Portico Quartet – York Hall, London
Boxing clever with the jazz/electronic combo at knockout East End show
Words Tom Quickfall
Photography York Tillyer
In its standard guise, the cavernous York Hall in Bethnal Green is a boxing venue; the resplendent, 1920s veneer of its walls and balconies having stood witness to the sweat and the fear of many a bout in their time. What better place, then, to stage a performance by a modern jazz quartet who dabble in electronica, and who, after the release of their recent third album, have fully matured into a frightening live beast ready to deliver their progressive new sound to a capacity crowd.
That third album, Portico Quartet’s self-titled coming of age, provides the bedrock of their riveting 75-minute-plus set — perhaps being most conducive to the tight, jazz-infused electronica they now purvey. The urban jazz of earlier material occasionally pokes out its head — most notably on expanded versions of ‘Dawn Patrol’ and ‘Clipper’ from transitional second album Isla — and the foursome still occasionally take the time to demonstrate their considerable chops, but the complete exclusion of any tracks from Mercury-nominated debut Knee Deep In The North Sea fully underlines the group’s forward-thinking nature.
With double bass player Milo Fitzpatrick serenely holding court centre stage, drummer Duncan Bellamy performs rhythmical acrobatics in coaxing blips and samples from a selection of knobs, buttons and drums machines in front of him, sometimes ordaining to hit his kit too. Sax player Jack Wyllie, despite losing an instrument to theft at a recent Madrid date, periodically transitions between blowing the incessantly catchy melodies of ‘Spinner’ and filling in with subtle keyboard work, while Keir Vine is charged with hang duties — the inverted wok-shaped tuned percussion instrument that was once so crucial to the Portico Quartet sound now takes on a more harmonic role in the group’s more rhythm-based workouts.
And it’s these workouts that truly amaze. The minimal, brooding of ‘4096 Colours’ from the new album is transformed live into a stunning exercise in mesmeric IDM, its intricate arrangement forming the fulcrum of a set that manages to fit in contemplative ambience (‘Window Seat’), Bonobo-inflected beats (‘Ruins’), and polyrhythmic slow-builds (‘City Of Glass’).
So confident in their abilities are they that even an unnamed piece written in rehearsal the previous day — centred around a cyclic hang phrase and a healthy reliance on intuitive improvisation — doesn’t let up with the intensity. Sultry vocalist Cornelia, fresh from a nervy looking solo set of her own, reappeared for an encore of the delicate ‘Steepless’ from the new album — her performance infinitely more confident and alluring this time around.
It’s a faultless set: a proficient expansion of the group’s recent studio work. Portico Quartet aren’t just knocking on the door of experimental dance music, they are leading it in new and exciting directions.