Phronesis, as the Oxford Companion to Philosophy tells us, is a Greek word for “practical wisdom”, with overtones of sound judgment and what Buddhists might call “right livelihood”. It’s also the name of an Anglo-Scandinavian jazz trio that’s putting those principles into lively practice.
“Philosophy’s good, isn’t it?” says bassist Jasper Høiby, taking a break from the road to hang out at his mother’s place, an hour into the Danish countryside from Copenhagen. “But I don’t know how seriously you should take it. I don’t think anyone should take anything too seriously, but I do like the added perspective of the band name.”
From the beginning, he adds, it was important to stress that Phronesis was something more than simply the Jasper Høiby Trio—even if he was its founder and, at first, its sole composer. That’s a concept, he explains, that goes back to the kind of collective improvisation practised by pianist Bill Evans’s bands during the 1960s.
“When he started doing what he did, it was like, ‘Wow, they are all soloing at the same time.’ And those concepts, I really like. I really like the kind of life that that has, and that maybe leads to thinking about real democracy. Not the kind of democracy that we have in politics, but the democracy of expression—the freedom to express something while someone else might be doing it, too.”
If that all sounds nebulous, it might help to examine how Phronesis has evolved since its beginnings in 2005. As noted, it was originally Høiby’s project, with Swedish drummer Anton Eger onboard since the beginning. When British pianist Ivo Neame joined in 2009 he brought—in addition to a deft, Evans-like touch on the keys—an assured and complementary compositional sensibility. And, more recently, Høiby, Neame, and Eger have been splitting writing duties three ways.
“I just thought ‘Okay, this is a logical step to take. If we want to keep this band together, we need to share more things,’ ” Høiby says. “Everyone had been putting a lot of effort in—and it’s also about prioritizing a group, isn’t it? I mean, it’s very hard to get people to prioritize something if it’s not entirely their own.”
Since becoming a true partnership, Phronesis has been rapidly adding collaborators—not so much on-stage, but in the studio. The trio’s new album, The Behemoth, found it revisiting its back catalogue in the company of the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, with arranger Julian Argüelles deftly fitting the bonus horns into the band’s pre-existing structures. “That was great,” Høiby says. “We still had room for creativity, and we still had space to express ourselves, because the natural space in the music was still there.”
Phronesis has also been working on Decade Zero, an as-yet-unrecorded project with new-music composer Dave Maric—basically, a 35-minute concerto for improvising trio and chamber orchestra. “That whole process was mind-blowing as well,” Høiby notes. “Dave wrote a piece for us with a string quartet and a wind quartet.…and the way he made all those layers fit was quite incredible.”
So how will all these new experiences shape Phronesis’s upcoming Vancouver International Jazz Festival performance?
“That’s a very hard question to answer,” Høiby says. “I don’t think I’m aware of exactly what that will do—but we’re doing what we’re doing anyway, aren’t we? And we’re still going to try to challenge ourselves with new ideas.”
Phronesis plays Performance Works on Sunday (June 25), as part of the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.