From a strict aficionado’s angle, almost everything about Polar Bear’s new album (released a year after its Mercury-nominated predecessor, In Each and Every One) disregards the jazz-police rulebook: the tunes are artlessly simple, while improv simmers on the back burner, and there’s even a spoken homily about the meaning of life from Jamaican narrator Asar Mikael. And yet it’s every bit as sonically spellbinding and cohesive as In Each and Every One, gliding dreamily through minimalist sax motifs, electronic drones, world-music drum grooves and mantra-like vocals. Drummer Seb Rochford spent six weeks in the Mojave desert mixing the album with producer Ken Barrientos, and that experience’s invitation to musical mindfulness seems to infuse every track. Caribbean bass vamps presage wheedling tenor-sax melodies, soft polyrhythms are displaced by long, choral hums or Celtic laments, and Rochford and Hannah Darling swap the vocal chorus of Don’t Let the Feeling Go over staccato sax-jazz and an oddly courtly, Tudor-troubadour prance. It’s another uncategorisable and understated triumph.
John Fordham is the Guardian's main jazz critic. He has written several books on the subject, reported on it for publications including Time Out, Sounds, Wire and Word, and contributed to documentaries for radio and TV. He is a former editor of Time Out, City Limits and Jazz UK, and regularly contributes to BBC Radio 3's Jazz on 3