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Simon Jeffes

This new emphasis wasn't particularly noticeable at first on Signs Of Life. The opening track comprised a high spirited piece of ersatz zydeco, called Beanfields, allegedly based on an apocryphal story about Pythagoras getting chased by assassins.

But from then on, starting with the stately strings leading off on Southern Jukebox Music - the most beautiful melody Jeffes ever composed - a gentler more elegaic tone was established.

Three tracks featured Jeffes on his own, sans orchestra and the extraordinary closing track, Wildlife, was neither wild nor lively. It was an 11 minute piece, sparingly played on triangle, guitar and cello with scattered tape effects. Listening to it was like hearing church bells from an imaginary church lost in some extra-terrestrial landscape. Achieving a profound meditative effect without resort to ambient noodling it clearly showed Jeffes re-connecting with some of the avant garde ideas he had discarded after music college. It also reflected his continuing interest in Zen Buddhism.

The orchestra got to let their hair down in time honoured fashion on numbers like Swing The Cat but the overall impression here was of Jeffes reining them in rather than letting them go. Though Signs Of Life was full of rhythmic subtlety, the group's new percussionist Danny Cummings had very little to do throughout. The presence of a new third violinist, Bob Loveday, did not presage waves of sawing violins and although dancing was as always encouraged, tracks like Oscar Tango proceeded to a more lugubrious beat than before. "After I wrote this," Jeffes remarked, "I thought it vaguely resembled a tango but realising I was no expert I gave it a name that partly suggested the kind of alphabet used in radio communications to demonstrate the non-authentic use of the term." And this from somebody who claimed not to be very good with words...

Life after Signs Of became pretty hectic for the Penguins. The critical response to the new album was universally strong. Writing in Q magazine, Paul du Noyer delivered a string of noble compliments. "These newest pieces are ingeniously simple, implausibly varied, occasionally humorous and always warmly intimate despite the absence of any vocals. In a field where pseudo-philosophical pretensions and self-conscious experimentation so often cast their baleful spell, the Penguin Café Orchestra...are a valuable human intrusion."

On the live performance front, everybody from WOMAD to Wogan now wanted a piece of their action. Such was their confidence now as concert performers that plans were laid to make a live album, which was duly recorded at the Festival Hall in London in July 1987. Released in the following year under the teasingly inaccurate title When In Rome... the 16 tracks effectively summarised the PCO's career so far. With Ian Maidman now looking after the rhythm section with the returning Julio Segovia, Paul Street bringing in more guitars and Bob Loveday adding oomph to the strings, this was a more muscular set than Signs Of Life.

By the time it came out Jeffes was deeply immersed in another, allied project. David Bintley, choreographer with the Royal Ballet and a major fan of the Penguins, had proposed a dance piece based on eight of the PCO's tunes. Intrigued by the idea, but daunted by the task of scoring his pieces for a full orchestra, Jeffes was lost for months in a world of dotted quavers and minims. Despite his anxiety that a professional orchestra couldn't or wouldn't swing, Still Life At The Penguin Café was a popular hit with the ballet-going public and went on to be performed all over Britain, in Melbourne and Munich. The Times declared it to be "the most cheerful and amusing new ballet at Covent Garden for well over a decade." The New Statesman praised the way "Jeffes' score cleverly evokes the endless day and night of the wild land."

While nobody would suggest that the Penguins were ever exactly prophets without honour in their homeland, their touring schedule for the next 3 years took them out of the UK a lot, particularly in Southern Europe. The highlight of this phase was Simon Jeffes' appointment as artistic director at an arts festival in Bologna in the Summer of 1992. For this he programmed 3 shows by a Penguin Café Quintet (a formation he used regularly around this time) which along with a series of concerts featuring friends, Orchestra colleagues and their side projects. This was the closest he ever came to creating a real Penguin Café and for it he was awarded the freedom of the city of Bologna.

The next PCO album turned out to be the last collection of new material they recorded. Its overall style was more robust than Signs Of Life, reflecting the Orchestra's growing prowess as a working band rather than Jeffes' acknowledged mastery of the studio. The line up had slimmed down and settled down. Annie Whitehead and Ian Maidman, now a couple, were both in. Julio Segovia was back, again. Jeffes' old friends and allies Geoffrey Richardson and Neil Rennie were still there. And so of course was Helen Liebmann, the cellist and rock on which every incarnation of the orchestra had relied for her instrumental poise and grace.

The most strikingly different piece on Union Café was a composition Jeffes put together while taking part in one of the so-called " recording weeks" at Peter Gabriel's Real World studios near Bath in August 1992. While he was down there, surrounded by musicians from all over the world, jamming and demo-ing ideas together, Jeffes heard of the death of the great American modernist John Cage. He swiftly conceived a piece which brilliantly enshrined the random principle which Cage pioneered and which the Penguins, in their own way, elaborated. "I immediately recognised his influence and how he would be missed. At the same time I recognised his name as a strong melodic harmonic cell and quickly wrote this piece which simply spells his name in canon over 4 octaves, three durations and two transpositions a fourth up and a fourth down" Alongside this riffing on the CAGE theme, was a piano part playing the notes DEAD in free time.

The rest of Union Café was a vigorous re-statement of traditional Penguin musical values. The African inheritance was again rearranged in Kora Kora; Venezuelan cuatro strums infused Lifeboat; the sound of the deep South of America was subtly hinted at in Nothing Really Blue. The musical conservatory got a name check at least in Scherzo And Trio, as did Jeffes' other, stranger historical preoccupation, in Pythagoras On The Line. Released in 1993 on Jeffes' own Zopf label (named after the suite on his first album) Union Café ushered in another busy round of touring at home and abroad in 1994. An unexpected highlight of this flurry of onstage activity turned out to be the Orchestra's barnstorming performance at Glastonbury, an event which disclosed the existence of a new, younger and, it must be said rowdier generation of PCO fans.

Having originally conceived the Penguin Café as "an imaginary and rather introverted place which didn't exist in the real world," Jeffes was now happy and proud to admit that "we really take off in concert." Another live album seemed the obvious way to celebrate this happy state of affairs and so it was that on July 23 1994 at Wool Hall in Somerset, Concert Program was recorded.. "You can accomplish all kinds of tricks spending days and days in the studio, "Jeffes commented, "But what I was trying to capture here was this very gritty and subtle sense that when someone plays an instrument you can hear their soul. Everybody gets so passionate, it's something that has to do with the relationships between us all."

Although the Penguins carried on playing together for another 2 years, Jeffes gradually began to hanker for a quieter life, or more accurately perhaps, a quieter way of making music. In 1996 he moved from London to Somerset and began to concentrate on solo piano work. Shortly afterwards he fell ill with an inoperable brain tumour and in December 1997 he died. Sometimes tragic events can only be spoken of in platitudes. It is quite true, anyway, that Simon Jeffes lives on in his music. It is also true that the Penguin Café is an imaginary but necessary place which everybody with an ounce of spirit ought to invent for themselves.

Robert Sandall


 
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