The penultimate gig of 2012 for Phronesis was held in the North Wall in Oxford on 1 December, a good venue for listeners with excellent sight lines, comfy seats and lovely mellow brick walls. Old fans were probably hoping for some new material and were well rewarded with at least three new compositions which were not attributed – perhaps a symbol of a new Phronesis, utterly confident in each other’s presence. As I sat there I thought back briefly to seeing the Brad Melhdau trio just two weeks ago at the Barbican, and it hit me – this trio has exactly the same confidence on stage as that well-established entity, only with more equality.
This evening felt daring – old and new were mixed, leaving us to guess which was which – all sounded fresh, deeper, matured like good wine. We heard material from all four Phronesis albums. The sense of continuity in sound and concept, despite changes in drummer and pianist, is amazing, and a tribute to Jasper’s vision. It’s not that the sound is static, it has evolved so naturally that you are unaware that you are learning, that you are adapting to their increasingly complex deep sound. So we started with a tune from the first album Organic Warfare, called Untitled#2 which sounded very stately on the Yamaha piano, five years on, it still worked and sounded new. From their second album we had Love Song and Happy Notes – the latter an ironic commentary on an unwitty heckler. Passing Clouds (from Walking Dark) had an Oriental feel, the gentle movements of Tai Chi made manifest in majestic, floating, billowing sounds with darker clouds evident at the close.
The new material has the gorgeous lyricism we have come to expect. Nomads had me holding my breath, it was so beautiful. Ivo has hit a rich seam of tunes lately – his That Syncing Feeling from Yatra is one of my pieces of the year. Another new piece started with a simple melody on bass that I was still humming in the morning – had I heard it before? No, it just comes naturally.
One of the joys of seeing this trio live is that you never know how Anton will create new sounds. At one stage, I thought he was striking the stands of his drums, perfectly in tune – actually he had cymbals on the floor I think. But the fact that I thought he was hitting his drum supports did not strike me as odd. Sometimes he plays silently, hitting the air for several beats, always he is mesmerising. You have to see them to really appreciate just how tightly they play now, with such empathy for each other.
So I felt very hurt for the band when a woman heckler demanded new, unrehearsed material. It may be Oxford but it was just plain rude to Jasper, it broke the moment. It was extraordinary, to me anyway, that the heckler could have thought that she was not listening to new material when we were. The fact that new material sounded well rehearsed when perhaps it was not is a tribute to the skills of this perfect trio.
Sadly, fans in the UK now have to wait until Phronesis’ next performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London on 5 April 2013 when we are promised some guests including the singer Olivia Chaney. It’s a big venue but they can fill it, physically and mentally, they are at the top of their game.