The Jazz Club Vol. 3 – GoGo Penguin, Portico Quartet, and Other Man Made Objects

When Scott and I started up The Jazz Club the better part of a year ago, we had intended to make this a monthly feature that would give us and other Heavy Blog staff members a forum to discuss music from all over the jazz spectrum, both new and old. Given the fact that we only got through two articles and the last one was from July 2015, clearly we have fallen well short of that goal. But now we’re back, and we’re more determined than ever to make this a regular monthly column. We already have several topics lined up that we’re really excited to dive into in future editions.

For our comeback piece though, we’ve chosen another recent release that’s attracted a surprising amount of crossover and mainstream appeal, acoustic piano trio GoGo Penguin‘s Man Made Object (you can find my writeup of the album here). Along the way we also discuss a couple of other groups who have been blending groove-heavy jazz with electronic elements and influences, Portico Quartet and Skalpel. Scott and I were joined by fellow editor Eden for this one, and our conversation definitely ran a bit on the long side, but we’ve decided to keep it largely intact as we really enjoyed where it went. We hope you enjoy it, too!


Eden Kupermintz: Let me begin by protesting Nick’s unjust reign over us.

Nick Cusworth: I am the fucking law. Anyway, so, we all here and ready to start?

Eden Kupermintz: Yessir.

Scott Murphy: Yes, I have my notes open and tea steeping

Eden Kupermintz: My notes is the album itself, get on my musical level.

Nick Cusworth: I just got my tea, because apparently in Jazz Club we drink our tea and talk like civilized human beings. Unlike the other barbarians on staff.

Eden Kupermintz: The staff is literally the Mongols and jazz is Prague.

Nick Cusworth: ANYWAY, so let’s begin. First off, HELLO. It’s been a while since we’ve done this. We’re a few months late to be talking about New Year’s resolutions, but one of our resolutions this year is to make Jazz Club a more regular thing again with a more regular cast of characters participating.

Scott Murphy: Agreed; Nick and I have been bringing it up for a while now, but you know, life blog is life.

Eden Kupermintz: It’s especially important to add different voices to genre-specific discussions, since genres are, almost by definition, echo chambers.

Scott Murphy: Exactly, which is why we brought some outside perspectives into our Coleman discussion.

Nick Cusworth: Which is a good way to lead into talking about the subject of our discussion today, GoGo Penguin, because I think these guys stretch the definition of what modern jazz is further than anyone else we’ve talked about so far. I still can’t really accurately describe what they are exactly.

So, first off, let’s talk about their newest album, Man Made Object. What’s everyone’s general thoughts on it. I know Eden and I are of similar minds about it (i.e. it’s great), but I’m genuinely interested in knowing how you feel about it, Scott.

Scott Murphy: Hm…maybe we should have an onion sandwich on this one. I’m more mixed, personally, so it’d be cool if you two bookend my thoughts.

Eden Kupermintz: I’ll start then. When I first heard v2.0, their previous album, the first track, “Murmuration” was by far my favorite track. Something about the mix of warm yet ultimately morose intonations just got to the core of me. When the rest of the album was more upbeat, all but one track, I still loved it but was disappointed. Man Made Object then is perfect for me.

They’ve really brought the more melancholic parts of their sound to the fore, especially in the interaction between the piano and the bass, which for me is what makes GoGo Penguin so special. I’ve never quite heard piano and bass utilized in this manner. “Branches Break” is perhaps the best example. Just the tension between the more prolonged bass tones and the piano cutting them up, is amazing to me.

Nick Cusworth: I think interaction is really at the heart of what GoGo Penguin is about, which seems like a silly thing to say because interaction is really what the basis of all jazz is – a musical discussion. But these guys have a much different interpretation of what that interaction can be, and all of their music is focused first and foremost on that sort of interplay and interlocking melodies, rhythms, and grooves.

Also, I agree that this album is far more expressive than their previous work. Their last album, v2.0, drew a lot of comparisons to The Bad Plus, another experimental piano trio known for a generally brighter style. Man Made Object is much more complex than what they’ve done in the past though.

Scott Murphy: Alright, I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t like Man Made Object the first time I heard it; at all. I’m glad that we postponed this conversation a week, because it allowed me to formulate a more level-headed and detailed opinion. It’s still not overwhelmingly positive, but I have more of an appreciation for GoGo now than I did, and I feel comfortable saying that I enjoyed a fair amount of what MMO had to offer.

Nick Cusworth: What would you say are your biggest reservations about the band? What gave you such a negative impression of it initially, and how did that change upon repeat listens?

Scott Murphy: Initially, my primary complaints centered on how the record sounds and what I feel the record is missing. To me, the album as a whole – but especially the piano – sound way to pristine and robotic.

One of the things I love about jazz is how warm and full of emotion it is; there’s nothing like throwing on a great modal jazz record while drinking a glass of red wine. But with GoGo, everything just feels a bit too cold and calculated. I definitely feel the melancholy vibes you guys are talking about, and I think they come through on quite a few piano phrasings that I love. The opening melody of “Unspeakable World” is fantastic, and overall I love how Chris Illingworth is able to create a fair amount of balance with his playing. But still, as the album went on, I found myself growing more and more annoyed with just how clean the piano sounds; for me, it takes away from the emotion of his writing.

But more importantly, what I came to realize is that the absence of brass/woodwind bothered me more. If I’m listening to this correctly, it seems like Nick Blacka creates some low hums with his bass on some parts, where the bowing of strings resembles a the low reverberations of a tenor sax. Once I honed in on these, this problem clicked for me: I just can’t get over how simplistic and empty a lot of these tracks sound without any additional instrumentation.

Now, a couple of things are clear: these guys work phenomenally well as a trio, and they’re all excellent players. And like I said, Illingworth does do a great job of creating depth and contrast with his playing. But still, there were several times where I could picture one or more of his phrasings in a track being replaced with some brass or woodwind. I don’t think a trumpet would fit well, but a tenor sax or trombone here and there would have added a lot more depth and variety, a bit more than Illingworth can do on his own.

Nick Cusworth: Eden, you wanna respond first?

Scott Murphy: ”Respond,” aka “Unleash wrath”

Nick Cusworth: The Hebrew Hammer is coming for you.

Eden Kupermintz: Funnily enough, that’s what I liked about this album, as a non-“jazz-head”. I often find jazz to be too cluttered and mostly too reliant on what you call “natural sound”. This is something which also doesn’t really bother me with metal: I’ve never laid the critique of “too clean” on any band except the absolute worst, over produced stuff out there.

For me, the fact that there are only these three instruments really elevates the whole thing into a level of emotional delivery. In addition, I found enough “natural” or more improvisational points on the album. “Smarra” for example or, even more pointedly, “Gbfisysih”. That last track in particular is just an amazing, amazing, AMAZING track and the bass sounds super natural and from the heart to me.

I understand your critique focuses mostly on the piano, but I guess I’m used to piano being used like this for metal. A lot of power metal and prog (see, Dream Theater or Pain of Salvation) use synths and piano in a clear-cut, straight forward manner so it bothers me less.

Slight hammering.

Scott Murphy: See, I’m picky with prog and power metal is one of my least favorite genres, so I’m kind of on the opposite end of the spectrum. Similarly, the natural sound aspect of jazz is probably what I love so much about it.

Eden Kupermintz: Yeah, I just never “got” the whole natural sound thing. I mean, you’re obviously listening to a worked on creation when you’re listening to a CD. Even “natural” sound is created by amps, mixes, masters, mics, etc., especially today. I think the only situation in which natural sound is a point I like to make is when I see live shows. That’s where the interaction means more than the accuracy to me.

When I listen to albums, I want stuff to be a lot of things, like interesting, accurate, well composed and recorded, but natural just doesn’t happen to be one of them.

Scott Murphy: For me, the fact that a lot of classic jazz records were just “that day’s session” and are composed of organic spontaneous performances based around a few central ideas/riffs is a huge turn on. It just feels so real and personal and genuine, drawing directly from what was in the player at that very moment in time.

A lot of jazz classics could have turned out a lot differently based on even the tiniest of variables, and that’s special to me. These records exist as snapshots in time that captured musical genius at its best

Nick Cusworth: I’m also not particularly bothered by the instrumentation and sound, but I like piano trios in general. The point that fascinates me more, though, is the “cold” and “calculated” aspects of it. I feel like there’s a pretty stark divide in certain parts of the jazz community on that point. I had a friend of mine call it “white boy jazz,” and another staff member, Jimmy Two (yes, that is how we all refer to him), ended up bowing out of this conversation for similar reasons. This is definitely not jazz as most people consider it. It’s much more influenced by outside elements like electronic composition (something we’ll be talking about more here), minimalist classical works, and more, but played through the framework of an acoustic jazz trio. How do you both feel about the music in respect to that? Is it jazz? Is it good jazz, or is it something else entirely?

Eden Kupermintz: Honestly, I don’t know a lot about what makes up jazz. I have some education that I gathered over the years but not too much. That being said, I feel that the type of drumming here is something we haven’t really talked about yet and it’s very jazz influenced.

Risking self contradiction, I do agree though that it borrows a lot from areas out of jazz. Two acts that come to mind are Ulver and Deaf Center. They both mix a lot of warm sounds with much darker stuff and also lean on the same ambient use of bass as a thick, resonating instrument that fills up the space behind the rest of the instruments.

Scott Murphy: Honestly, other than the drumming and a few ambient passages, I really didn’t get a huge electronic vibe from the album. I do feel that a jazz label is warranted here, but I also feel like a modern classical tag is appropriate, perhaps even more so.

I enjoy piano driven jazz as well; Jimmy Two introduced me to Bill Evans, who I love, and who the fuck doesn’t love Vince Guaraldi‘s “Peanuts” compositions. But for me, GoGo hit me in a very different way. Evans and Guaraldi pull me into an intimate, emotionally naked environment, whereas GoGo made me feel more like a spectator to what they’re doing on MMO.

Eden Kupermintz: By the way, go listen to “Recount” by Deaf Center, right now.

Scott Murphy: I’m not sure if that answers your question, Nick. I feel like Portico Quartet’s S/T is an excellent example of how to marry jazz and electronic and make it work.

Nick Cusworth: In my mind, this feels much closer to Aphex Twin than, say, Kamasi Washington, or even a Bill Evans. You can tell it’s still largely improvisation-based (or at least started that way and then the group refined it), but it’s not blues-based, it’s not “soulful,” and it’s not particularly technical in the same way that most jazz is. It’s very technical in its group interplay, but no one solos.

And I think it’s very interesting that this was released on Blue Note, which has been about as representative and symbolic of JAZZ as anything else.

Scott Murphy: Definitely agree with you there, Nick; I think this being released on Blue Note is perhaps the most interesting part of this entire album, for me at least.

Nick Cusworth: But I think it’s those outside influences we’re citing that are causing some more traditional jazz fans to chafe. It’s not coming from the same place, even if the instruments and elements are there.

Eden Kupermintz: Let me ask a noob question here: what do you see as the place jazz is coming from? I always shy away from these discussions in metal because I know how much more complicated it is than a single place or perspective, but you seem to be dancing around some sort of core-concept of what jazz is and how GoGo aren’t coming from there.

Nick Cusworth: I mean, if you want to go all the way to the beginning, jazz comes from the blues.

Eden Kupermintz: Well yeah, but that’s historical.

I’m taking emotionally, mentally.

Nick Cusworth: I mean, I think it’s just that. Jazz, for most people, comes from the same emotional place that the blues do. It’s about the technicality and such, but more fundamentally, it’s about the feeling BEHIND the notes.

Scott Murphy: Blues is also a deep part of the sonics of jazz. The way in which a lot of jazz greats poured emotion through their instruments – particularly sax and trumpet, for me – defines jazz as very dialogue intensive genre.

“So What” from Kind of Blue, for example, has an incredibly laid back, almost lazy vibe, and that tone is set by Miles Davis‘ playing. The opening riff literally says “so what” played through his trumpet. And the way in which jazz players riff through their instrument is another great example. John Coltrane was an absolute GIANT in this respect; his mastery of the sax constantly drips with emotion. Listening to A Love Supreme gives perfect insight into the spiritual awakening he was having. And of course, when we had our Jazz Club on Ornette Coleman, we talked extensively about how his playing captured the chaotic, pained roots of blues music, and that while it might sound random and chaotic, it’s really channeling what Coleman had to say as an individual on a personal level.

Nick Cusworth: Right, even if Coleman was playing shit wayyyy outside of traditional jazz forms, he was still communicating many of the same emotions and coming from a similar place in terms of that.

Eden Kupermintz: So what’s missing in GoGo?

Scott Murphy: As I said earlier, I feel like the lack of a sax or trumpet or trombone makes this difficult for GoGo to achieve; for me, it’s easier to convey these types of emotion with these instruments than it is with a piano alone. I know I’m alone in how I feel about Illingworth’s piano tone, but I find the way his playing sounds and how it often dominates the rhythm section to make it hard to fully appreciate and understand the emotional message that the band as a whole is trying to convey.

I know you and Nick feel differently than I do, so you and/or he may be able to answer that in a different way.
But I don’t want to come off as saying that it’s impossible to do this with just a piano; not my comments from earlier about Evans and Guaraldi

Nick Cusworth: I think it’s very possible to achieve that with a piano trio though. It’s more in just how it’s played. It doesn’t swing. Chris Illingworth plays very straight and approaches the piano more classically.

Scott Murphy: Yes, I agree that it is possible to achieve, for sure. I think the playing and production affect my perception of Illingworth’s ability to do this.

Nick Cusworth: Blacka and Turner do provide a somewhat more traditionally jazz grounding in the rhythm and grooves they lay. But it’s also definitely a conscious decision on their part I think to create this sort of disconnect.

Scott Murphy: I think Turner’s playing is the most jazz based of the trio, followed by Blacka (who I feel takes some definite electronic influence in his beats, as I’ve stated above).

Eden Kupermintz: So are we now saying that GoGo is a hybrid of sorts between elements of jazz and elements of modern classical movements or are we saying that this is modern classical music with jazz influences? The distinction is important I think because it says a lot about where we feel and think the music is coming from. The latter irks me a bit because I still do feel that there’s a lot of improvisation and conversation at the basis of this, elements which are missing from classical music for me, whether modern or not.

Nick Cusworth: I think some jazz fans who dislike this music would call it the latter, but I strongly feel it’s the former.

Scott Murphy: I think it’s more of a hybrid than a jazzy modern classical piece. I think the divide in the band’s playing causes this distinction to be necessary, but I agree that calling this a straight up modern classical album wouldn’t be accurate.

Nick Cusworth: If you listen to what they’re actually doing, how they’re listening to each other and building these layers and textures that grow and contract, that is far closer to jazz than your typical through-composed classical piece.

Eden Kupermintz: Yeah, that’s exactly what I was hinting at.

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"We're all fools, all the time. It's just we're a different kind each day. We think, I'm not a fool today. I've learned my lesson. I was a fool yesterday but not this morning. Then tomorrow we find out that, yes, we were a fool today too. I think the only way we can grow and get on in this world is to accept the fact we're not perfect and live accordingly." - Ray Bradbury






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