Polar Bear is not the kind of name most people would associate with a jazz ensemble, but then again, I'm sure many people would not consider Polar Bear to actually be a jazz ensemble (but those of you who have read this blog know that I would). I must confess that this group, which just released its fourth album, Peepers, was not on my radar when I got an e-mail about them from a publicist at their record label. But oh, how glad I am to know about them now. Led by drummer Sebastian Rochford, Polar Bear fuses jazz, old-school rhythm and blues, and alt-rock into a wonderful amalgam (rockjazz?) which puts a smile on my face when I hear it.
From the opening track of Peepers, titled Happy For You, you can tell that this album will tread off the beaten path. Rochford's drumming is a bouncy delight, busy without sounding cluttered. He favors a hard, almost shuffle-like groove over traditional swing rhythms, and brings a great deal of energy to the table, giving saxophonists Pete Wareham and Mark Lockheart a nice platform. Guitarist Leafcutter John comps with a steady strumming pattern, playing plain, unaugmented chords that give the saxophonists plenty of room to explore. The rhythm section is anchored by bassist Tom Herbert, who stays on top of the beat and matches John's spareness, often staying on the root of each chord.
A highlight of the album is the title track, which is embedded below. The head reminds me of a Black Keys song, featuring a backbeat reminiscent of Ray Charles filtered through a crunchy guitar. Arranged creatively (the saxophones and guitar take turns being the melodic and accompanying instruments), it sticks in your head easily (and you don't mind that it stays awhile).
My favorite track, though, is the sprawling but brief Hope Every Day Is a Happy New Year. The tune features a simple riff repeated by the saxophones over Leafcutter John's electronic noises. The melody can't help but stick in your brain. After a minute and a half of melody, one of the saxophonists (I'm not sure which is which since they both play tenor) begins a solo full of honks over cartoon-like noises comped by Leafcutter John. This leads into a quiet calm, then silence, and a wonderful segue into the next track, Want To Believe Everything.
As of this writing, Polar Bear has no US dates on their itinerary. Promoters and organizers of America, make a Polar Bear American tour happen! Have them open for Spoon or another indie rock band, book them at a few festivals, or pair them up with a similarly adventurous jazz outfit like The Bad Plus. Such a tour won't break records, but it will surely make some money, which is rarely a sure thing in jazz these days.
Bonus material follows after the jump...
Polar Bear's official site (which is in need of a redesign... red text on a black background hurts the eyes)
Rochford has a mixtape up on Soundcloud which I rather enjoyed.
Bruce Lindsay interviewed Polar Bear for All About Jazz in February.
Polar Bear plays The Love Didn't Go Anywhere live:
Track Listing: Happy For You; Bap Bap Bap; Drunken Pharoah; The Love Didn't Go Anywhere; A New Morning Will Come; Peepers; Bump; Scream; Hope Every Day Is A Happy New Year; Want To Believe Everything; Finding Our Feet; All Here
Personnel: Pete Wareham, Mark Lockheart, tenor saxophone; Leafcutter John, guitar, Tom Herbert, bass; Sebastian Rochford, drums