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GoGo Penguin - Union Chapel, London, 3/4/2015

  by Owen Peters

published: 18 / 4 / 2015

GoGo Penguin - Union Chapel, London, 3/4/2015


Owen Peters enjoys Mercury Award-nominated Manchester-based trio GoGo Penguin's fusion of modern jazz, electronica and classical music at a triumphant gig at the Union Chapel in London

“Thanks for coming. It wasn’t long ago we were playing in Manchester to forty people. So, this is really special,” says GoGo Penguin’s bassist Nick Blacka to a sold out Union Chapel audience. In fact it was back in early 2012 when Matt Halsall of Gondwana Records came across the original trio. Once a month Brian Norvun set up a night for local bands called Norvun Sunday at the Roundhouse in Manchester. Halsall was present, only needing to hear their talents once before signing them to his Gondwana label. The original Manchester-based trio Chris Illingworth (piano), Rob Turner (drums) and Grant Russell (bass) were friends from their time at The Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) and had been around the Manchester music scene for many years. Grant Russell left the band in late 2012 to continue with his own projects. He was replaced by Nick Blacka. Russell was responsible (allegedly) for the trio’s name. He and a friend, having sampled a few too many ales one evening, bought a stuffed penguin at a RNCM auction. Their purchase became a focal point as they played around with a name for the band. A couple of penguin names came and went, until they agreed on GoGo Penguin. Their 2012 debut album 'Fanfares' was an intriguing manifesto of sounds. In order to understand their music, much cramming of square pegs into round holes seemed to be a necessity by various sections of the music fraternity. Their notoriety increased significantly with their Mercury-nominated second album, 'v2.0'. Once again a mix of traditional jazz dipped in and out of electronica, drum and bass and ever present classical themes. The Union Chapel provides a perfect venue for an attentive audience, and with a sound system which matches very few other venues in London. The opening set is over ten minutes long. It’s enough to appreciate these guys are producing not so much a different sound, but one not heard very often, live and at close quarters. A refreshing element to the trio is their openness to be associated with a lot of other artists in a diversity of styles, such as Brian Eno, John Cage, Squarepusher, Thom Yorke, East India Youth, Polar Bear, Four Tet. No doubt influences from the late, respected Esbjorn Svensson Trio (EST) and Aphex Twin are also apparent here. So is a touch of Debussy and Oscar Peterson from the classically trained hands of Illingworth. The diversity confirm the trio’s development and range and possibilities for future projects. Turner is gentility personified with brush drum sticks in hand, touching, caressing and cajoling his kit and symbols into life. Illingworth and Blacka raise the tempo a tad, sounding like a Ronnie Scott’s jazz band. Thes band write as a three, and when they play with their renowned drive and verve as a three they electrify the chapel. Although it’s the percussion which drives the pace, the intertwining of piano and bass loops are ferocious. Like a stone, the beat drops, and stops. Audience wise, this is where old school meets a new generation of “jazz” attendees. Some parts of the crowd know they’ve finished and start their applause. Other sections aren’t so sure. So, we end up with the confident clappers, and the not so sures. This is a theme throughout their performance. As per jazz protocol when Blacka closes off a solo spot, he is applauded. Many, however, don’t applaud. In fact some folks look completely bemused why applause is happening before the piece is ended. It not only highlights the age diversity of the crowd, but also asks the questions? Are we watching a “jazz trio”, hence the solo spot applause etc, or trio without a musical tag? Labels can be counter-productive and confusing. Backa solves a mystery to the opening set. “If you didn’t know what we just played, some of it was new, and we merged two other songs, 'Murmuration' and 'One Percent' so you had three in one.” 'The Letter' (we are told, was recorded in the dark) is an atmospheric slow burner, allowing Illingworth's minimalist style to conjure up time and space. To see and hear the complexity and timing of 'Garden Dog Barbecue' is a wonder and delight. It never feels either one of them is playing for themselves. They play as a three, working with each other, although it’s rare they look up and check on each other, especially when immersed in a whole range of complex tempos. Yet it would be easy to focus on one musician and gain something new from the experience each time. The rhythm chops and changes. At times there is a consistency of tempo,repetition drum and bass, and then fragmentation of sound and direction. If Turner is the trio’s metronome, and Illingworth the virtuoso, then Blacka is the sentinel. Rarely have I seen the bass handled with such physicality. He wrestles, pulls, pushes, tips turns and generally bosses his instrument. Then with bow on strings he exhibits his care and precision. A kiss to the woodwork’s neck wouldn’t have surprised me. This element of crossover jazz may not be for the connoisseur with their bewildering range of dance textures and riffs. But it does bring an inquisitive and youthful audience to the dance party. 'Hopopono' begins in classical territory, simple enough piano and percussion base, with Illingworth providing layer and layer of more complex chord arrangement. Turner and Blacka once again keep the beat is tight, concise and focused. It is almost hypnotic in construction. Two albums into a career they can be defined as different. One album credited to a Mercury nomination can position them as topical and recognised. To see them live is, however, conformation of three highly skilled musicians with something exhilarating and challenging to offer, Just as I’m about to close off this review, it’s announced GoGo Penguin have signed for the legendary Blue Note Records. I haven’t seen any quotes from Matt Halsall of Gondwana Records, so would hope the move is amicable. Maybe this allows some higher profile exposure for his recent signing Mammal Hands,

Also at Union Chapel, London

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GoGo Penguin - Union Chapel, London, 3/4/2015

GoGo Penguin - Union Chapel, London, 3/4/2015

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