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Concert reviews: The Portico Quartet

Matthew Kassel
Contributing Writer
Matthew.Kassell [at]

I kept on imagining myself submerged in water, sinking deeper, blue all around me, perhaps in the Caribbean, or the Pacific. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it had to be the North Sea, and I had to be in a submarine.

That’s what I thought as the Portico Quartet, from London, eased into “Paper Scissors Stone” on Saturday, October 2 at l’Astral here in Montreal. The song started out murky, indistinct, with some clinks here and there from the hang (more on that below) and some windy drum and saxophone effects. Then it got a pulse, the beat quickened, and the boat took off.

I don’t know where it went, but at least it didn’t sink. It couldn’t have. Nick Mulvey, on the hang—a sort of UFO/steel drum hybrid—wouldn’t have let that happen. He started almost every song by malleting some short, repeating pattern and the band built from that. If you didn’t know what was happening throughout the set, you could usually look to the hang and find out.

That was good and bad. Sometimes you wished Mr. Mulvey would stop playing for a moment, give the music some space, more mystery. But maybe that wasn’t his role. Soprano and tenor saxophonist Jack Wyllie and bassist Milo Fitzpatrick were really the arbiters of depth, shaping the hang’s ostinatos into something more than repetition.

In the song “The Visitor,” Mr. Fitzpatrick laid down a deep, steady bass line, accompanied delicately by drummer Duncan Bellamy’s brushed snare drum and a repeated hang pattern which sounded like a bell buoy ringing a bit faster than usual. With electronics, Mr. Wyllie’s saxophone sounded echoey, gusty. At the song’s end, and after some developed delay effects, the bass and saxophone entered a powerful call and response, negotiating the hang pattern with authority.

Mr. Wyllie played economically, looping single notes, allowing them to build and resonate in the room. At one point, he pulled out a melodica, only to play one note, loop it as a foundation, and then move on to the saxophone. He was doing some un-jazzy things with his instruments.

But the Portico Quartet is not really a jazz group. Sure, you could call them one. The venue l’Astral booked them as part of a “Jazz all year round” showcase and no one I know of objected. But the show did not feel like a jazz show to me. It wasn’t because the band used looping, or electronics, or even a hang.

And it’s not that the band members claim they are playing jazz. On their MySpace, they list their style as “Shoegaze/Experimental/Classical.” But that doesn’t seem right either. What does seem right is that the Portico Quartet is not self-conscious of its liminal relationship with jazz. They do what they do. If that overlaps with jazz, perhaps it’s a good thing. If it doesn’t, so be it.

For its encore, the Portico Quartet played their song “Knee-Deep in the North Sea,” a beautiful, lilting, waltz. Mr. Fitzpatrick, noting a melodic line, hugged his bass and swayed back and forth as though he were actually in the sea. Mr. Wyllie wove in some syrupy soprano phrases, smoothing out the undulating rhythm.

As the song developed, I kept on imaging myself on a boat, watching land disappear on the horizon. Leaving home. Leaving notions behind.