Portico Quartet/Penguin Cafe – review

Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

The stage hosts what look like three giant woks, which Portico's Nick Mulvey gives the occasional rub with a bit of blanket. He's not planning a stir-fry: these are the 2008 Mercury-nominated modern jazz quartet's distinctive "hang drums". Their sublime, balm-like melodies – despite being played with sticks, like percussion – form a core ingredient of the mesmerising sound.

Around them, busy drums and bass whip up an urgent undercurrent, while Jack Wylie's soprano sax floats hauntingly on top. Somewhere between Swedish piano jazz trio EST, and Radiohead, Portico's sound seems aware of music from rock to dubstep without referencing any of it: the stunning Life Mask makes oriental melodies sound as catchy as a boyband.

Arthur Jeffes's Penguin Cafe are carrying on the work of his late father Simon's Penguin Cafe Orchestra, who created influential, quirky global melodies from harmoniums found in the street. The younger man has maintained the eccentric charm: penguin heads nestle on the speaker stacks and top hats, fezzes and idiosyncratic tailoring make the band look as if they have stepped in from a Victorian fairground. The glorious Dirt, from 1987, sounds ever so wonderfully just not right, as if the melody itself is drunken.

Jeffes wittily updates Telephone and Rubber Band using an iPhone. New compositions in the same spirit stand up well, especially the desert-influenced Pale Peach Jukebox. But reaching the indefinable genius of the Orchestra's most famous compositions may prove impossible. "It's really lovely to hear that in a room with an audience," Jeffes says after the sublime Air A Danser, as much a fan of his father's legacy as anyone in the building.

At the Anvil, Basingstoke (01256-844244), tonight, then touring.


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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