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Harmony that Can Fly

How do the motifs of electronic dance music find their way into the music of a classical jazz trio? GoGo Penguin from Manchester connects worlds far apart in an unexpectedly harmonious way.

“If jazz has a place, that’s its place: the experimental world and just going for it!”

– said Rob Turner, drummer of GoGo Penguin, around the time the group’s second CD was released in 2014. Titled v2.0, it is perhaps the most important milestone in the Manchester trio’s career to date, not just because they were nominated for a Mercury Prize, which always garners emerging bands a good deal of public attention, but because it was with this album that the band managed to formulate their characteristic sound in such a pronounced way that it essentially still has an effect to this day.

The music of GoGo Penguin is so refined, free of excess, and continually pushing towards a well-defined goal, that describing it as experimental is not necessarily the first term that comes to mind (at least not in the unrestrained sense often linked to the concept). Yet on their four CDs so far, the trio has indeed apparently created disarmingly natural connections between very distant worlds. Chris Illingworth’s characteristically minimalist piano melodies reminiscent of Philip Glass sway the compositions in an ink-blue, ethereally melancholy world, while the rhythm section filters out what it needs from the tradition of improvised jazz and electronic dance music. The impulse of the latter comes primarily from drum and bass, but another clear influence is Four Tet’s early, folktronica period, with his approach of piling nuanced, subtle gestures one on top of the other. The unique, intense pulse of the songs constantly reminds the listener of the indivisible link that jazz has to danceable music, but at the same time it’s no accident that the trio’s most ambitious project thus far has been to compose new, lyrically-charged music for the American visual tone poem, Koyaanisqatsi – Life Out of Balance, thus inviting comparison to Glass’s 1982 original.

In spite of this, GoGo Penguin is more a band that takes smaller steps. On their CDs, released every two years, the trio mostly only fine-tunes; in line with this, A Humdrum Star, released last year, presents the densest variant of the band’s ideas to date. They continue to stick to the fundamental concept according to which they roll the flow of sound forward with traditional, acoustic instruments, while also making use of delicate noises familiar from electronic music. The audience at the Budapest Spring Festival will hear a refined band in its prime, who can be simultaneously meditative and powerfully sweeping, unshakably disciplined and dauntlessly playful.

András Greff

This article was first published in the BSF Magazine.

April 10 | 8 pm
Müpa Budapest – Béla Bartók National Concert Hall
GoGo Penguin
The members of the band: Chris Illingworth – piano, Nick Blacka – double bass, Rob Turner – drums