Flick on Memory Streams, Portico Quartet’s freshly-released fifth studio album, and in moments you’ll be enveloped by its rhythm-tripping instrumental soundscape. At turns epic and immersive, uplifting and emotive, Portico Quartet’s new record is a weave of echoing keys, flurrying electronic loops and sonorous saxophone; growling bass and Jackson Pollock-esque drums.
Magpieing influences from everything from minimalism and electronica to world music
In short, it’s everything you could want from London’s ambient alt-jazz masters, who’ve been making their presence felt now for well over a decade, via an early Mercury Prize nomination for debut Knee Deep In The North Sea. Magpieing influences from everything from minimalism and electronica to world music, and with comparisons drawn varyingly to Radiohead, The Cinematic Orchestra and Ryuichi Sakamoto – and Four Tet and Emancipator to my own mind – to name but a few, Portico Quartet has built a career defined by being hard to define.
Portico Quartet has built a career defined by being hard to define
Luckily for Bristol, the ensemble – comprising drummer Duncan Bellamy, bassist Milo Fitzpatrick, Keir Vine on keyboard and saxophonist Jack Wyllie – will head to the Trinity Centre on 7 November for their Colston Hall-programmed show to lay their new creation forth.
As a group who have always ploughed their own furrow, Memory Streams reflects a maturing of their craft, says saxman Jack. ‘We actually looked at a lot of the music we had made over our careers and worked into the identity of the band.
‘That isn’t to say it was a rehash of old ideas – it was more about how we could push the identity of the band in a new context, using our music knowledge and experience to contextualise the band sound.’
The album arrives amid a well-documented resurgence in the UK jazz scene and follows Portico Quartet’s success with 2017’s statement record, Art in the Age of Automation, which reached No.1 in the UK jazz chart. It’d be understandable then if Portico Quartet had felt under pressure to come up with the goods with record number five, but it seems that wasn’t the case.
‘We didn’t really think of Art in the Age of Automation as a hugely successful album and so there wasn’t a huge weight from it. You don’t have to sell a huge amount of records to get to number one in the UK jazz charts! But there was something about re-establishing the identity of the band after releasing Living Fields as Portico, our more electric-based project, that we wanted to send home following on from Art in the Age of Automation. In part, I think we realised how important it is to develop and preserve a strong identity in our music.’
The main element has been the increasing use of technology to aid the composition and performance process
And since their 2008 Mercury nomination, there has been developments aplenty, inside the band and out. Jack reflects: “The main element has been the increasing use of technology to aid the composition and performance process. Whether that is the use of effects pedals to alter the sound live, or using a computer to help arrange and compose and manipulate sounds. It’s been that element that has led to a broadening of texture and increase in varied influences.’
a broadening of texture and increase in varied influences
The band embraced these new tools for both their current and previous records, composing their opuses on the computer by pulling together various recordings and working them into pieces of music. ‘We then take these drafts and try and play and record a lot of it live,’ Jack explains.
But beyond these advances in their record-making practise, they’ve also just become better musicians. ‘It’s funny to look back in hindsight at how I played 12 years ago when we first started out,’ says Jack. ‘Not very well!’
Portico Quartet have always considered themselves outsiders
While Portico Quartet have always considered themselves outsiders – ‘isolated’, even, according to drummer-designer Duncan Bellamy – it’s clear they have been watching the UK jazz revival of recent years with interest. Even with their self-professed loner status, earlier this year The Economist credited the group with helping to break jazz out ‘of the confines of niche, stale clubs’ and open it up to a younger audience. Bleep, meanwhile, dubbed them ‘elder statesman in the world of British jazz’ (‘kind of funny’, says Jack, given the oldest band member is only 34).
it’s less academized, much more open, diverse and collaborative
‘We’ve always existed and still do quite outside of [the scene]. I guess we are in many ways from the wave beforehand. But think it’s great the way in which it way it’s less academized, much more open, diverse and collaborative. Before bands like us – and Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland, and so on – a lot of jazz in the UK was relatively conservative and came out of the academy system. So I guess we were one of the first groups to come to it from outside of that.
‘I suppose we have been around for a while and have made it easier, to whatever extent, for UK jazz to exist outside of the motor tradition lineage.’
Do they see any particular driving forces, then, behind the latest surge in UK jazz innovation? Jack gives his view: ‘I’m not sure exactly, but it seems to have a bounce every 10 years or so. I do think this round has more significance and staying power than previously.
there is more political relevance to it
‘I think there is more political relevance to it. I remember when Kamasi [Washington] and Thundercat played on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which was very jazzy and it was released early, after the police shooting [of black teenager Michael Brown] in Ferguson.
‘The way it had political currency echoed over here, in that it feels similar and has affected what is happening in the London jazz scene. It’s not as precise, but it feels like there is a real urgency and political sentiment in obvious – Sons of Kemet, etc. – and not so obvious ways.’
it feels like there is a real urgency
Back on the subject of their latest tour, Portico Quartet has a spread of European and UK dates lined up, which has them hopping from Paris to Norwich, Gateshead to Glasgow, Amsterdam to Antwerp, Berlin to Brussels. From the new album, they’ve found Memory Streams’ second track, Signals in the Dusk, with its build and driving sax, landing particularly well.
‘There’s a really contained energy to it that only breaks loose in the final third, which is really satisfying to play,’ Jack explains.
‘We always enjoy playing in Bristol,’ says Jack. “My girlfriend is from Bristol, so I’ve spent a bit of time in the city. Amazing cultural heritage, both in music, with bands like Massive Attack and Roni Size, and in its progressive politics. It’ll be great.’
Words by Daisy Blacklock