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The British group’s experimental approach is helping to market jazz to a younger audience
IN RECENT years the British jazz scene has been revived by new ideas. Dynamic and vibrant, it has broken out of the confines of niche, stale clubs, and opened itself up to youthful audiences. Portico Quartet, a London-based group, have been responsible for a large part of that change.
The band met, as many do, while at university and began busking on London’s South Bank and around Europe. Their music relies on some standard instruments—saxophone, drums, double-bass—as well as electronics and a hang drum, a more unusual steel device resembling a flying saucer, invented in Switzerland at the turn of the millennium. “We had it from fairly early on and no one had any idea what it was,” recalls Duncan Bellamy, the band’s drummer. The hang drum’s captivating sound proved the catalyst for the band’s early success.?
Portico Quartet were quickly signed to Babel, a label associated with Vortex, London’s premier hipster jazz venue. The hang drum features prominently throughout the band’s debut album, its rich sound adding depth as well as driving the music forward (this is particularly true of the title track, “Knee-Deep in the North Sea”). That album was nominated for British music’s most prestigious award, the Mercury Prize, in 2008. “It wasn’t a massive shock, but still quite unexpected,” Mr Bellamy remembers. “Back then we were quite a random outfit, even our peers weren’t listening to jazz.”?
The band returned in 2009 with “Isla”, recorded at Abbey Road studios, an album that ten years on still feels innovative. “Paper Scissors Stone”, the opening track, features Jack Wyllie leading on the saxophone, complemented by the percussion. But in 2011 the band were forced to change tack when Nick Mulvey, their hang-drum player, quit the group to pursue a career as a singer-songwriter (he was replaced by Keir Vine). They spent a brief period as a trio, releasing an album in 2015 under the name “Portico”, but fans were left confused by the change of direction. “For me, I really liked it [the album]”, recalls Mr Wyllie, “But it was hard to reconcile that with the [reaction from the] fan base.”
The band took a break from music to pursue other projects. “For a long time we felt like we didn’t really fit,” Mr Bellamy says. “It was kind of tough: we’d go play these jazz festivals in these small German towns and it would just be really old people who didn’t connect. And then we’d play techno festivals and we’d be really underpowered, we really couldn’t compete, it was not set up for us,” he adds.?
The break was restorative. After signing with Gondwana Records, a jazz label founded by Matthew Halsall, an accomplished trumpeter, Portico Quartet returned with “Art in the Age of Automation” (2017). The album won critical acclaim, bringing old fans back and earning some new listeners, too. For a long time the genre-hopping had left the band “caught in between worlds” Mr Wyllie says. Lately they have found that listeners are increasingly comfortable with hybrid jazz sounds. The experimental approach taken by Portico Quartet—which has been described as a mixture between Radiohead and the Cinematic Orchestra—is not dissimilar to that of Nils Frahm or Olafur Arnalds, two contemporary classical musicians who incorporate elements of techno. Mr Bellamy says that they offer “jazz, for sure” but enjoy throwing minimalist, electronic beats into the mix. “The best music always draws on different stuff,” Mr Wyllie argues.?
The band will release their fifth studio album later this year, which will draw on experiences old and new, acoustic and techno sounds. During a recent audio-visual show at the Science Museum in London, marking the new exhibition “The Sun: Living With Our Star”, the band showed off their mastery of these different musical elements. The young crowd was enraptured, admiring the solar imagery. It was a fitting setting: over the past decade, the world has come into Portico Quartet’s orbit.?