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Gig Review: The Penguin Really Does Go! (Go!) - GoGo Penguin Live at the Wellington Jazz Festival
I used to review every Jazz Festival gig going - now I just go to gigs when I want to, when I (hopefully) like them. But I miss gig reviews, and I'm trying to bring them back...
GoGo Penguin: Wellington Jazz Festival
Wednesday, October 25
Manchester trio, GoGo Penguin, were in New Zealand for the first time - with one show only, opening the 2023 Jazz Festival. It was nice to see the band has attracted quite a decent local following, the downstairs of the MFC full and largely in anticipation. Of course there are sponsors, there are guests, there are jazz festival fans open to hearing something brand new - and I’m sure many of those people went home fans if they weren’t already.
The GoGo Penguin format/formula is to apply jazz’s paintbrush to the wider canvas of electronic music. So, drummer Jon Scott plays inventive live drum’n’bass patterns - in unison with the broad strokes of Nick Blacka’s probing, exploratory double bass. Pianist Chris Illingworth creates the central theme of each piece, not just the melodic template, but often there’s a rhythmic pattern to his playing which is rigid and allows space for the rhythm section to colour in and around. Illingworth also triggers samples and electronics and plays ‘prepared’ piano, muting the strings inside, dampening the hammers, and issuing an impressive variety of sounds to the mix.
The band was here to promote its latest album, Everything Is Going To Be Ok - and opened the set with two numbers from that, before heading back through their catalogue to serve up sprinklings from A Humdrum Star, last year’s EP Between Two Waves and 2020’s self-titled album.
Live, the feel and flow of the tracks from the various albums, EP and singles was seamless - but the new album was the dominant offering, with the second half of the set showering highlights from it, including its title track, Friday Film Special, Last Breath, and the set-closing Parasite.
Blacka was warm and grateful in his occasional stage banter - and the applause seemed to grow ever more rapturous as the trio burned down deep into each song. The egos of the players so in check, that this dynamic playing was always in service to the greater good of the band, and the collective effort of the musical piece. It was inspiring to see no over the top soloing, no needless display of flashy tricks, no hero moves - and yet, for the entire 90-100 minutes of the performance there was never any doubt that we were watching world class players.
I thought of Dawn of Midi, in particular (a previous Jazz Festival highlight from a decade or so ago) and also other jazz-y trios that used the same format but went off to explore other areas of music while using jazz’s language (The Necks, The Bad Plus).
Drummer Jon Scott might have been the MVP of the night, judging by audience response. He was endlessly creative, using multiple hi-hats and snare drums to vary the tone of what he was doing, to essentially ‘compose’ while playing. But bassist Nick Blacka also used an electric bass for one track and a bass synth during the encore to extend his pallette, and as previously mentioned, keyboardist Chris Illingworth was working across a couple of banks of keys, so all three used every musical weapon in their arsenal.
It was friendly fire though. Invigorating music. Deeply meditative at times, always impressive, and with enough of the spirit (and skill) of jazz for them to be valid within the festival’s name, as well as vital on the stage.