Penguin Cafe, Roundhouse London, gig review: 'Warm-blooded, gently undulating minimalism'

A son's act of remembrance to a man whose work he can breathe life into

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The Independent Culture

Simon Jeffes’ Penguin Café Orchestra made their debut here at the Roundhouse in 1976.

Their absurdist-minimalist, mutant chamber music was intended as a healing burst of open-hearted irrationality, in what Jeffes deemed a cold world. He died in 1997, but since 2009 his son Arthur has led a new line-up, playing his own compositions and his dad’s.

“Giles Farnaby’s Dream” shows Simon Jeffes’ skill, splicing the title’s 16th century English composer with Venezuelan cuatro (large banjo) music, which bursts free from the violins’ Anglican restraint.

Arthur Jeffes’ “Black Hibiscus” is a sort of sequel, convincingly transforming Chopin’s “Nocturne No. 20 in C Sharp Minor” into a Mexican cantina tear-up. Discovering unlikely, still audibly discrete musical relationships is the Palm Court way.

Whether playing “Odeon”’s Cajun-Irish “imaginary folk music” or “Swing the Cat”’s clipped, semi-classical jig, they remain their English selves. Their gently undulating minimalism is warm-blooded.

Jeffes prefaces “Nothing Really Blue” with a memory of his 11-year-old self watching and helping his dad as he wrote it.

Penguin Café is a son’s act of remembrance to a man whose work, at least, he can lovingly breathe life back into.