Largely avoids both the virtues and the pitfalls of jazz.
A Humdrum Star, the latest release by this instrumental trio from Manchester, England, raises interesting questions about what instrumental music can be in 2018, about the appeal of instrumental music that trades largely in groove and texture and about the places where “creative music” can find an opening to appeal to more listeners. Because the music is on Blue Note and features (mostly) the acoustic instruments that were used by, say, the Bill Evans Trio, you might be tempted to hear it as “jazz.” Rather, it is something else: electronica without too many electronics, or breakbeat, or trip-hop or something else. It is engaging in a manner that largely avoids both the virtues and the pitfalls of jazz: driving, anthemic and constantly in circular motion.
The appeal of A Humdrum Star is obvious. First, pianist Chris Illingworth constructs simple, harmonically pleasing melodies that are like slow anthems that break across the sonic horizon. “Raven” starts with a slow set of chiming chords that radiate hope, and then Illingworth plays arpeggios that suggest simple, purposeful motion. These melodic statements are not unlike the extremely consonant themes that made New Age music such a phenomenon in the 1980s. Without the complexities of jazz harmony or the darker corners of blues-based music, these instrumental themes are stand-ins for our cinematic Big Moments.
Rob Turner’s driving, electronica-simulating drum patterns is an element of GoGo Penguin that sets this group apart. Many of the compositions on A Humdrum Star begin with the slow, anthemic melody, under which Turner brings in double-time grooves that churn and subdivide the beat enthusiastically. On some other tunes, such as “Transient State,” the piano also takes on that very busy, 32nd-note happy role, matching the drum patterns in freneticism. It is undeniably exciting. The fast-moving sprays of rhythm spin and cycle like computerized dance music.
Bassist Nick Blacka works hard to make the bottom of the band feel relevant. His strong, heavy bass lines act as ballast beneath so much busy playing from piano and drums. On “Strid,” Blacka is given a central role in the melodic statement, using his pungent acoustic bass sound to stand out from the programmed sound that tends to dominate the band. “Reactor” opens with bass line and percussion out front, and in many ways Blacka’s one repeated note remains that tune’s most compelling motif.
What you don’t hear much of from GoGo Penguin is the venerable art of improvisation, individually or in a group setting. Which is not to say that every note seems written and pre-arranged. Rather, what the band creates is a cycling kind of jam that has neither the complexity of a through-composed piece nor the equal complexity of an improvisation that develops through the intelligence of a musical mind working within a set of constraints. Instead, the band generates evolving variations that generate a ton of rhythmic heat as they spin and layer. It is not the kind of linear, melodic improvisation that you would associate with either John Coltrane or Jerry Garcia but, rather, a mechanism of excitement that seems more like a series of swaying motions that simply play out above and around each other.
In style and approach, then, GoGo Penguin would seem to have a good deal in common with bands like Aphex Twin or Squarepusher. Though they borrow the sonic pallete of artists such as the Bad Plus or Brad Mehldau, the music never sounds like that of an individual who is crafting something new in the moment. The sense of a soloist, working in real time with sympathetic accompanists is not where this band functions. The band is also not in the realm of, say, Marco Benevento (of Joe Russo’s Almost Dead and his own trio), who maps keyboard virtuosity onto rock and jam conventions, or of Medeski Martin & Wood, who turn hypnotic grooving into a pathway for more adventurous jazz explorations.
Instead, GoGo Penguin has landed on a combination that works as a particular intersection. The piano/bass/drum set-up that dominates its sound suggests a certain kind of musical authenticity, but everything else about the music is modern, mechanistic groove music. Rather than being a jazz trio that has tried to adopt some of the sonic paraphernalia of EDM or electronica in a bid for more listeners, GoGo Penguin reverses the gambit.