Clambering through the sardine-packed crowd in Gorilla was a sure indicator of GoGo Penguin’s popularity. Returning to their hometown of Manchester, the energetic jazz trio packed out the intimate venue hidden away under one of the city’s many railway arches.
After an emotionally-charged and carefully restrained opener from Jens Kuross, the group jump straight in with the punchy and dramatic ‘Raven’ – Chris Illingworth’s piano enjoying a moment of solitude before Nick Blacka joins on the double bass, slowly building the tension with sharp, muted, bow-strokes. Breaking through the tension, drummer Rob Turner launches straight into the band’s signature fast-paced, dance-infused rhythm – GoGo Penguin are home.
Straight away, the performers are demonstrating their versatility – Blacka’s mastery over the bass takes his sound from operatic backing to high-speed licks and everywhere in-between, the drums bring an electric energy to the music which is often absent in jazz. The trio move onto ‘Bardo’, another single from their new album ‘A Humdrum Star’. The performance is slick, never missing a beat, and the crowd are left looking for the synths, the drum machines, instead finding only the raw power of the musicians.
‘A Hundred Moons’ transports the audience to a faraway land, a slow sultry groove meanders through the most gentle drums of the night, marking a change of pace from the frenetic opening. Moving onto ‘Strid’, the band once again demonstrate their technical prowess – this is the jazziest song yet. The dialogue between the musicians is flawless, they function like a well-oiled machine, except better than a machine since machines only make phones and crisps, no machine can make music this good.
The energy builds up again, the atmosphere in the room is a putty in the bands’ hands – Turner glides effortlessly over the drums, exhibiting such a casual control; he makes it looks almost easy. It is in the drums you can really get a feel for the trio’s influencers – the speed of the drums harks back to Manchester’s sweaty warehouse scene and sets the group apart from the jazz scene into which they are often pigeonholed. There’s a cinematic essence to Blacka’s bass, too, with broad, powerful bow-strokes reminiscent of a Hans Zimmer epic. Repetition is used sparingly, and to good effect; Illingsworth’s catchy refrains punch through the tension, powerfully grasping the audience’s attention. When not delivering these anthemic melodies, Illingsworth goes wild on the piano, garnering rapturpous applause from the crowd mid-song on multiple occasions.
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The group finish up on ‘Protest’, an erratic and emotionally charged piece that brings the night to a dramatic climax. The lack of a vocalist is more than made up for in the frenzied and yet articulated dialogue between the musicians, able to dive in and out of each other’s way with effortless grace. Though not a front-man per sé, Nick Blacka handles the crowd interaction, thanking the audience and bidding farewell in time for a “very tight curfew” – resulting in perhaps the first genuinely surprising encore, the group return to the stage to finish up on ‘Window’, a multi-faceted arrangement with chaotic piano melodies and reflective breakdowns.
Rapturous applause brings the performance (and the UK stint of the bands tour) to an end – the trio are due in Tokyo next week. It’s a Saturday night in Manchester City Centre, that pent up energy certainly isn’t going to go to waste.
‘A Humdrum Star’ is out now via Blue Note Records