Ton Maas | March 2009 issue
“Jazz isn’t dead—it just smells funny,” as Frank Zappa once said. And it’s true, the musical form isn’t as healthy as it once was, especially when it’s coming from the U.S. Retro seems to be the way to go these days, at least if making money is the objective. At the same time, Europe has become much more fertile soil for innovation. The four members of the Portico Quartet from England look hardly older than 20. Their music is self-assured, fresh and melodic—a far cry from either smooth retro or quirky experimentation. Their listener-friendly style is reminiscent of the “chamber jazz” pioneered in the 1960s by the American band Oregon, which has faced a similar lack of acceptance in hard-core jazz circles.
Apart from saxophone and double bass, the band consists of two percussionists who not only play the drum set but also the hang, an instrument that resembles a flying saucer from 1950s sci-fi movies. Created in 2000 by two artists from Bern, Switzerland, the instrument is played by hand. Due to variously shaped declivities on its metal surface, the hang sounds like a Caribbean steel drum, a traditional instrument created by poor musicians on the island of Trinidad from the lid of an oil barrel.
The repetitive, rhythmic-melodic patterns played by Duncan Bellamy and Nick Mulvey on the hang give Portico’s music a trance-like feel, akin to the early gamelan-based works of composer Steve Reich. The heavenly sound of the hang is firmly grounded by Milo Fitzpatrick’s deep and resonant bass, and supported by Jack Wyllie’s sometimes-lyrical, sometimes-ripping saxophone. Thus the band creates an effective bridge between jazz, contemporary “classical” and even pop.