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Polar Bear

Tron Theatre, 22nd June 2008. Part of Glasgow International Jazz Festival.

Polar Bear are one of those bands which divide opinion. Some people see them as the future of British jazz; other see them as an overhyped instrumental rock band with no real jazz credentials. On the basis of this concert, my first prolonged exposure to them, I’d say both of those judgments are too extreme.

They are one of the few bands around to have an instantly recognisable sound, partly due to their slightly unconventional line-up: two tenor saxes, electronics, bass and drums. It’s really the electronics, played by Leafcutter John (real name John Burton) which make them so distinctive. Some of the sounds he makes are purely computer-generated, others are produced by applying distortion, echo and similar effects to sax lines or his own mandolin playing. There seemed to be a fairly clear distribution of labour between the two tenor players: Mark Lockheart took most of the conventional solos, while Pete Wareham concentrated more on producing atmospheric sounds from his instrument, a bit like Pharoah Saunders to Lockheart’s John Coltrane. Seb Rochford, a marvellous drummer, wrote almost all the material and did the introductions, although he came across as too nervous and apologetic to be a good onstage MC. Tom Herbert played heavily-amplified double bass.

On the plus side, they had lots of good ideas; on the negative, I felt too many numbers relied on an atonal freak-out section as a substitute for real development. And if there’s any truth in the rock’n’roll saying “If it’s too loud, you’re too old”, then I’m too old. I found the electronics were too loud much of the time: not just in absolute terms, but because they drowned the saxes out at times. Still, overall it was a good, though definitely not great, gig.

Review by Rob Adams of the Herald, who was more enthusiastic about it than I was.