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For Your Consideration: Phronesis' 'Walking Dark'

Marc Rosenfeld Antunes
Staff Writer
mra337[at]nyu.edu / @mcrantunes

Much jazz music that has been at the very forefront of acclaim recently has been totally clean. The most recent albums to point to would be Robert Glasper’s Black Radio, a super-produced listen, an album with its audio tracks manipulated and equalised to a powerful whole, and Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society, a record making use of a large, fully synchronised, well-rehearsed band. And why should it not be so? The clean provides the listener with that glossy effect of perfection represented in sound. Walking Dark, the most recent album by Phronesis, released everywhere by Edition Records, is not imperfect, but it is opposite to that perception; it is a celebration of hot music, rather than cool, clean, and controlled music.

Phronesis has been called “one of the most exciting bands on the planet today” (Jazzwise). The creation of Phronesis dates back to 2005, soon after bassist Jasper Hoiby’s graduation from the Royal Academy of Music in London, with pianist Ivo Neame and drummer Anton Eger (Neame is the latest addition to the trio from its original pianist, Magnus Hjorth). And so, in piano trio format, the band has released critically-acclaimed album after critically-acclaimed album, with most notably the powerful Alive (Edition Records, 2010), featuring guest drummer Mark Guiliana (Avishai Cohen).

With nominations at the MOBO awards and the Parliamentary Jazz Awards, the trio could not have been better received, particularly in Europe, with performances everywhere from the North Sea Jazz Festival to the Banlieue Bleues Festival. Big publications from the Guardian to the Telegraph have attempted to express the excitement and rush the trio evokes through its fast-paced provocative style.

Phronesis was a term evaluated and considered by Aristotle, the practical ethicist, most notably in his Nicomachean Ethics. And indeed, it is commonly translated to either “practical wisdom” or “prudence”.

However, the music is not prudent. In fact, that is one of the last characteristics a listener might attribute to the very dangerous quality of this music, particularly when describing Walking Dark. The opening track, “Walking Dark”, begins on an ambiguous measure, and an ambiguous overall form, getting the listener lost in the very much anti-standard time by use of unnerving and yet so satisfying syncopated accentuations in communication between the three musicians. And those dark harmonies of “Lip Wash-Part I”, drawing a very strange and blurred line between the comforting and uncomforting in music harmony, can hardly be characterised as considerate of any form of prudence. Going on, “Lip Wash-Part II” jumps into a very steady dynamic, threatening, straight, and always hard-hitting, jumping in and out of a piano cadenza. “American Jesus”, a piece digging into that area of tonal harmony in which a note that is, in reality, in place sounds beautifully out of place, works on those strident, barely tonal corners of the human perception of sound.

The music is hard and rough, stampeding and threatening; why, then, is it so appealing, so mesmerising? How is it possible for the seemingly out of place to sound so beautiful? In a way we are taken back to ancient Greece, back to the classical form of tragedy. How can we possibly feel pleasure in witnessing Oedipus sleep with his own mother when the thought of incest has become such a forbidden taboo? To what can we ascribe the catharsis associated to the artful experience of terror and indignation?

Perhaps one of the best places to look for the answer to that question is right in the question itself. The experience is, essentially, “artful”, beautifully delivered; the tragedy, in its own way, helps just to accentuate the delivery. And that is what might be claimed about the enjoyment of terror; that is, when observing the aesthetically pleasing, what exactly what the individual is looking for is the aesthetically pleasing.

That is what we experience in listening to this album, the pleasure of terror through the aesthetic sensitivity of the human being. And it is in this sense that the album is, in fact, an expression of the musicians’ “practical wisdom”:

Though the dynamic sense employed by the trio may at times be threatening, there is no saying that is not in perfect control; look to “Democracy”, a show of dynamic manipulation of the harmony and auditory senses. And back to this harmony; certainly it is dangerous, but it is also so artfully manipulated, as becomes obvious when listening to the harmonies in “Zieding”, unconventional yet truly harmonious in the most literal sense.

When considering, once more, those pieces earlier described as imprudent, it is no terror or fright or threat that the listener is listening for. It is artful delivery and those emotions associated to catharsis that are the most important. The listener who really delivers himself to the music is also not constantly dissecting each basic component of the music, from harmony to form. The listener is trying to listen for one whole auditory, expressive, and emotional experience.

The practical wisdom comes from the employment of those basic elements of music, theoretical (harmony, form, structure, dynamics, etc.) to expressive and emotional (threatening, fast, frightening, dark) and their manipulation to create a complete experience of catharsis, beautifully delivered, so terrible, yet so strong. Essentially, what we listen to here really is hot jazz.

Phronesis - "Walking Dark" live at the Montreal Jazz Festival 2011

Phronesis - "The Economist"

Marc Antunes is a student, writer, and critic. Follow him on Twitter.