When people talk about “experimental” or “cutting edge” jazz, most of the time, they’re talking out their asses. Enter Polar Bear, an experimental, cutting edge jazz quintet that actually deserves the hype.
These guys are veterans. They have three albums and one Mercury Prize nomination (for 2005’s Held on the Tips of Fingers) under their belts, but with Peepers, they finally seem to have wrangled a batch of tunes capable of breaking past the critical underground.
Leading the pack is drummer/band leader Sebastian Rochford, a percussionist and arranger with a flair for weird details that up the freak level, like the clanging rhythms and broken glass samples in “Drunken Pharaoh” (one of the most appropriately titled tracks of the year, by the way). In addition to Rochford, they have a member named Leafcutter John, so you know they have jazz credentials.
What separates this Polar Bear release from previous ones is its production—cut live, musicians all playing together in one room, with a bled-together homogeneous directness that’s charged with the juice of an intimate club (or basement) performance. There is a dank, sweaty gusto to the production that gives the songs added weight—one that also makes them feel alien in an age of “smoother is better” jazz.
The experimental tag is well worn, as these tunes are built from noise and post-rock as much as traditional jazz music. Samples run amok over sizzling cymbals, textural electric guitar, double bass, and twin tenor saxophones that graciously favor atmosphere and melody over noodling.
Basically, this isn’t your father’s jazz. But if you have a twisted ear and an adventurous streak, it very well could be yours.
// Notes from the Road
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