London-based Portico Quartet’s new album, “Art in the Age of Automation,” makes a clear statement about our technological age. The single, “Endless” is representative of the album’s commentary. Portico Quartet uses unusual instrumentation and pop sensibilities to make contemporary jazz.
Portico Quartet: A brief overview
Portico Quartet formed in London in 2005. After undergoing a few personnel changes, and briefly shortening the band’s name to “Portico,” the group seems to have achieved a stable lineup. Portico Quartet’s instrumentation lineup consists of alto and tenor saxophones, double bass, drums, and an item called a “hang.”
The approach that Portico Quartet takes to jazz is much like pop music. However, the music the band creates sounds like jazz, instead of a fusion of sorts. The packaging, the video, and elements of the song all work to create a pop sensibility.
Portico Quartet: “Endless”
The single “Endless” is lush, and intense without overwhelming listeners. A waterfall of sound is created because of the song’s arrangement. Crisp drumming accented by the bright, shimmering crashing of high-hat cymbals against each other creates an energetic effect.
The waterfall quality is one layer of the song. On top of that, or behind it, depending on a person’s listening perspective, is a muted busy signal sound. Just as listeners expect the tone to fade, it remains. That tone continues to sound as other soft sounds pile on.
That “busy signal” sound plays like a stuck vinyl recording. Around it, the other instruments play with an understated power. Soon, terse drumming adds to the tension. Seemingly electronic crashing sounds augment the melancholy saxophones.
There is a pop verve to the drums and bass, that, coupled with the cymbals, makes the song interesting and nuanced. This is a jazzy song that makes a subtle impact and encourages introspection. It is logical to think about what the song and its album means.
The innovative sound of Portico Quartet
It doesn’t take long to figure out that a song that re-creates technological sounds, on an album called “Art in the Age of Automation” could be about the role of technology in human lives. The word “Endless” indicates that technology will exist as long as humans do.
The “busy signal” tone is created by an instrument called a “hang.” Pronounced “han,” the instrument is shaped like two connected metal shells. On the top is a hole; on the bottom is a filled hole. The hang acts like a resonator. The edges of the hang have tones assigned to them. A player hits the hang’s edges to create various sounds.
With “Endless,” Portico Quartet makes interesting, lush-sounding music. The work is nuanced enough to resist oversimplification. The band uses classic and unusual instruments to make a statement about people and technology. Even without interpretation, “Endless” makes for listening that indicates the future of jazz.