Phronesis, the word, connotes wisdom. It refers to the wisdom one has to achieve one’s practical goals. In that spirit, Phronesis, the band, takes a wise, yet unorthodox approach to building the central idea of their latest record, Parallax. For the uninitiated, Phronesis is a jazz trio on Edition Records that brings together players from the UK and Scandinavia (Jasper Høiby [Denmark] – double bass, Ivo Neame [UK] – piano, Anton Eger [Sweden/Norway] – drums). Parallax is the trio’s sixth full length album and is a glorious exploration into musical change. All three musicians are at their best here, which combined with this record’s interesting conceptual elements, makes Phronesis’ latest intellectually stimulating as well as a lively, almost physically stirring, experience.
Parallax’s opening track, ‘67000 MPH’ is undoubtedly its centrepiece. This track is a showcase for this album’s entire philosophy, as it is embodied by intuitive shifts between styles, motifs and, most importantly, time signatures. Parallax is littered with time changes that serve as one of the many devices that the band employ to keep the record’s sound fresh throughout. In ‘67000 MPH’, these changes are made very obvious to the listener, without ever feeling forced or unnecessary. This is lead by Anton Eger’s flamboyant and versatile drumming. The changes on much of the rest of the record are a little more subtle, which makes this opening track feel like something of a mission statement. It’s as if the band is saying “this is our concept, but pay attention because this is the clearest we’re going to make it”. It moves at a roaring pace, which makes it all the more exciting when it comes to an abrupt halt.
The record has two very distinct sides: slow and contemplative, contrasted by fast and maniacal. Most of the tracks spend the majority of their allotted time falling into one side or the other, but there are occasions in almost every track where a passage is played that bridges the gap. The record’s second track, ‘Ok Corale’ is a welcome contrast with the opener as it is more focused on an interesting harmonic journey than a rhythmic one. Despite the driving momentum provided by the steady bass line and drum beat, the track still feels somewhat slow and steady, but as previously mentioned, there comes a moment towards the end of the track, where all three musicians let rip all of the frustrated energy that has been building up throughout the piece, resulting in a rather frantic final act, which is characterised by a fantastic, call and response drum solo that builds into the track’s dramatic full stop. Other tunes, like ‘A Kite For Seamus’ and ‘A Silver Moon’, are also relatively measured. I found ‘A Silver Moon’ to be particularly serene. It is certainly the record’s most staid track, and gives Ivo Neame a bit of a rest, as the piano isn’t given a frantic melodic idea to carry. This allows for Høiby’s bass playing to take centre stage, which is always welcome as he is an incredibly expressive performer.
I would suggest that Parallax is driven further, by the more energetic entries to the track list. ‘Just 4 Now’ and ‘Manioc Maniac’ feel like high action set pieces. They directly convey a sense of frustration and restlessness which the other tracks on the album merely implied, heavily. ‘Manioc Maniac’ has a real sense of joy to it, defined by its almost bluesy piano melody, whilst ‘Just 4 Now’ gets the heart racing with a series of high octane traded solos between Høiby and Neame. Neither of these tracks, however, hold a candle to the spectacle that is Parallax’s glorious finale. The success of ‘Rabat’ lies in its ability to ignite one’s visceral connection to the song, whilst providing a whole lot for the analytical listener to pick apart. Two things struck me immediately when I first listened to this piece. Firstly, the intro makes incredibly satisfying use of polyrhythms by introducing each instrument slightly out of sync with the last, which makes the point at which the three musicians come together, rhythmically, all the more rewarding. Secondly, I was amazed by how harmonically varied this track was, despite the use of a melodic device that rooted the entire tune around one repeated note. In fact, ‘Rabat’ has the most gratifying harmonic progression on the entire record. This final entry is where Parallax is at its most actively engaging, due to it’s catchy chord progressions, atmospheric bow screeching, and truly thunderous bass playing from Høiby at the track’s energetic climax. As the record comes to a close, Phronesis reminds the listener of their mission statement once more with a couple of particularly on the nose time changes, before the album falls to silence. It’s as if they’re saying “Got it? Good.”
Since finding out about them earlier this year, I have listened to, and thoroughly enjoyed, nearly all of Phronesis’ recorded material. One of the things I really love about the trio is their willingness to try something wildly different with every new release. On Parallax, Høiby, Neame and Eger have shown how far a group whose musical minds have such a deep connection can take a very simple concept, and that they can ride it to triumph at 67000 mph.