Are GoGo Penguin Jazz?
Are GoGo Penguin jazz? Their first album, Fanfares, came out just over a decade ago, in November 2012; it was released on Gondwana, a label run by trumpeter Matthew Halsall, whose own music is quite beautiful spiritual jazz. They stayed with Gondwana for their 2014 breakthrough release, v2.0, but then signed with Blue Note for 2016’s Man Made Object, 2018’s A Humdrum Star, and 2020’s self-titled release, which was followed the next year by the remix album GGP/RMX.
I wrote about that remix album in this column, saying in part, “GoGo Penguin are a group I go back and forth on. I understand the realm in which they dwell, that sort of e.s.t/Dawn Of Midi zone, with a little bit extra on the electronic side. At their blandest, they sound like instrumental versions of early Coldplay, but that’s rare; they generally keep the energy flowing. You could easily have played tracks from their 2020 self-titled album in venues that permitted dancing, if there had been any of those in 2020.”
In 2023, GoGo Penguin have moved on from Blue Note. They’re now on XXIM, which is distributed by Sony and focuses on electronic music and neo-classical. They released a five-track EP, Between Two Waves, last year, and have just put out their sixth full-length, Everything Is Going To Be OK.
The title may well serve as an affirmation/mantra to themselves, as the press release reveals that the band members have gone through some stuff over the last couple of years. Pianist and last remaining original member Chris Illingsworth’s grandmother died; bassist Nick Blacka’s mother and brother both died of cancer within months of each other; and drummer Rob Turner quit. The overarching message of the album seems to be one of resilience and survival — there are tracks with titles like “You’re Stronger Than You Think,” “We May Not Stay,” “Last Breath,” and “Sanctuary.” But when I got on a Zoom call with Illingsworth, Blacka, and new drummer Jon Scott, I didn’t want to ask them about any of that stuff. I mostly wanted to get a sense of how they make their music, what it means to them, and where they see themselves, 10 years in and in the middle of what can only be described as a jazz renaissance.
According to Nick Blacka, the decision to leave Blue Note, having completed their contract, was logical given the trio’s musical direction. “When we signed it was such an amazing thing, and something that we’ll always carry with us as an absolutely incredible moment in our lives and in the life of the band, but we’d just come to the point where we felt like maybe the attachment of Blue Note was a little incongruous to the kind of music that we were starting to make… There’s a lot of expectation from Blue Note and from jazz, and we didn’t feel like we were really fulfilling what people expect from a jazz band anymore, and we wanted that freedom to try different things.”
Indeed, while the music on Everything Is Going To Be OK contains jazzy elements — there’s improvisation, the upright bass is often prominent, and the rhythms sometimes swing — there are so many other things going on that it’s almost impossible to categorize them. A piece like “Friday Film Special” owes more to DJ Shadow than to Brad Mehldau, and “Soon Comes Night” lays a pulsing electronic filter over the keyboard and blasts Scott’s drums through a wash of static and noise.
“What do you call instrumental music with improvisation with this instrumentation?” Illingsworth asks, rhetorically. “I think, you know, you see double bass, piano, drums, you go ‘jazz.’ But one of the best ways for us of thinking about it is, we’re just using the instruments that we play.” When I mention that for me, the key elements of their work have always been sound and melody — they have a real talent for coming up with deceptively simple, earwormy hooks — they agree. It’s very rare that a GoGo Penguin track consists of just piano, upright bass, and drums. There’s always a production effect, or some electronic element, or some kind of tweak that takes it out of the realm of “pure” acoustic music and into a bigger, more widescreen space. And this has the effect of camouflaging just how challenging some of their compositions and performances actually are. They’re extremely skilled musicians who go out of their way to downplay their virtuosity, which is sort of the exact opposite of most jazz musicians their age.
Illingsworth agrees, saying, “We often say people aren’t gonna realize how difficult these things are that we’re doing, because they don’t give that impression of being difficult for the sake of being like, ‘Look at this, look at this technical ability at an instrument.’ But a lot of the things are very challenging, and challenging in strange ways… there’s a lot of spots where I’ll be moving to different instruments like the Eurorack module and the synths and making sure all these instruments have their place and I’m prepared to move to these things, and physically on the piano, a lot of it’s quite demanding and challenging, but it’s never been something I’m thinking about doing because I want people to go, ‘Wow, look at that guy playing the piano.'”
He continues, “I never wanted to be the kind of pianist who was a frontman. I didn’t want it to be a piano trio where it was two other guys in a supporting role. I wanted to be in a band… it’s essential to make sure that whatever I’m playing suits what Jon’s doing and what Nick’s doing, and all these things come together and make this complete entity that’s something different.”
Scott, the newest member of the trio, has a pretty solid jazz background; he’s played with GoGo Penguin’s former label boss, Matthew Halsall, as well as saxophonist Chip Wickham and Ethiopian keyboard legend Mulatu Astatke. But as he points out, he’s also been in rock and salsa bands, and played improvised electronic music, so “all these things kind of go into the mix, and just add to the options, really.”
Coming into a group with the public profile of GoGo Penguin brings with it a certain amount of pressure to perform, something the drummer admits to feeling. “I’ve joined a lot of bands over the years, but generally in a context where you’re a little bit more anonymous, and to come into a situation where it’s three distinct personalities who all shape the music…yeah, that’s a thing, and there are obviously fans of the band who really know [the older material] intimately, so it’s a psychological landscape to deal with.”
He finds himself going back and forth between helping create and shape the new material and finding ways to put his own spin on material that GoGo Penguin created with Turner, and some of his previous experiences have helped him with that. “I’ll say one thing about working with people like Mulatu. It’s very good education in equal roles in a band, finding your space and the music always being the priority over any individual will.” He describes the trio’s music as “very much a team effort… something you do together, because if you do that you can make something better than you can on your own.”
Although many of its 13 tracks are played at relatively slow tempos, Everything Is Going To Be OK has a surprisingly anthemic energy at times, and there are some really gutsy, head-nodding moments, like when Blacka’s bass comes to the fore on “We May Not Stay” and the title track. In general, the pieces, which often fly by in well under three minutes, have the get-to-the-point feeling of modern pop, but are played with the rigor of serious jazz. When asked about the creative process, Blacka says that it was about openness combined with rigorous discipline. “I think we sort of had a change of tack on this record, for various reasons…the challenge that we set ourselves a bit more on this was trying to…not think about coming from a personal ego kind of place but [from] what serves the music, and trying to be really mindful of trimming the fat off things, being quite militant about, ‘We don’t need that, it doesn’t do anything, it doesn’t really serve anything.’ I think we got quite good at being able to recognize when we didn’t need something and take it away.”
So given the dominance of electronic elements and modern pop-friendly production in their music, I had to ask the members of GoGo Penguin how they saw themselves fitting into the contemporary British jazz scene. The first thing they made clear was that since they’re from Manchester and not London, they’re outsiders to the scene even at home. But it goes deeper than that. “We would never describe ourselves as ambassadors for British jazz,” Blacka says. “And that’s no disrespect to British jazz or anything like that. If somebody thinks of us like that, then that’s a compliment, but we would never describe ourselves as that, because – I mean, it’s the jazz word again. To call us a jazz group, it might be quite far-fetched these days, but there is jazz in there.”
Illingsworth adds, “We get people sometimes at gigs going, ‘I don’t really like jazz but I like you guys.’ I think for us, we’ve always just thought of it as a band, and obviously we’re not trying to deny any sort of jazz influence. It doesn’t bother us whatever people call the music, but it genuinely always has been for us that we’re just a band, we want to make music and there’s some improvisation in there, it’s a piano trio setup but we didn’t think, let’s set up a piano trio, it was just I play piano, Nick plays bass, John plays drums.”
They actually wanted to know how I thought about their music, and I told them the truth: that they have long been one of my go-to examples of a gateway act. You see, I believe that telling someone “You should listen to jazz” like you’re asking them “Have you considered veganism?” is more likely to send them running than bring them into the tent. If, on the other hand, you can frame it like, “If you like [x pop record], you might like [x jazz record],” you’ve got a shot, and GoGo Penguin have enough in common, sonically and in terms of overall vibe, with piano-driven pop music (yes, like Coldplay) to make them appealing to those fans. Which puts them right into the jazz lineage, when you think about it, because players like Ahmad Jamal (who died this weekend at 92), Erroll Garner, Ramsey Lewis and even Herbie Hancock found ways to bridge jazz and pop and achieve extraordinary success in the process. And given some of the venues they’re playing on their US tour, which kicks off April 27 in L.A., GoGo Penguin are very much on that path.
Roots Magic Sextet - "Amber"
Roots Magic have been one of the weirdest and most fascinating Italian jazz acts around for several years. Their previous albums combined interpretations of pieces by out-jazz elder statesmen like Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, Julius Hemphill, and others with sprawling, expansive versions of Delta blues tunes by Charley Patton, Geechie Wiley, and others, and their music combined blues and jazz with dub and psychedelia. They’ve gradually been increasing the amount of original material on their records; now, on their fourth album, it’s almost all new stuff, and the group has expanded from a quartet to a sextet. The new members are an extra reeds player and a vibraphonist, and they both make the music fuller and more orchestral, in a way that frequently reminds me of Frank Zappa’s late ’60s/early ’70s jazz-funk records. “Amber” is a dedication to cellist Abdul Wadud with a deep funk bass line and wah-wah guitar that bring to mind electric Miles, a bowed bass solo and some keening soprano sax. (From Long Old Road, out now via Clean Feed.)
Fire! Orchestra - "Echoes: I See Your Eye, Part 1"
The difference between Fire! and Fire! Orchestra couldn’t be starker. Fire is a stripped-down trio: Mats Gustafsson on saxes and primitive electronics, bassist Johan Berthling, and drummer Andreas Werliin. Their music is grinding and heavy, pounding one-chord riffs into the ground like a pile-driver. Fire! Orchestra is those three dudes, plus dozens of guests, and their music is lush, trance-inducing, and theatrical, featuring multiple vocalists, strings and more. It draws from jazz, soul, and modern classical, and at its best it reminds me of the work of the late Greg Tate’s improvising ensemble Burnt Sugar. This latest release, a 2xCD or 3xLP set, features 43 musicians in total, performing a single two-hour piece broken into seven movements and seven interludes. “Echoes: I See Your Eye, Part 1” is the way it begins, with early ’70s blaxploitation movie soundtrack strings, a deep bass groove, and some muscular soloing from Gustafsson. (From Echoes, out now via Rune Grammofon.)
Jacques Schwarz-Bart - "Ambrosia"
Saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart is originally from Guadeloupe, and a lot of his previous music has blended modern jazz with Afro-Caribbean rhythms and concepts. But he’s also had a strong career as a sideman within the neo-soul genre, playing with D’Angelo and appearing on albums by Erykah Badu, Anthony Hamilton, and Meshell Ndegeocello, as well as the late trumpeter Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor band. On this album, though, he’s devoting himself more deeply than usual to a straightahead modern swing and post-bop sound. He worked with two different bands for nine of the album’s 10 tracks; on “Ambrosia,” a ballad with a Quiet Storm feel but some slick, passionate soloing, he’s backed by Sullivan Fortner on electric piano, Matt Penman on bass, and Terri Lyne Carrington on drums. (From The Harlem Suite, out now via Ropeadope.)
Dan Rosenboom - "War Money"
Trumpeter Dan Rosenboom is a very, very busy guy. Based in Los Angeles, he works as a studio musician for movies and TV — he can be heard on the soundtracks of everything from Jordan Peele’s NOPE to the TV show The Mandalorian. He also maintains an extremely prolific recording career, having released almost two dozen records in the last decade or so, while running an improvisational live music series, the Boom Sessions, and putting out over 100 releases on his Orenda label. This album features a long-time collaborator, saxophonist Gavin Templeton, along with pianist John Escreet, bassist Billy Mohler, and drummer Damion Reid. Rosenboom’s compositions often have extremely vivid and evocative titles, and “War Money” sets a mood which the music matches. It comes in on a thrumming bass-and-drum ostinato from Mohler and Reid, with the horns (Templeton plays baritone) leaping and charging as Escreet pounds the keys in a romantic but jarring manner. This is twitchy, bug-eyed music that still remembers to breathe. (From Polarity, out now via Orenda.)
Wayne Escoffery - "Like Minds"
Tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery is a highly intelligent man who thinks deeply about the meaning behind his music. He’s someone with a great respect for the tradition and for lineages — he worked and studied with Jackie McLean, plays with the Mingus Big Band, and is a member of the Black Arts Jazz Collective, a group that aims to extend the tradition of high-level acoustic jazz. He does the same thing on this album, on which he’s backed by David Kikoski on piano and Fender Rhodes, Ugonna Okegwo on bass, and Mark Whitfield Jr. on drums, all players he’s worked with in prior contexts. There are some guests, too; on “Like Minds,” a hard-charging, bluesy tune that opens the album, guitarist Mike Moreno takes a really nice, reverb-soaked solo, after which Kikoski launches the Rhodes straight into space. (From Like Minds, out now via Smoke Sessions.)
Dwight Trible - "African Drum"
Vocalist Dwight Trible has a deep baritone and a highly theatrical delivery; his performances on Kamasi Washington’s The Epic and Heaven And Earth were often more like sermons than songs. A true veteran, he’s been keeping the spirit of West Coast spiritual jazz alive for decades, working with the music of Horace Tapscott and as the director of the LA performance space the World Stage. On Ancient Future, his band includes keyboardist John Beasley, guitarist G.E. Stinson, bassist Andrew Gouché and drummer Greg Paul, all laying down a kind of soulful spiritual jazz-funk that brings in shimmering melodies, African-derived rhythms, passionate and sometimes wordless vocals, and ecstatic solos. On “African Drum,” Washington shows up to deliver a gritty, Pharoah Sanders-ish tenor solo as Megashia Jackson offers chanted background vocals and Rene Fisher adds percussion. Trible’s lyrics are abstract and poetic, more about sustaining a mood than conveying an explicit message, but floating as they do atop this irresistible West African/West Coast groove, they’re perfect. (From Ancient Future, out now via Gearbox.)
Brandee Younger - "Livin' And Lovin' In My Own Way"
Harpist Brandee Younger’s new album pays explicit tribute, as she has done several times in the past, to Dorothy Ashby, one of the pioneers of the instrument in jazz. Four of the pieces are written by Ashby, with some additional writing/arranging from Younger herself, and the record has the kind of lush groove that Ashby specialized in during the ’60s. “Livin’ And Lovin’ In My Own Way” is something slightly different, a left turn midway through the record. Like the rest of the album, it features DeSean Jones on flute, Joel Ross on vibes, Rashaan Carter on bass, and Makaya McCraven on drums, but there’s a guest appearance — providing beat programming, scratching, and additional production — from hip-hop legend Pete Rock. It’s a beautiful combination, bringing back the days of jazzy hip-hop (from when Younger was about 10 years old). Her harp and Ross’ vibes float ethereally over the thick, head-nodding beat and scratched-up vocal samples until you’re waiting — in vain — for CL Smooth to jump on the mic. (From Brand New Life, out now via Verve/Impulse!.)
Walter Smith III - "River Styx"
Walter Smith III is a tenor saxophonist from Texas, but he’s not a “Texas tenor” in the spirit of honkers like Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, David “Fathead” Newman, King Curtis, Don Wilkerson, et al. He’s an urbane, thoughtful player somewhere along the spectrum between Wayne Shorter and Branford Marsalis, playing creative lines that demonstrate just enough passion without turning into blowouts. The band on this album is the same as on his 2014 release, Still Casual (his debut was called Casually Introducing…): keyboardist Taylor Eigsti, guitarist Matthew Stevens, bassist Harish Raghavan, and drummer Kendrick Scott. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire shows up on two tracks, one of which is “River Styx.” The two men have been playing together for close to 20 years, and they know exactly how to shadow each other on a melody, then step aside so each can take an impressionistic but potent solo. (From Return To Casual, out now via Blue Note.)
Cécile McLorin Salvant - "D'un Feu Secret"
Cécile McLorin Salvant is rapidly moving beyond the boundaries of jazz, and I’m gonna follow wherever she leads. Her voice is beautiful — theatrical but controlled — and she’s interested in the entire craft of song and of recording. Lyrics are crucial to her; she pulls old songs out of obscurity specifically because they’ll bite the listener in the ass without warning, and her arrangements, whether limited to acoustic instruments or incorporating electronics and more, are surprising but apposite. Her latest album is sung mostly in French and two related languages — Haitian Kreyol and Occitan — with a few splashes of English here and there. And it’s a narrative, telling the story of Mélusine, a woman who is cursed to turn into a half-snake every Saturday and who is betrayed by her husband. But the pure beauty of the music, and her singing, allows non-French speakers (like me) to appreciate it. “D’un Feu Secret” features an off-kilter synth melody and electronic flutes that give it a weird, Renaissance-prog feel that’s perfectly matched by the medieval surrealism of the animated video. It’s not typical of the rest of the album, but nothing is, really. This is a weird, brilliant, fascinating record. (From Mélusine, out now via Nonesuch.)
Wadada Leo Smith - "Ntozake Shange"
Wadada Leo Smith puts out a lot of music. The man never seems to stop, and it’s a good thing, because he’s a brilliant improviser with a totally recognizable sound and compositional signature. His use of space and his piercing, ice-dart notes cut through no matter who else he’s playing with, but he’s also got incredible taste in collaborators. I’ve heard him in what feels like a hundred contexts — duos with drummers and with pianist Vijay Iyer, bassless trios (the album Lebroba, with Bill Frisell on guitar and Andrew Cyrille on drums, will stop your heart), groups featuring laptop electronics, traditional jazz quartets, guesting with Black doom-rock trio Harriet Tubman, and every other configuration you can think of.
On this digital-only album, assembled over the course of four years — a session here, a session there — he’s joined by guitarists Nels Cline, Brandon Ross, and his son Lamar Smith; bassists Bill Laswell and Melvin Gibbs; electronic musician Hardedge; drummer Pheeroan akLaff; and percussionist Mauro Refosco. Not everyone plays on every track, but on the opening “Ntozake Shange,” a tribute to the late playwright and poet, they do. The dual basses bubble and throb over a simple but shifting rhythm as the guitarists (and Gibbs) take solos in turn and the electronics add atmosphere and edge (there’s a piercing high tone that comes through about halfway through the piece that’ll make your eyes water). This isn’t an homage to electric Miles — Smith already did that 20+ years ago with the band Yo Miles! This is entirely its own thing. But it does have some of the same simmering, tiger-watching-you-from-the-shadows energy as portions of Get Up With It. It’s a little disappointing that there’s no physical version of this record; some label should spring for a deluxe vinyl edition (it’s only 49 minutes long). But in the meantime, it’s a must-hear whether you’re a new listener or a lifelong fan. (From Fire Illumination, out now via Kabell.)