Polar Bear are the foremost member of London’s F-IRE Collective, a rag-tag creative community of young (mostly) jazz musicians, which also takes in avant-jazz fusionists Acoustic Ladyland, rave-in-a-souk party animals Melt Yourself Down, Sons Of Kemet, and (sort of) post-electronic rockers The Invisible, amongst others. Polar Bear are lead by globe-haired Scottish drummer Seb Roachford, who’s drummed with everyone (because he’s amazing), and showcase saxophonist Pete Wareham; both members also star in Acoustic Ladyland. So that’s your context.
Polar Bear’s Mercuy-Prize-nominated 2005 breakthrough album, Held On The Tips Of Fingers, was the first I’d heard of them, and I’ll admit that my knowledge was predicated by the Mercury nomination; picking up on them quickly after nominations were announced, they very quickly became a favourite, and I was desperate for them to win. So much so that I almost convinced myself they would. When sister band Acoustic Ladyland released the spectacular statement album Skinny Grin in late 2006, I was even more convinced that we’d have a first jazz winner of the Mercury. Alas, it didn’t even make the shortlist.
Fast-forward to me making this list, and Held On The Tips Of Fingers was the album I wrote down initially, but after revisiting Polar Bear’s whole catalogue (also including debut Dim Lit and 2010’s Peepers), I had to admit that their eponymous effort from 2008 is my favourite. It’s long – 75 minutes spread across 14 tracks – and the middle section descends into what some people may well see as unlistenable pseudo-ambient free-jazz indulgence, but it has, to my uneducated ear, the best tunes, the coolest grooves, the most exciting musical shifts and changes (like the way second track “Goodbye” starts life as the kind of tuneful, upbeat style-hopping jazz that might be Polar Bear’s signature sound, before it liquefies into a swirl of shooting electronic textures, rattling percussion, and spinning-but-still-melodic sax, and then morphs effortlessly through plains of ambient drone into “Appears, Moves And Sails”).
Polar Bear are probably one of my favourite musical acts of the entire decade this project is mapping, actually. I know nothing formally about jazz music – I don’t play a note on any instrument and have never been ‘educated’ about jazz music beyond working in a university library that had a large jazz record collection; I’m a classic pop dilettante, dipping his toe into mysterious waters, and my analysis and appreciation of jazz is probably laughably naïve to anyone who actually knows what they’re talking about. But still, I love it, and spend a good hunk of time listening to it. And Polar Bear seem to scratch my jazz itch better than anyone else, even more so than a lot of the legendary names of ‘real’ American jazz.
Partly, I suspect, it’s because they don’t overtly try and modernize jazz, at least not in any clichéd or zeitgeist-chasing empty-signifier ways; there are no dance rhythms (though plenty of them are danceable), no turntables, no rapping (though they did do an EP or Peepers remixes with an MC) or other nods to hip-hop. Instead, they modernise it by taking familiar ingredients in new directions. So there are electronic elements (added by Leafcutter John), but for the most part they’re a jazz band, playing jazz, with drums, double bass, and two saxophones exploring rhythms and melodies and structures together. It’s brilliant.