Improvisations Hanging On A Hang Drum
One would be forgiven for thinking that you’d come to a Sun Ra Arkestra concert by mistake at World Café Live last night. Arrayed at the front of the stage were a trio of flying saucer-shaped objects, sitting on stands, looking ready for takeoff.
Portico Quartet’s “Life Mask”
Those objects were the Hang Drum, and it’s a central sound of Portico Quartet, an English ensemble who played a concert of unusual introspection and intensity.
The Hang drum, invented in Switzerland around 2000, is a metal instrument that sounds like a cross between a steel drum, gamelan gong and African kalimba. Nick Mulvey plays his trio of Hangs with mallets, setting up modal cycles that underpinned the band’s improvisations like a shifting, jeweled river of sound. He mixes exoticism with a minimalist’s sense of austerity, while avoiding smooth jazz steel drum sound hokiness.
Portico Quartet goes for a spacious, contemplative sound on their latest album, Isla, but I was surprised to hear them maintain that mood in concert. Where most bands usually amp up the intensity live, Portico Quartet stayed true to their music from the first composition, “Paper Scissors Stone.” A drone of bass, shimmering cymbal strokes and a tinkling shimmer from the Hang Drum that sounded like a distant dawn paved the way for a swirling composition led by Jack Wylie playing a curved soprano saxophone and calling up the spirit of John Coltrane and Terry Riley circa “Poppy Nogood.” He has a gift for melodic invention, and brings a certain 60’s jazz freedom to the group.
This is a band built on collective improvisation and subtle sound sculpting. Wylie and drummer Duncan Bellamy used electronic effects. Bellamy sometimes put reverb on his drums, looped chimes and bells or used a reverse delay on a xylophone. Wylie often sent his horns into loops, layering drones that wove into the orchestration. He opened “Life Mask” playing a melodica, setting up a droning chord that he sent into a loop, creating the meditative floor of this haunting work.
Portico Quartet is deceptive. They are clothing outside jazz improvisations in a serene sheath. To a fault, perhaps, each piece usually builds out of silence, reaches a furious peak of wailing sax and tumbling rhythm and then returns to a contemplative state, leaving you somewhat breathless and with a lingering feeling of “What happened there?”
The band is never airy or facile, and the muscular double-bass work of Milo Fitzpatrick assured that they always had a forward drive. They didn’t really cut loose until the last song, “Dawn Patrol.” It’s an explosive piece that starts with Pharaoh Sanders-like squall of saxophone before moving into a drum and sax duet that recalled Coltrane and Rashid Ali’s duets from Interstellar Space. At that point the Hang Drums levitated and in formation, flew out of the room.
Except for the two women at the bar who wouldn’t STFU, they held the audience in rapt attention, following every nuance of this meticulous music. Sadly, monsoon rains held down the size to only about 25 fortunate but soggy souls.
Next Wednesday on Echoes, I’ll have a host of Hang Drums as we feature new music played on this instrument, including Portico Quartet.
Hear an Echoes Interview with Portico Quartet.
John Diliberto ((( echoes )))