A polar bear in a library sounds like a bad idea. Even when the Polar Bear in question is a collection of astounding jazz musicians, Westminster reference library was the ideal habitat for neither performers nor audience. On Saturday night I crammed into the chair-free space and sat on the carpet as if for story time, and was about ready to leave after twenty minutes of having my knees kicked in the stampede for the punch-free punch.
I ended up halfway up a staircase, behind a pillar, but the music was brilliant enough to turn even the purest blue funk to fuzzy pink.
I realised as I scribbled notes in the dark that trying to describe music in words is futile. The path has so many steps – mind #1 --> body + instrument --> sound --> perception --> mind #2 --> words --> mind #3 being the condensed version – and we all know how utterly useless a review of an unheard musician or band is for gauging whether we will like what we eventually hear.
When I tried to think of metaphors to express something about the music, everything that popped into my head was a kind culture section cliché. Several times I thought of ‘shimmering’, a word beloved of music reviewers, but like all the others it is useless until you are actually listening and can say “Ah, yes! I see what she means.”
Still, there was much to remark on, so remark I will, and you can imagine any music you like while you read.
Polar Bear is led by Seb Rochford, a drummer of genius whose hair has to be seen to be believed. After a piece where the starring instrument was a green balloon played by Leafcutter John, childlike already in his red t-shirt, Seb told us it was a love song called Tom Loves Alison Loves Tom. The love, he said as he pointed into the audience, “is between that person there and that person there. I could feel the love going between them during the song.”
Dispensing with the balloon squeals, which had blended so naturally with saxophone sound that I wondered why nobody had done it before, Leafcutter John contributed to the rest of the set via his laptop. He accessorised with what looked like a white TV remote, which he waved through the air. At first I thought this arm-swinging was just for the hell of it; then I realised the gadget and laptop were acting like a kind of virtual theremin, and movements made sounds. I can’t begin to understand how this works (something like a Wii, perhaps?) but the synthesised sounds had a kind of soothing effect, rendering the looser jazz over the top somehow more friendly.
This friendliness was epitomised in a long solo on double bass. I couldn’t see Tom Herbert behind his instrument thanks to the aforementioned pillar, so my mind was free to wander as I listened. The ponderous extended cadenza made me think, in the best possible way, of Winnie the Pooh humming while searching for a little something in the bottom of a honey jar.
There were plenty of other surprising moments that made a beautiful kind of sense. One such was like listening to a space-cricket in a thunderstorm (laptop and drums respectively); another was one of those profoundly satisfying sensations when time signatures appear to diverge and then meet again, giving the same sense of resolution we experience when a chord settles at its root.
A new song called Peepers (also the name of their new album) turned out to be inspired by trips to Hackney Tesco, and the particularly cheeky eyes Seb encountered at a checkout. Given the melodious, happy nature of this piece, this was probably the most surprising revelation of the whole night.
Laughter subsided and the audience grew self-consciously quiet as Seb reminded us how important these moments are in daily life, when we engage with a stranger and something unexpectedly lovely occurs. I felt suddenly guilty for the misanthropy that had dogged me from leaving my flat right through to the first notes of their set. I might have missed the opportunity for one of these moments of joy while I glowered in the shadows. Still, even my staircase-induced back-ache did not detract from the joy I felt from the music alone, and I left feeling more kindly-disposed towards the Saturday night crowds of Piccadilly.