A few years ago, a group of like-minded London jazz artists decided it was time for people to hear their music. They set up a label called Babel, headed by the mighty Oliver Weindling. These people shared a vision of music based on their frustrations at the jazz world. They saw both the staleness of 17-minute vibraphone modal harmonic solos and the self-indulgence of never-ending free-jazz improvisations, with saxophones being hit with sledgehammers and basses being played with table legs. And they grew frustrated with jazz aficionados, who all assembled neatly around candlelit dining tables dotted with olives and luxurious cheeses, stroking their carefully trimmed beards in intellectual appreciation. So they — specifically, saxophonist Pete Wareham and drummer Sebastian Rochford — formed a London jazz-punk group called Acoustic Ladyland, a dissonant collective touting aggressive jazz delivered in easily digestible chunks.
Its mellower cousin, however, was Polar Bear, chiefly conducted by Rochford. This does not mean to say they don’t have attitude, as their brooding self-titled debut was to attest. In fact, they’ve since received a Mercury nomination for their attitude-heavy second album Held On The Tips Of Fingers, which blended together an upbeat series of shapeshifting melodies, searing outbreaks of saxophone noise and complex polyrhythms, and forays into electronics courtesy of new addition Leafcutter John. Their third and also self-titled album brought their electronic manipulations to the forefront with a curious blend of spliced field recordings and circuit-board mess.
So we arrive at Peepers. It’s been a long journey, and considering they keep piling on the innovation with each album, where do Polar Bear go from here? One might assume that the electronics would be further emphasized, but Leafcutter John has in fact reduced his electronic input this time around, opting instead to tout guitar loops and his own vocal cords. The focus, then, is placed back on the interplay between the two saxophones, drums, and bass. This bit of simplification works wonders, with their guttural melting pot of catchy sax hooks and dissonant soloing apparent from the offset with the joyous, almost danceable opener “Happy For You.” The title track, meanwhile, displays their unique song structures, with both saxophones in improvised passages interweaving as ferociously as before. Then there’s the 30-second outbursts “Bump” and “Scream,” two fingers indignantly up to anyone who thought they might be getting a little soft.
Contrastingly, Peepers also reveals a graceful side of Polar Bear untapped in previous efforts. “A New Morning Will Come” opens with the strained exhale through brass, proceeding at a crawling tempo through beautiful harmonies and aching sax output, while “Finding Our Feet” claims six minutes of undulating ethnic drone, all created with astonishing fluency from the instruments and Leafcutter John’s vocal mantras at their disposal. Four albums in, Polar Bear are clearly trying new things, ensuring that their brand of jazz-punk remains at the forefront of forward-thinking jazz music with an incessant desire to rebel against current trends.