Penguin Cafe Reissues

by | Jun 4, 2011 | Special Features | 0 comments

Penguin Cafe Reissues

The widely-appealing Penguin Cafe Orchestra was created by the late classically-trained British guitarist, composer and arranger Simon Jeffes. He and cellist Helen Liebmann were core members thruout his life. Other musicians joined in and six studio albums were made by the ensemble. The group’s sound is an unusual combination of lively folk music delivered in simplistic manner, classical, rock, and a leaning heavily on the aesthetic of the minimalists.  Jeffes originally got the idea for the group in a strange recurring vision he had due to some food poisoning. The band’s most famous piece is probably “Telephone and Rubber Band,” using a tape loop of a UK phone ring tone with the twanging of a rubber band. ”The Penguin Cafe Orchestra performed and recorded for 24 years until Jeffes’ death in 1997.  

The Penguin Cafe Orchestra has entertained many listeners since the ‘70s – performing all over the world in many different types of festivals and appearances – and were highly encouraged by Brian Eno.  Jeffes followed Zen Buddhism, which seems to fit in with his unique music.  After a Japanese tour he stayed on with composer Ruyichi Sakamoto, and also found a discarded harmonium on a Tokyo street, which he used in some of his pieces. Towards the end Jeffes began to want a quieter life and left London to concentrate on solo piano work in Somerset. Then he fell ill and died of an inoperable brain tumor at age 49.  He lives on in his music, with the group’s eight albums being available today on CD.  We just reviewed a DVD documentary on Jeffes and his creation, including performances with the Royal Ballet and Royal Opera House Orchestra.

Brian Eno said of Jeffes: “…he discovered a huge musical territory – stretching along the border regions of the whole United Nations of music – and he wandered thru it fascinated and apparently always smiling…He had no trace of musical snobbery, but delighted in the length and breadth of music, happy to experiment with all combinations.”

The odd musical world of Jeffes has not ended. 13 years after his death, his son Arthur has now revisited his father’s music and added a few new pieces of his own to the mix in a separate CD of his own. Four albums have been issued/reissued on the new Penguin Cafe label [all distributed by Harmonia mundi], and offer a fine opportunity to experience this simple and catchy music, of often extraordinary beauty:


Simon Jeffes Piano Music – DPC100 Penguin Cafe ****:
A number of previously-unreleased solo piano pieces were recorded by Jeffes in the last years of his life. They have been collected together here and 16 of them reissued in the new series.  A couple are piano versions of tunes which appeared on earlier Penguin Cafe albums, and a couple are sketches for pieces that Simon had intended to record on his next album. Some of them date back to as early as 1974, one is untitled, with two their origin unknown.  Some are little improvisations in the Penguin Cafe style, while others sound like fully-realized little piano pieces. The sonic quality isn’t always up to date, but they have been lovingly remastered for this series of reissues.

TrackList: Lullaby, Untitled, Mirror, Pianos Pieces #2, 3, 4, 5, Shelter, Hallfield Piano Idea 2, Silver Star of Bologna, Hallfield Piano Idea 1, Japanese Piano Piece, Kora Kora, Technics Op. 12, Piano Sketch, Meditation Rag, Piano Music, Cajun Piano.

Union Cafe – Penguin Cafe Orchestra – DPC98 Penguin Cafe *****:
This 1994 effort was one of the two last albums from the original Penguin Cafe Orchestra. The two didn’t go into the same back-catalog as the previous albums. This one was recorded at Peter Gabriel’s studios, surrounded by various world music musicians. While there, Jeffes learned of the death of John Cage and quickly created a piece using Cage’s idea of indeterminism, which already influenced everything Jeffes did with the Penguin Cafe Orchestra. He created a melodic harmonic cell spelling out the four letters of his name and used it in canon over four octaves. The piece is titled Cage Dead. The other 16 tunes include musical values from Africa, Venezuela and other parts of South America.

TrackList:  Scherzo & Trio, Lifeboat (Lovers Rock), Nothing Really Blue, Cage Dead, Vega, Ydel 3, Organum, Another One from Porlock, Thorn Tree Wind, Silver Star of Bologna, Discover America, Pythagoras on the Line, Kora Kora, Lie Back and Think of England, Red Shorts, Passing Through.

Concert Program – Penguin Cafe Orchestra – DPC99 (2 CDs) Penguin Cafe *****:
This is the other last album, original released on Zopf Records.  It preserves one of the many live appearances by the ensemble, which took place in a studio in Somerset, England in 1994 and is filled with 20 selections from the 21-year history of ensemble. All the pieces are by Jeffes except for one track.  He plays not only piano but also guitar, harmonium, cuatro, bass and ukulele. The other members of the Orchestra play violin, viola, clarinet, cello, oboe/English horn, bass & percussion, piano, harmonium, trombone, ukulele and cuatro. This is a wonderful sampling of the innocent, happy and weird world of the Penguins, in the very best sonics.

TrackList: Air a Danser, Cage Dead (version 2), Organum, Southern Jukebox Music, Numbers 1-4, Air, Perpetuum Mobile, Nothing Really Blue, Telephone and Rubber Band, Beanfields, Vega, Surface Tension, Oscar Tango, Music for a Found Harmonium, Lifeboat (Lovers Rock), Stead State, Scherzo and Trio, Giles Farnaby’s Dream, Salty Bean Fumble, Red Shorts.

A Matter of Life… The New Penguin Cafe Orchestra – DPC101 Penguin Cafe *****:
Here are 11 new tunes in the Penguin Cafe style, with an ensemble led by Jeffes’ son Arthur, who composed the pieces. There is a paragraph detailing what’s in each tune, and one was written by Arthur for this father’s memorial service. The way some of the pieces were put together in the studio reminded me of the techniques used by Raymond Scott. The original tune on “Fox and the Leopard” was combined with 5/4 percussion rhythms which Arthur had found on some of the old records in his father’s collection. “From a Blue Temple” has a top repeating line based on the Fibonacci Series, combined with a dream about strange aliens marching thru a town and playing this music as they go. The closing track, “Coriolis,” came out of playing around with a strange resonance discovered in the EMT plate reverb they used in the studio. They ran the already-recorded piece thru a compressor with everything turned up high, sent the signal back thru the plate and pushed the stereo image to get a very strange effect. Some of the added sounds to the usual Penguin Cafe instrumentation for this album included penny whistles, ring modulator, dulcitone, prayer bowl, Melodica, glockenspiel, paper percussion, and Northumbrian pipes.

TrackList:  That, Not That; Landau; Sundog; The Fox and the Leopard; Finland; Pale Peach Jukebox; Harry Piers; Two Beans Shaker; From a Blue Temple; Ghost in the Pond; Coriolis.

 — Reviews by John Sunier

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