Being a prolific artist and being a surprising, ever-original artist – despite much evidence to the contrary – need not be mutually exclusive.

Pianist/composer Andrea Keller continues to surprise, as well as being one of our most consistently prolific music makers. Her latest project is the ensemble Five° Below and their debut is the six-track teaser Five° Below Live.

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I say ‘teaser’ as this is a preview of a larger work slated for 2019 which will include saxophonists Julien Wilson and Scott MacChonnachie. ‘Teaser’ it may be, but it stands firm and strong as a work in its own right. For this Live album, Keller has intriguingly limited it to rhythm section instruments, with startling results.

The two bass players – Sam Anning on acoustic and Mick Meagher on electric – plus drummer James McLean and guitarist Steve Magnusson, plus Keller herself on piano reimagine a collection of her previous works across a range of styles.

‘Fern Tree’ from 2013’s Family Portraits grows from a textural piano pattern with Keller’s solo morphing from Charles Ives to some real rock’n’roll, before the double heartbeat of the two basses rolls out the joyous dance of Magnusson’s guitar. ‘Of Winter, Ice and Snow’ moves glacially, with guitar swells and sharp shards of piano making this, magically, seem more weather than music. Such is its enveloping and mesmerising atmosphere.a4059568909_10

The mood across Live is largely pensive and dynamically introverted, so the track ‘Grand Forfeit’ leaps out like an animal. Beginning with ominously grinding guitar and electric bass feedback it suddenly surprises with a jagged asymmetrical riff over which Maganusson howls and gnashes. His guitar solo is red in tooth and claw, reminiscent of King Crimson‘s Robert Fripp at his most brutal.

‘Warm Voices’, originally from 2013’s From Ether, lulls with double bass chords and percussion moving and out like the sea; the piano is ebbing waves and the guitar is distant clouds on the horizon – the picture the ensemble builds is exquisitely balanced and blissfully hypnotic.

Andrea Keller stretches jazz into whatever she wants here – as a composer, musician and visionary, she always has. Using many of the most noble aspects of modern jazz – its curiosity, freedom and genre-inclusive nature – Keller enriches and expands the form. It is always a thrill to see where she goes next.

Five° Below Live is available from https://andreakeller.bandcamp.com

Andrea Keller’s website is at https://andreakeller.bandcamp.com

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For a week I have been trying to find time to write my impressions of the new Art As Catharsis release Unfound Places. What I realise I really needed was space.

Even moreso, I needed this sunny mid-Winter Sunday afternoon, with everyone out and me alone in the house. For this new music from Ben Marston and Hugh Barrett is made for the mid-Winter Sunday afternoon of the soul.

Shaped by Barrett’s acoustic and electric keys, and Marston’s trumpet and laptop manipulations/atmospheres the music is evocative of places and faces just out of reach – the haze of memory rather than the data of recollection. There is a difference and this exquisitely conjured music is its soundtrack.

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Soundtrack is the lazy genre-classification Unfound Places calls to mind, only because of the quietly cinematic breadth of tracks such as ‘The Quiet Hero’ (a very Eno title in its entirely accurate vagueness) – which grows and grows imperceptibly over a slowly meshing laptop texture. The pacing of the improvisations/compositions is deftly handled by the two, as the works’ often fragile skein of notes and underlying harmonies rest like fine glass on the air.

Opener ‘The Crisp Breath of Dawn’ has Marston’s trumpet pealing ominously/joyously (the moods are shadowy) over deep textures – his tone is not stridently Morricone yet also not quite as folded-in as Jon Hassell. Eno and Hassell of course come to mind, yet only in the most positive way, taking nothing at all away from Marston’s and Barrett’s vision. a3782214624_16.jpg

The music is not all mist and shadows – ‘Rock the Boat’ seems to have a rhythm and bass line until you realise the keys-bass and laptop tics are just a pattern of texture, unique among the many unique textures each track is played across.

‘The Northward March’ brings to mind the Bowie (and Eno) of Low‘s ambient side – its European sorrow evoking ‘Warsawa’ and bleak history with Hassell-harmony trumpet and the trudge of block chords. Birds fly through sleet overhead. Black birds.

Too often, open-ended works such as Unfound Places push melody down below other compositional qualities – maybe because the bold statement of melody threatens to nail the music down too tight, or can pull up an emotion that is too clear-edged, and the spell is broken. Marston and Barrett don’t shy away from melody – check the blues lines on ‘Sleepyhead’, blues lines which stray into Moorish noir – in fact they use melody, across Unfound Places, to amplify and expand the emotional palette, rather than constrict it.

It is beautiful work.

 

Unfound Places is available from https://benmarston.bandcamp.com/album/unfound-places

Art As Catharsis’ website is at http://www.artascatharsis.com

 

Perth blues-rocker Matty T Wall‘s 2016 debut Blues Skies came out fully-formed as an album of surprising power, variety and originality – the latter a component sorely missed in the current blues scene.

Second albums can suffer from that “sophomore slump” where the artist has shot their bolt, using up all their ideas and energy on the first. Luckily for anyone who loves blues and gun guitarists, Wall’s new collection  – called Sidewinder – takes everything that was so damn good about his debut and works it up a notch – or two.

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Pic by Sean Clohesy

An integral component on Sidewinder is the presence of esteemed sound guru Bob Clearmountain. Having worked with the greats of the age, Clearmountain’s sonic fingerprint adds something remarkable to everything he touches.

In the case of Sidewinder, Clearmountain’s mix serves to focus the inherent power and energy of Wall’s attack into a laser-sharp rush. The two instrumentals here – opener “Slideride” and the later “Sophia’s Strut” – leap out of the speakers, the former a torrent of metallic slide with plenty of greasy Johnny Winter abandon, the latter a masterclass in fretboard hammer-ons/offs, set over some heavy junkyard percussion.Sidewinder-COVER-ART-600x600

We are treated to beautifully leather-slick blues-rock on the title track “Sidewinder” and “Shake It”, the latter’s loose-hipped groove one that would do classic-era Aerosmith proud. Yet, as on Blues Skies, the light and shade are also here: the slinky Shuggie Otis-style soul in the Trombone Shorty cover “Something Beautiful”, some surprisingly jazzy guitar lines in the soul-funk of “Ain’t That the Truth”. And the road-hardened rhythm section of Ric Whittle on drums and Stephen Walker on bass are with him all the way, blasting the light and chilling the shade.

A small quibble is the inclusion of chestnuts “Goin’ Down” and Sam Cooke‘s “Change is Gonna Come” – their presence seems superfluous amongst the riches of Wall’s originals. That said, the monster crunch of the Don Nix perennial and the chance to hear Wall’s vocal shine on “Change…” could almost change my mind.

If there is any justice in this world – and there far too often isn’t – Sidewinder will take Matty T Wall to the top of the blues-rock tree, with the rewards of festival headlines and an ever-growing international following. If his next album is an much of a step up as Sidewinder is from his excellent debut – I have strong hopes that justice will be served.

 

Sidewinder is available from July 2 from Matty T Wall’s website – which also has has Sidewinder launch dates – https://www.mattytwall.com 

I recently had the sinful pleasure of hearing traditional jazzer Geoff Bull in full flight with his energetic band, The Finer Cuts. The ribald energy of the band, especially when the horns went tutti, had that anarchic joy shout that is one of the great charms of early jazz.

Even though the aesthetic is markedly different, I hear that same anarchic shout on the second release by Melbourne trombonist/composer James MacaulayToday Will Be Another Day. That said, maybe the shout comes from a similar place to Bull’s, as Macaulay also performs with his own traditional jazz group, The Lagerphones.

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Today Will Be Another Day was recorded in Tokyo with a dream team of Melbourne and Japanese musicians. The band rumbles out of the gate on opener ‘Mashigo Jukja’ with stabbed piano from long-time Macaulay cohort Aaron Choulai leading the charge into a dense thicket of horns. The texture thins into sinewy Ornette Coleman freedom, with trumpeter Ben Harrison playing some stunning virtuoso passages. Harrison’s playing across the album is a stand-out – he pulls sounds from the horn that startle in their abrasion, vocal-like textures and imagination.

The warm shadow of dear departed drummer and guru Allan Browne continues to lie across Australian jazz and Macaulay’s beautiful reading of Browne’s ballad ‘Prednisolone’ is a touching tribute to the man. The only cover here, its arrangement is build from the heart up and deeply affecting. James-Macaulay2

The rhythm section of ex-pat drummer Joe Talia and Melbournian Marty Holoubek on bass are a delight throughout – at times they kick it, perfectly interlocked on the groove, as on spicy tango ‘Chicken Liver’ (Scott McConnachie‘s alto a knockout here); on other tracks they play almost entirely free or in complex dislocated rhythmic counterpoint. Holoubek’s extended solo on vehicle ‘Freedom Jazz Girls’ is mesmerising.

‘Freedom Jazz Girls’ also features the bass koto of Miyama McQueen-Tokita. The instrument’s exotically evocative voice gives the polytonal ‘Square Dance’ a feeling of, oddly enough, rural blues guitar – its slides and moans mirrored in Macaulay’s exceptional slipping-and-sliding trombone solo.

The two chorales here both have a pang of nostalgia (that bittersweet sister of homesickness). ‘Tokyo’ is rain-soft and impressionistic, Choulai’s piano perfect in its wistfulness. Album closer ‘Spring Chorale’ – a collaboration with singer Lisa Salvo – has the added emotional lift of three part vocals. It leaves you on a cloud.

The title track, ‘Today Will Be Another Day’ (named not for a Zen Buddhist aphorism but taken from a mysterious T-shirt slogan) encapsulates all that is good about James Macaulay’s playing, writing and musical vision. Over its 12 minutes it moves from Ellingtonian dissonant blues (and aubergine blacks and moody indigos) through various tempos and feels; all built around two duos – one of alto sax and bass koto, the other of trumpet and piano. Its cohesion reflects the intelligent cohesion of its parent album.

And that anarchic joy shout, while not always jumping out, is definitely always grinning in the background.

 

Today Will Be Another Day is available from Earshift Music  https://www.earshift.com

James Macaulay’s website is at http://www.jamesmacaulay.com.au

The most affecting track on guitarist Julius Schwing‘s 2016 album edge2:isthmus is a piece called ‘Nocturnal at The Neck’. It is little more than a field recording of Schwing playing guitar on the sand of The Neck, an isthmus on Schwing’s home, Bruny Island off Tasmania. What makes it special is the accompaniment of wind and sloughing waves, which Schwing reacts to in his playing.

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This music-as-nature idea appears to be the inspiration behind his new recording with Danish percussionist, Christian Windfield, called Rhubarb. The two got together on Bruny in early 2017, spending time playing music surrounded by the island’s pristine wilderness and unpredictable elements. The collaboration led to peformances at Hobart’s Schmørgåsbaag venue where Rhubarb was recorded.

Over two extended pieces – named ‘Baag 1’ and ‘Baag 2’ – the two move in perfect rapport through varying textures. Using only guitar and drums (and objects) they conjure a remarkable range of sounds, from the gossamer light to the sharply abrasive, a wide dynamic curve from minimal throb to clattering skitter.a3162837903_16

The only constant appears to be the influence of the wilds of Bruny Island. This is music achieving one of the ultimates: to play with the elements, as an element. All truly masterful instrumentalists reach a point where the instrument – the machine, the tool – is transcended and their playing becomes their voice, as a bird sings or a lover moans or the wind howls.

What Schwing and Windfield do here is deeply primal – they play sand and water and whistling winds, dried beach grasses and dawn fogs. It is mesmerising, and time is irrelevant, or at least reduced to the dreamtime clock of nature.

Rhubarb is the latest release on Julius Schwing’s Isthmus label. It is a small, creative music label that keeps coming up with consistently fascinating music. Take the time to have a listen – you may be surprised, as I was, to smell the salt of Bruny Island coming off the music.

This album and others are available from http://www.isthmus-music.com

Bassist/composer Sam Anning brings his wonderfully poetic cast of mind to his third album as bandleader, Across a Field as Vast as One.

Recorded with long time collaborators trumpeter Mat Jodrell, saxophonists Julien Wilson and Carl Mackey, pianist Andrea Keller, and drummer Danny Fischer, the eight-track collection draws inspiration and ideas from lost friends, Balkan women singers, volcanic lakes, taxi conversations and aircraft wreckage gleaming in a field of sunflowers.

Of course, this is not being wilfully quirky, because Anning in his compositions pulls great emotion out of these disparate experiences and satori. Across a Field as Vast as One  is an album of great beauty that avoids the trap of complexity to focus on the emotional.

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Indeed he says that his track “Sweethearts” “…was a sort of rebellion against the dense and complex harmonic and melodic homework of my masters studies at the Manhattan School of Music. … I just wanted two simple chords and a nice melody!” The track jumps with a lovely West African lilt and Andrea Keller’s piano solo reflects that joy in its rising attack.

Sweethearts was the title of Anning’s 2013 album with Julien Wilson and dear departed drummer Allan Browne. Browne is remembered here on the title track which takes it’s title from an Anning poem: “As eyes opening for the first time / On light splattering into a / Flat natural shimmer / Across a field as vast as one / Your name is to be spoken slowly / And carefully… / When I awake I’ll know we shared this dream / And I’ll know that I loved you.”  The pain of this ballad of loss and longing is expressed in the pang of Matt Jodrell’s aching trumpet tone.anning2

Anning’s compositional smarts are to the fore throughout – the ethereal arpeggios on ‘Lake’ conjuring the deep blue waters of the Mt Gambier blue volcanic lake which inspired it; the chattering talk-like melody and human-hips groove of ‘Talking Wall’, about a graffiti wall in Libya; the bittersweet Balkan blues of album closer ‘Telos’ (with a stunning Julien Wilson bass-clarinet solo that wails, literally and figuratively).

Anning says, tellingly, when speaking of his piece here called ‘Hands Reaching’: “(It is) a piece that came out naturally with little intervention from the deprecating voices in my head.”  I think anyone who truly creates spends half their time shouting down those deprecating voices – those voices that say the work is worthless, the effort is pointless, the  world isn’t listening. Hallelujah! that artists like Sam Anning consistently manage to shut that chattering homunculus up, who manage to replace the void with the life-force of their beautiful and meaningful work.

Across a Field as Vast as One is one such work – brave, beautiful and above all, the best of what it is to be human.

 

Across a Field as Vast as One is available at www.earshift.com

Sam Anning’s website is at www.samanningmusic.com

Hurrying through an unpredicted rainstorm I was late for the first masterclass of the day. Well this was jazz, the music of the unpredictable, so it sort of fitted.

The masterclass with New Yorkers Kris Davis and Tony Malaby began the one-day Sydney Con International Jazz Festival for 2018. There was talk of intervals in birdsong, and piano clusters, and saxophonist Malaby spoke of actively moving away from jazz forms. The two played a tantalising duet with Davis’ piano shimmering out Messaien-like clusters and chirps. The lovely wood-walled Recital Hall felt, in this hushed and rarified atmosphere, like church.

Barney McAll mentioned the phrase “Music is church” during his masterclass, quoting his long-time employer, Gary Bartz. McAll was next up and his session was as freewheeling and live-wire as Davis/Malaby’s had been pensive and considered. McAll is a unique Wayne Shorter-like  figure in Australian jazz, original to the point of almost being his own genre, and intuitively Zen in his approach. He spoke of freedom, Skrillex and technology (giving an insight into the surprisingly mechanistic origins of his compositions). When he sat at the piano to demonstrate, his dynamic attack made me jump (as it always does).

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Later in the day I would enjoy McAll in his ASIO (Australian Symbiotic Improvisers Orbit) setting. His band of drummer Hamish Stuart and bass mainstay Jon Zwartz, with “the children” (McAll’s affectionate term) – young guitarist Carl Morgan and Mike Rivett on tenor –  took to all the quirky twists and turns in his compositions, which ranged from roiling gnashes of ensemble interplay to intensely beautiful skeins of arpeggio. Was McAll my highlight? In a day of highlights it was hard to say.

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Out of the cloisters and into the much more easy going Jazz Cafe where there was food and drink and people talking – and the rumbunctious Geoff Bull and his young band The Finer Cuts blasting traditional jazz. This music is always a delight – a ribald reminder of the street (and brothel) origins of what has evolved into high art. The triple horn weavings of Bull’s trumpet with tenor and trombone shouted out that joyous anarchy that is still at the heart of even the most contemporary jazz. Pianist Harry Sutherland had the style down in spades, with a rolling grin to his playing. ‘God bless Geoff Bull’ is all I can say.

The Jazz Cafe also presented Darren Heinrich‘s Trio – the classic organ-guitar-drums sound that is one of jazz’s most sublime mutations. The Trio’s sound immediately transformed the Cafe’s club-like atmosphere, the air heavy with imagined nicotine. Guitarist Sam Rollings‘ biting blues-jazz tone was the perfect foil for Heinrich’s intense Hammond attack – at the top of their dynamic the Trio was verging on rock-band loud.

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For 2018, the Con Festival’s artistic director, David Theak, brought together a truly fascinating program – impressive not only for its quality, but for the breadth of its range. At the other end of the music’s timeline from the original street music represented here by Geoff Bull, we had the Berlin-based duo Spill. This was truly startling stuff. Both Magda Mayas on (extremely) prepared piano and Tony Buck on drums treated their instruments as boxes of possibilities, to be unpacked in real time, as they played. It was all the more remarkable, considering that both instruments are acoustic percussion instruments, traditionally incapable of a non-tremolo sustain. Well, I heard a piano sing like a bird and a bass drum moan like a wounded bull. The inventiveness of Mayas and Buck was jaw-dropping, but also transportingly beautiful.

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Back to the Jazz Cafe to bring myself back down to earth from the ionosphere. Andrew Scott‘s Pocket Trio were playing, and it was just what I needed. Scott has based his group on the driving but inventive trios of Oscar Peterson and Bill Charlap et al. They swing like hell but can turn on a dime. The other Pocketeers, bassist Max Alduca and drummer Tim Geldens seemed to relish the ride as much as Scott – whose driving and unfrilly playing reminded me more of Tommy Flanagan or even Ray Bryant than the sometimes frilly Peterson. (Scott’s droll spoken song intros are worth admission in themselves).

Fortrified with a few glasses of good red I took in the experience of Stu Hunter‘s ‘Migration’ project. A massive work, performed by a percussion heavy ensemble, it really is something to see (and hear). Grooves are set up and move in and out of rhythmic lattices to reform into new grooves. The players he assembled worked the material beautifully in their solos, notably saxophonist/clarinetist Julien Wilson and Phil Slater on trumpet, with Tina Harrod‘s voice lending an ethereal Gospel edge to the atmosphere set up by Hunter’s astounding ensemble writing.

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David Theak had joked with me that if I stayed “dawn till dusk” he would shout me a cold one. By the time it came around for the last concert of the day – the international Festival star artist Gretchen Parlato – I was still fresh as a daisy, buoyed by the energy of all the superlative music I had witnessed. And her music made me feel as it I was floating on air.

As all truly great jazz vocalists before here, Parlato’s voice was an instrument among instruments. The unique makeup of her ensemble – gut-string guitar, cello and percussion – surrounded her airy voice with an ebb-and-flow of an entirely organic nature as she moved thru bossa and Bach, and beyond. The effect was mesmerising. The Verbruggen Hall seemed at times too large for the intimacy Parlato and her group conjured – I would have loved to hear her in a closer, smaller space. But this is a small quibble, too small for so sublime an experience.

So to the train home, high as a kite from such a day. Weaving through the swelling VIVID crowds coming into the sparkling city as I was going out, I knew it would take me a while to process it all.

Finally, thanks to David and the Con for putting their resources behind such a landmark event. Jazz is a living, breathing music and it is gratifying to see audiences for such a program not only exist, but exist in enthusiastic numbers.