Hawk, the latest London group to fly past the jazz naming trap, led by Dublin-born vocalist Lauren Kinsella.
“I heard Lauren perform live for the first time the other day and it was really beautiful. I’d love to do some stuff with her, she’s amazing, really special. And they’re doing the same thing: making a band. If you really want to take one thing to that sort of level, you really need to focus on it.”
Having subjected himself to more media scrutiny, Høiby seems sanguine about the comparisons to EST (which was disbanded after the death of Esbjörn Svensson in a diving accident in 2008).
“Feel free to do it,” he says in his laconic way. “They are probably the most popular jazz trio out there, even though they don’t exist any more, so if some of their fans are prepared to come and listen to us, I am very happy about it.
“But they were different, a lot more like a rock band. I’m actually very proud to call Phronesis a jazz band. I like improvising. It’s like walking the plank: you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Phronesis begin a nationwide Music Network tour in the Riverbank Arts Centre, Newbridge (February 4th); and tour to Triskel Christchurch, Cork (5th); The Dock, Carrick-on-Shannon (6th); The Regional Cultural Centre, Letterkenny (7th); Whelan’s, Dublin (8th); and the Linenhall Arts Centre, Castlebar (9th). musicnetwork.ie