Experimental jazz trio Troyka’s latest album (its name inspired by guitarist Chris Montague’s real fear of birds, and gesturing perhaps towards Charlie Parker’s similarly named ‘Ornithology’ with which it shares melodic intricacy and frenetic pace) seems in many ways a logical progression from their 2012 album Moxxy. With contorted time signatures and fast, almost brusque transitions between melodic and textural motifs, Ornithophobia works within a similar model to Moxxy, only it’s more hard-edged, more industrial. It also fits really quite well alongside the likes of Roller Trio and Apes Grapes into what is currently a very vibrant and exciting young British jazz scene. Troyka is an organ trio, but of no common sort – Kit Downes (keyboards) goes a long way to sketching out new possibilities for jazz Hammond organ, which has been somewhat neglected of late, placing its sonic qualities firmly at the centre of a modern and very forward-looking ensemble.
Perhaps where the album diverges most from other similar offerings is in its subtle, chameleon-like absorption of a rather more wide array of other genres than normal. Certainly we are used to the almost tongue-in-cheek playful melodies of earlier Polar Bear albums, but drummer Josh Blackmore’s fleeting references to hip-hop style grooves in the opening of ‘Magpies’ or the wider, textural resemblence in parts of ‘Life Was Transcient’ and ‘Bamburgh’ to electronica is refreshing and highly engaging.
Note, however, that it is impossible for me to speak more generally about atmosphere of texture with regards to each song. Indeed, Ornithophobia is almost pathologically unstable in a way that can at times be almost exhausting. Repeated melodic motifs, often led by Montague (sometimes at the expense of Downes’s very sensitive Hammond organ work), give way to each other frequently; they are small vignettes, each remaining somewhat underexplored, that leave the listener searching for some aesthetic unity.
Perhaps we cannot specifically blame Troyka’s efforts here but rather look instead at contemporary jazz’s ongoing search for a form that reconciles thematic variety with space for improvisation, which must still be considered essential to the genre despite its almost unrecognisable transformation over the past two decades. Sometimes Ornithophobia’s frenetic, John Zorn-esque instability comes at the expense of more thoughtful showcasing of each of these incredibly talented instrumentalists’ solo skills. Moments where space is given for these, like Montague’s solo in ‘The General’, are very satisfying and leave one slightly frustrated that we don’t get more of it.
This isn’t, however, to downplay the real ensemble skills Troyka exhibit. The beginning moments of the album, ‘Arcades’s pulsing, expansive initial theme, really exemplifies a band where each member’s offerings only serve to further extend the others’. Perhaps on occasion this level of synchronicity becomes almost robotic; it feels sometimes like Troyka really believe in the sort of post-apocalyptic cityscape described in the public service broadcast opening to ‘Thopter’ (are we, by the way, possibly reaching the point though where this sort of faux news anchor intervention is becoming passé?).
The world described in ‘Thopter’, of a London consumed by a gruesome avian-originated epidemic, ultimately shows a band gesturing beyond the specific achievements of their album. For all the postmodern rhetoric, Ornithophobia seems only a moderate jump from other contemporary jazz, making crucial but ultimately modest deviations from the easy formula of contrasting motifs, difficult time signatures and extended tonalities that characterises British jazz at the moment. I look forward to a jazz that does take on the hybrid, part-man part-bird image that Troyka imagine – something fresh and really destabilising. For now, Troyka perhaps show us an idea of where things can go, but they’re not there yet.