Patrick Widdess reports on Polar Bear – The Junction, Cambridge, 24 February 2010

Artist Visiting Cambridgeshire

The quietly confident Polar Bear have nudged their way to the forefront of the modern jazz scene in recent years with international tours, a Mercury Music Prize nomination and invitations to play with everyone from Portishead to the Mighty Boosh. They could be feeling the pressure but the vibrant quintet seem to be taking it all in their stride. They are poised to release their new album Peepers which judging by tonight’s gig offers a rich collection of sounds blended to make music that is constantly fresh and exhilarating.
Polar Bear take the roots of jazz music and constantly find new ways to reinvent them. They seem to have taken jazz in all its forms and mixed it up with a bit of rock and electronica. As a result each piece sounds nothing like the last and is bursting with ideas and innovation. The opening number is an uplifting soundscape that evokes fantasy worlds of dragons, unicorns, great battles between armies of warriors wielding swords and axes as far as the eye can see. This is followed by an energetic piece of upbeat percussion and wild saxophone, the sound swelling to that of a big band.
Unlike some experimental groups, Polar Bear have the courtesy to do their experimenting in private, perfect the best results and blend them into their original compositions which constantly take you by surprise (though I draw the line at five-minute unaccompanied double bass solos). Most innovative is Leafcutter John who seems to be constantly finding new ways to make music whether it’s playing guitar with a paint brush or triggering and manipulating sound effects with a games controller. His most avant-garde and visually entertaining trick involved putting the sound of balloon deflating through an effects processor creating what sounded like a hyperactive alien. Far from a silly sound effect, John’s degree of control over the tone produced was impressive and as he duetted with the saxophone it sounded like a bona-fide musical instrument.
The evening’s only hitch came when the laptop crashed at the beginning of the second half which left the human members of the band with nothing to do but stand around while the machine rebooted. ‘Get a proper instrument,’ one cruel spectator shouted. It fell to drummer Seb Rochford to manage the audience. With an outrageous mop of hair and painfully shy voice he makes a peculiar spokesman for the band but was unfazed by the audience participation, coming back at the hecklers with the wit of an experienced standup comic.
Polar Bear don’t need to rely on modern technology to make good music but their ability to utilise every sound making device they can get their hands on, from a rubber balloon to £1000 laptop, adds much to their unique sound. The evening passed quickly and the final piece’s atmospheric soundscape and disembodied voices seemed to return to the fantasy world they conjured up at the start, bringing to an end a surreal voyage across the seven seas of jazz.

Writer: Patrick Widdess