Simon Jeffes was a multi-instrumentalist who struck a rare balance. He was able to present complicated, virtuosic compositions in faultlessly accessible, fun and catchy packages. His Penguin Cafe Orchestra juggled folk, jazz, avant-garde and pop influences, hinging upon an appreciation for unorthodox uses of instruments and found sounds. They were strange and unpredictable; fitting, since the project was devised during a surreal dream brought on by a food-poisoning.
The troupe began recording and performing in 1972, continuing up until Jeffes’ death in 1997. Since then, his son Arthur has assembled an evolving group to once again send the orchestra’s creations out to the world. At Camden’s Cecil Sharp House last Thursday, the ten-piece proved engaging and generous performers, capturing the imaginative spirit of the original group in a set which showcased material for a upcoming album, as well as throwing PCO favourites the crowd’s way.
It was one such number, ‘Perpetuum Mobile’, that Jeffes Jr. chose to open the evening. The piece is based upon a sustained piano loop, which violins wrap themselves around to form perhaps the orchestra’s most emotive and best known piece. It was a brave choice to start with, but the rendition proved that Jeffes is eager to explore the playful nature of his dad’s compositions in a live context, rather than strictly emulate the original performances. The song, carried by warm, knotty cello tones, built to a wonderfully loud crescendo, which made fine use of the venue’s sharp acoustics.
‘Telephone and Rubber Band’ is another original song built on a repeated loop, which too will have doubtlessly ingrained itself in the brains of entirely unwitting listeners, courtesy of frequent uses on television and radio. It was born of a typically inspired brainwave when Simon heard both engaged and ringing tones due to a phone glitch, which he recorded, adding bass notes courtesy of a rubber band tied to a battered chair.
Simon Jeffes explains the process of writing ‘Telephone and Rubber Band’
The song is brought to life on the night with great energy, thanks to a grounding double-bass, bouncy ukulele parts and lilting viola, as the band display the eccentric resourcefulness core to the PCO back catalogue. To lend the self-penned ‘From A Blue Temple’ sonic depth, Arthur dextrously alternates between playing piano and striking a gong made entirely of glass. His inventiveness is also on display during a piece which he wrote by reimaging a Bach passage as a high-tempo soundtrack to a Mexican standoff, the standout of the new material.
His dad achieved something similar with ‘Giles Farnaby’s Dream’, in which a movement written by the Renaissance composer was married to a furious guitar part inspired by Venezuelan folk music. The group’s performance of the piece joins renditions of the ukulele-lead ‘Beanfields’ and the tin-whistle fronted ‘Salty Bean Fumble’ as memorable highlights of a committed, ceaselessly endearing set by musicians evidently happy to be on stage.
But it’s ‘Harry Piers’, a piano solo Arthur wrote for his dad’s memorial, that proves the most affecting. It’s a sensitively-crafted piece that has the audience fall entirely silent. The closing run-through of ‘Music For a Found Harmonium’ provides an enthralling finale.
It felt fitting that the group performed directly opposite a panoramic, richly colourful mural composed of abstracted human figures, complementary to the surreal landscapes the Jeffes’ inventive music conjurs. As the original orchestra did, this rebooted Penguin Cafe affirm the possibilities of music with unfettered imagination. Consider yourself implored to catch the band perform a second date at Cecil Sharp House on February 8th, a rare chance to witness them in an intimate setting.