Over the last 10 years the striking presence of Jasper Høiby beside a double bass on a bandstand has been, for me, something of a guarantee.
He ensured that not only would the music be expertly played, solidly rooted and have an elastic, surging momentum, but also that it would be performed with an exuberant commitment and a deeply compelling soulfulness.
The 37-year-old Dane has brought that strength and character to countless groups since moving from Copenhagen to London in 2001 to study at the Royal Academy of Music, but none more so than Phronesis, the trio he formed in 2005.
This band, with Swedish drummer Anton Eger and British pianist Ivo Neame, has built an impressive reputation for exciting performances, with acclaim from critics and audiences alike. It has a new album out called Life To Everything, on Edition Records.
I ask Jasper, who is travelling between stops on the band’s current tour, how it all started.
“The beginning of this band is somehow linked to my older sister losing her sight back in 2005. It happened suddenly and was extremely sad so I made the decision to move back to Denmark for a while to help.
“As I’d spent pretty much my entire musical life up until that point in London I knew next to nothing about the Danish scene apart from one guy, an awesome Swedish drummer named Anton Eger,” he explains.
Was it always intended to be that classic jazz line-up, the piano trio?
“I wanted to play in a small group first but I had no idea it would end up as a piano trio. Some of my favourite jazz records at the time were piano trio ones like (Chick Corea’s) Now He Sings, Now He Sobs and a few other Bill Evans Trio and Enrico Pieranunzi albums.”
That Jasper’s sister’s blindness had played a part in the formation of Phronesis has been echoed since in one striking project, called Pitch Black and premiered at the Brecon Jazz Festival in 2011, in which the band performed in total darkness.
“Playing in the dark is obviously referring to her. It’s an attempt for me to find a moment to honour her as the beautiful inspiring person that she has been to me all my life, but also a way to make people aware of what it might be like to live a life in darkness,” says Jasper.
“I think it’s really special in this day and age, with tablets and smartphones all over the place, to create a forum for music where it’s all about the listening. The intensity the darkness creates enhances the musical experience and it brings a special energy to the whole thing.”
There won’t be total darkness in Birmingham Town Hall on Saturday but the performance will be unusually staged, with the band down in the auditorium with the audience all around them.
“Playing in the round is another way of bringing out a special energy, but this time it’s more about the band and the link there is between the three of us. The triangle set-up allows perfect visual communication and soundwise it’s intimate and as close as it can get,” he says.
It is clear from being in the audience at a Phronesis gig of the tremendous power and excitement that the trio can create. I wondered what it felt like to be at the centre of that? Did Phronesis feel different to play in from the other bands Jasper has been part of?
“When everything works and we are all present in the moment it feels like something I can only describe as extremely joyous,” he explains.
“Depending on where we are in the music it can feel like being in the most quiet but alive nature, in rush hour in the middle of the road in London, in a boxing match where you can’t get hurt physically or at a party with all your best friends… or even a mixture of all of the above!
“For me it’s the most special band I play in because I get to play my own music and I get a lot of space to interact and to solo in. I have a traditional supportive bass player role, which I love, but I’m also allowed to lead if the music suggests it.”
Despite the fact that Jasper is the band’s leader, Phronesis is very much a democratic three-way artistic project with all three contributing compositions and sharing the spotlight on stage.
I wondered what Jasper liked most about Ivo’s and Anton’s playing?
“It’s very hard to sum that up in just a few words,” he says.
“With Ivo I love his ability to develop a solo. It’s something that he has always had. He can pace and develop a solo with the maturity of someone with a lifetime of experience.
“Anton has a great dynamic sensibility that allows him to play everything from very quiet to explodingly loud. He is a bass player’s dream because he feels at home in every time signature I’ve ever thrown at him.”
Phronesis thrives on live performance, and has played all over the world, so clearly the audience is a vital “fourth corner” for the trio.
“I think the audience element plays a very big role to us all. The audience can take you out of your shell and remind you that what you do when playing music is really communicating and passing on some kind of narrative to the listener.
“I hope that people will walk away from a Phronesis gig having participated in something that has been exciting, joyful, soulful and profound musically, and that it might open the door for many other types of jazz.”
* Phronesis play Birmingham Town Hall on Saturday at 8pm. Tickets are £15 and you can book them at thsh.co.uk/jazzlines or on 0121 345 0600.