Immersive jazz such as Miles Davis‘ Big Fun and Live at The Fillmore East – with improvisations covering an entire vinyl side, sometimes two – seem to come from a place beyond titled and constrictions of any kind. To this day I can’t tell my ‘Selim’ from my ‘Sivad’, but I adore Live/Evil.

I mean, if you are ecstatically floating about in a jewel-blue ocean, do you really care what name some long ago cartographer gave it?

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Melbourne improv collective, I Hold The Lion’s Paw have released their debut, Abstract Playgrounds, and it is a bit like that. Even though the album is divided into titles tracks – and cleverly into an ‘A Side’ and a ‘B Side (more on that in a minute) – its immersive spirit pushes the listener into taking it all in, as one. Very much like Bitches Brew or, again, Big Fun.

I keep mentioning Miles’ work, but I shouldn’t: this work, obviously inspired by Miles’ electric 70s masterpieces (Miles gave more than one generation permission to freak out), is of its own world. IHTLP leader/composer, Melbourne trumpeter Reuben Lewis has conceived of this music as improvised compositions that can be then taken and re-edited into new forms. As Teo did, as hip-hop does. EAR020+I+Hold+the+Lions+Paw+-+Abstract+Playgrounds+-++-+web+viewing+-+600+x+600+pixels+at+300+dpi+-

This brings me back to the ‘A Side’ and a ‘B Side’ thing. The pieces here on ‘A’ are the recorded eight piece band improvisations; the ‘B’ side has bassist Mark Shepherd remixing the ‘A’ stuff and coming top with some remarkable results. So, three levels of composition are at work here: Lewis’ original ideas, the transformations brought about by the IHTLP jamming them out, and the mutations rendered through Shepherd’s remixing. It works beautifully, retaining an organic/evolving/searching spirit throughout.

The sound can be reminiscent of the churning Bitches Brew undercurrent at times – two double basses, with electric bass and guitar and two drum kits under the horns – then suddenly it is light as air, the horns (Lewis and trombonist Jordan Murray reading each other perfectly), Afro-funky with a Jon Hassell accent. The electronic intrusions and colours shock in the best way, cleaving the acoustic with the electric.

Is this exactly where jazz needed to have ended up in the year 2018? Future-primitive grooves – there are echoes of Radiohead, what Robert Plant is doing in rock and Sydney’s 20th Century Dog are doing in jazz. It is an exhilarating spirit that moves this collective, taking the best from the past, and from the future and grafting them to the present.

Wherever he is, Miles is smiling.

 

Abstract Playgrounds is available at https://www.earshift.com/news/2018/1/10/i-hold-the-lions-paw-abstract-playgrounds-out-feb-2

 

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On the first listen to pianist/composer Steve Barry‘s new album – Blueprints and Vignettes – I was so knocked out I made a flippant Facebook post which referred to him as “cosmonaut Steve Barry”.

Many a true word said in jest, as some bard said. Barry is not only a musical cosmonaut in the sense of an intrepid and fearless space explorer, but the universe he explores is largely one of his own making.

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The new album is a quantum departure from Barry’s previous two acclaimed albums, 2012’s Steve Barry and 2014’s Puzzles. His recent writing has evolved a highly individual and idiosyncratic language that colours the logic of his melodic line. Harmonically he has become even more adventurous, and rhythmically he plays with time and the stretching of time in truly eye and ear-opening ways.

The PR release mentions influences such as Paul Bley and Eliot Carter, but I can hear other musical cosmonauts in there too: Ornette, Bartók, even the spirit of Debussy – magical and hazy round the edges – at times.

Barry has selected some fellow cosmonauts of equal fearlessness and intrepidity for this trip. Jeremy Rose, who seems to spend as much time digging deep into the earth as he does cruising the cosmic breezes, is on alto and bass clarinet. And, after hearing how they breath as one with these tunes, I couldn’t think of a better rhythm section than the masterful Dave Goodman on drums and rising star Max Alduca on double bass. Blueprints+FINAL+#2+1400x1400

The Barry sound is evident from opener ‘Mammoth pt.1’ – a fragmented ensemble line that seems to walk along a swaying tightrope. Pretty soon the group, in the solos, is dancing on that swaying tightrope with sure but light steps. ‘Mammoth pt.2’ which follows, is more meditative and darker, reflecting the yin-yang of the album.

‘Primed’ is also a two-parter: Part 1 has a backdrop of Alduca’s percussive, bowed and scraped bass effects under Rose’s conversational bass clarinet; Part 2 has that slightly giddying sense of stretched time with Barry’s piano stabs under bass and bass clari.

‘Grind’ and album closer ‘#34’ both move across a bed of suggested swing. The melodies have a Monk-ish neo-neo-bop leap and shout to them – the obvious rhythmic paths tug at Goodman and Alduca but they don’t go there, preferring to blaze their own trails. Nice work.

The lovely (and evocatively named) ballad ‘In the crepuscular forest of forked paths’ best serves to bring together the strands of Barry’s parallel interests – it has a dark lyricism and painterly harmony, a jazz approach in the freedom of the improvised sections, and a sense of searching for a new beauty that much of the best 20th century classical music possesses.

Searching for a new beauty. It is what musical cosmonauts do. And, if they are all as lovely, challenging and revealing as Blueprints and Vignettes, I look forward to further Steve Barry communiqués  from the outer reaches of the universe of music.

 

Blueprints and Vignettes is available from http://www.stevebarrymusic.com/store/ and https://www.earshift.com/news/2018/1/10/steve-barry-blueprints-vignettes-out-jan-19

We love Andrew Dickeson.

The Sydney jazz drummer has long been the epitome of elegance, both in his playing and in his style. Always dressed to the nines and with that secret smile as he plays (what does he know that we don’t?), Dickeson is a direct link to everything that is good about jazz and the fine art of jazz drumming. A modern classicist, it is always a delight to hear him play.

His new album – Is That So? – is a delight too. Recorded with US tenor player, Eric Alexander, its nine tracks cover wide and fertile ground, from streamlined bop to bossa nova and Afro-Cuban grooves, all serving to showcase Dickeson’s versatility and impeccable taste. Andrew Dickeson2

Eric Alexander is an excellent partner for this project as are Wayne Kelly on piano and bassist Ashley Turner. All four are coming from the same good place – that of 50’s and early 60’s jazz where the modernism of hard bop and ‘cool’ had formed into an alloy that was one of the perfect expressions of the art form.

From the opener – title track ‘Is That So?’ a rarely-played Duke Pearson tune – you can hear the quartet’s perfect dynamic balance. A sublimely swinging piece, its high point is Dickeson’s melodic drum break that, typically, says all it needs to say with taste, precision and economy.

Alexander’s nimble solo on the classic ‘For all We Know’ shows him also to be a master of restrained swing – though he can produce flashes of fire out of the smoulder.

The Ahmad Jamal-inspired ‘On The Trail’ shows pianist Kelly’s cool empathy: chiming comping giving way to a sparkling solo. Ahmad would approve.

The Rogers and Hammerstein chestnut ‘Surry With The Fringe On Top’ is here a totally different vehicle to the horse-drawn original. Dickeson mentions in his notes that he wanted to take a more modern look at the tune, so the band has stripped it down and built it back up into an exhilarating mix of jagged, almost Monk-like riffing juxtaposed against streamlined swing sections. And it works – beautifully.

Andrew Dickeson1Ballads are often where even the best swingers come unstuck, but the reading of ‘To Love and Be Loved’ here is perfect – the balance of all elements, the emotional rise and fall, are like faceted crystal, coolly dazzling.

Moving into more rarified feels, Dickeson leads the band into Afro-Cuban territory with an almost Horace Silver feel to ‘Invitation’ and a smooth, yet parrot-bright bossa nova on ‘O Barquinho (The Little Boat)’. The edgy syncopations and complex rhythm patterns are ‘swung’ by the band as easily as anything else on the album – a tribute to the fluid rapport of the rhythm section.

Closing cut ‘Iron Man’, an Eric Alexander original, allows the band let off some steam on a bright ‘blues with a bridge’. They cook, but the heat rarely rises above a simmer, Alexander flaring out some occasional Coltranesque lines and Dickeson striking matches in the shadows. The restraint keeps it tight and exciting.

Dickeson writes of recording the title tune – ‘Is That So?’ – “(it was) so simple and catchy that you can’t help swinging and smiling”. And it is that spirit that pervades this nine-track set. Is That So? might just help us to figure what Andrew’s secret smile is all about. Do listen.

The music of Thelonious Sphere Monk is a world of its own. So unique in jazz is Monk’s conception – both in composition and in improvisation  – that it has pretty much carved out a sub-genre of its own.

Because of its unique language, it has proven down the years a notoriously difficult book to play. Some of the greats have struggled with its quirks and almost Zen-like mind-games: the staggered rhythms, the displaced phrases, the lines that seemingly go nowhere, only to bob up from rabbit-hole a few bars later. John Coltrane and Monk’s long-time foil, Charlie Rouse come to mind, but not too many others.

To improvise over Monk’s compositions – even a deceptively traditional blues such as ‘Blue Monk’ – demands an understanding of his highly personal logic. To move within that successfully, while not losing your own voice, is the grail.

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Sydney altoist, Michael Griffin has put together a tribute to Monk’s music based around an octet Monk toured in 1968. Griffin’s octet (a very Monk word I think; as ‘quintet’ is a very Miles word) is made up of some of our best and brightest. I was fortunate to catch them at Sydney’s swish Foundry 616.

After the opener, the sweetly melancholic ‘Ruby, My Dear’ played by the quartet of Griffin, Aaron Blakey on piano and the rhythm section of Tim Geldens (drums) and Tom Botting (bass), Griffin brought out the horns. With ‘Epistrophy’ I knew Griffin has done his homework. He explained, mid-set, that he had voiced the horns based on transcriptions of Monk’s piano voicings. So all the harmonic quirks were there – the clashed seconds and flat-seconds, the clusters, the more open intervals such as sixths and ninths (Monk seemed to favour either very close or very open harmony) – and the effect was, like Monk himself, akin to nothing else in jazz.

The band swung through a nice mix of faves and obscurities – the gonzoid mis-steps of ‘Evidence’, the fractured bop of ‘We See’, a wonderfully driving ‘Off Minor’, the horns – Griffin plus Michael Gordon and Louis Gordon (2 tenors), with Paul Weber on trombone and Tom Avenicos on trumpet – sounding huge on ‘Oska T’ and almost Stravinsky-like on closer ‘Crepuscule with Nellie’.

The soloists all dug into the material with zest. Griffin’s smart selection of players afforded a range of approaches – Michael Gordon’s reflective tone and ideas, Louis (no relation) Gordon’s more biting attack, the sharp tone of Avenicos (a beautiful solo in ‘I Mean You’ where the piano laid out and the trumpet notes played contrapuntal tag with the rhythm section), Paul Weber’s blues-inflected voice-like lines.

Griffin’s Parker-classic alto flurries at times could seem at odds with the more open Monk ideas – serving as an illustration as to the immense differences between these two ‘architects’ of Bebop, Monk and Charlie Parker (as different as Frank Lloyd Wright and Gaudi, though I couldn’t say who was which). That said, his more lyrical side was the highpoint of ‘Blue Monk’, beautiful long blues lines and lovely phrase endings. But what the hell – he is one of our most exciting players whatever he does.

Someone who seemed to be having too much fun was pianist Aaron Blakey. And what jazz pianist wouldn’t with the Monk book? Resplendent in a wide Sonny Rollins hat, Blakely placed perfect ‘Monk bombs’ under the soloists and laid out for great gaps, shoring up the tension as Monk used to (though, I noted, without Monk’s sweet, abandoned dance movements around the piano). Blakey’s solos had an equal measure of his own sparkling ideas and some Zen-lunatic Monk humour. His solo-piano take on ‘Pannonica’ which opened the second set was another high-point in a night of highs.

If only to experience the wonderful, eternally-modern music of T S Monk you need to see this band. The fact that Michael Griffin has rendered such perfect arrangements, kept close and respectful to the spirit of Monk, and engaged such a killer ensemble makes it  an essential to any fan of Jazz.

Australia’s greatest export, AC/DC, have for almost half a century kept the beating heart of rock and roll alive. Despite their sound becoming more buffed and polished as time has gone by, despite the rooms going from humid pubs to the world’s enormo-domes, they have kept true to the basic template laid down on their first album, High Voltage.

And the beating heart within the band has always been Malcolm Young, his rhythm riffs the rock upon which the AC/DC sound is built. So many of their iconic rock and roll songs begin with Malcolm’s throaty Gretsch guitar – not vocal or lead guitar –­ because it is his sound and fury that lets you know it is AC/DC within four bars.

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Pic by LilyLondon9

Fashions and fads have tried to co-opt AC/DC – heavy metal, cartoon rock á la Guns’n’Roses, retro ‘classic’ rock, corporate rock etc – but the band who always refer to themselves simply as a rock’n’roll band have never faltered. They have remained true believers and picked up generation after generation of new fans along the way.

Most know his brother Angus’s schoolboy antics or Bon Scott’s loutish leer (and later, Brian Johnson’s flat-cap swagger) but Malcolm’s tone and attack, like Keith Richards in the Rolling Stones, defines the band and makes it unique in the world of Rock.

In fact, Angus Young was often quoted as saying that Malcolm was the better guitarist, in a technical sense. And you can hear it in the focused energy of his playing – like a White Pointer shark, a perfectly evolved machine – relentless, rock-solid and dynamic.

As a guitarist myself I have always admired Malcolm Young’s playing. People would speak of rhythm guitar as being down a rung from the showy, spot-lit lead guitar. But those with ears and the knowledge of how a band is built always knew Malcolm had a gift for playing just what was needed. The spaces between his slashed chord-riffs, the holes he allowed for the snare to leap out or for the bass to breathe added a funkiness and a swing to AC/DC’s sound that aligned it more with their heroes of 50s rock – like Chuck Berry – than many of the stodgy, leaden hard-rock bands they were usually lumped in with.

As time moves forward, the legacy of Malcolm will be appreciated even more, because it is gone, and it can never be replicated. You can read about the history of AC/DC, their amazing story and Malcolm’s sad decline elsewhere. I can only say what he meant to me, safe in the knowledge that he meant the same to millions the world over.

His rock and roll heart had a huge, thunderous beat for such a little guy and now that it has stopped the world is a little quieter and a lot greyer. Goodbye, Malcolm and thank you.

 

Published November 2017 on megaphoneoz

 

Alto saxophonist Jack Beeche works well with guitarists. I last heard him with Melbourne guitarist Tim Willis where his playing had to work within Willis’ metal-jazz format. On this new recording, Beeche/Magnusson, a duets recording with Stephen Magnusson, he is playing very different horn with a very different guitarist.

Magnusson is, across the album, an entirely atmospheric and sympathetic player in the luminous mold of Pat Metheny (the version here of Metheny’s ‘Katelkin Gray’ is a high point of the album) – which is not to take away from his own, entirely distinctive voice. His use of effects is sparing – often the guitar is unadorned, as the tune demands – but when used, add a lovely shimmer or widescreen reverb under and around Beeche’s pearlescent horn.

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And pearlescent Beeche’s playing is – the notes drop like pearls, not diamond polished, but iridescently haloed. The intimate duet format allows all the nuances in his playing to be heard; the room-sized dynamic allows the horn to breathe, rather than to be pushed into a harsher tone. it is a side of the alto that is all too rarely heard today.

Beeche/Magnusson‘s seventeen (yes, seventeen) tracks work through the spectrum of possibilities of the alto/guitar combination – from the Hot Club joie-swing of ‘The Gift’ and ‘Wings’ through to impressionistic ballads like Beeche’s lovely ‘Golden Blue’ and all points between.Beeche Mag 1

The standards are well chosen and perfectly realised: “I’ll Remember April’ is contrapuntal tentacles wrapping like vines around the melody; ‘Darn That Dream is made more dream than dare by Magnusson’s translucent reverb. The closer, a 6-minute meditation on ‘Softly, As a Morning Sunrise’ seems to construct the piece from the outer edge inwards, from miasma to form, as it goes. Rock and roll too – Soundgarden‘s ‘Black Hole Sun’ is recast as the lost Bossa Nova standard we always knew it was.

Separating the tracks are five bijou miniatures, all titled ‘Image 1’, ‘Image 2’ etc… They are short improvisations barely over 2 minutes long (the shortest is 44 seconds) that are complete little gems, some sparkling and sharp, some smooth and opaque.

Beeche and Magnusson have made one of the better duet albums in Australian Jazz. Maybe, as they are both in demand and busy players, it will be the first and last. If it is, it is a treasure. If it isn’t, it is a gift that we hope keeps on giving.

 

Beeche/Magnusson is available from http://newmarketmusic.com

The best of jazz vocal – and its perfect expression – is where the voice becomes an instrument, on par with frontline instruments such as the sax or trumpet. The finest jazz vocalists know this and go for it: Mark Murphy, Anita O’Day, Chet Baker, our own Vince Jones. Sinatra too – you can hear his delight when he worked with a small band.

One of our finest is Trish Delaney-Brown. A founding member of knockout vocal group The Idea of North, she comes alive in looser settings where the pure jazz singer in her can really come out.

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Her new album The Game places her voice in the perfect setting – a dream-team ensemble also made up of the finest: Pianist Greg Coffin, Jeremy Sawkins on guitar and the rhythm section of Brendan Clarke and Nic Cecire. All the compositions are hers, bar the opener (the Bricusse-Newley gem ‘Pure imagination’) and a co-write with Dave Panichi, the lovely ballad ‘Ruby’.

The ballad can sometimes seem the domain of the jazz vocalist more than any other instrument (apologies to Johnny Hodges) and ‘Ruby’ is as good as they come – a gorgeous example of the form with Coffin’s telepathically simpatico piano painting notes behind Delaney-Brown’s vocal, then rising to a beautiful considered solo.

‘Birds’ is a wordless evocation of the murmuration of starlings. Sawkins’ gut-string solo here has that lovely balance of the classic and the modern that pervades the playing across the whole album, grounding it, yet giving it the wings this music needs. Screen+Shot+2017-10-10+at+1.19.08+pm

‘Face of The Bass’ is a strutting blues that features Clarke’s tough bass, breaking into a startling bass/vocal scat duet that leaps out before chilling back down to that bad (good) groove. Across The Game the vocal scat (in duet and solo) is exquisite, always intriguing, never empty histrionics.

The second ballad on The Game is the lovely ‘Simple Feast’. Here, as on the Bacharach-David flavoured title track ‘The Game’, Delaney-Brown’s sense of pop classicism is apparent – lyrics that write short stories, bittersweet, over a musical ground that is sophistication without empty virtuosity.

We go out on the almost-too-hip groove of ‘Wachagot’. A rolling piece of funk propelled by a jagged vocal riff, this one really shows drummer Cecire in his element – flawless touch, earthy sense of groove.

But it is Trish Delaney-Brown that shines over The Game. The album allows her perfect grasp of jazz singing a challenging range of expression through its multiplicity of textures – from blues to latin-funk to urbane pop and back home to the jazz and the jazz ballad. if you want to hear how good it gets, take a listen.

 

Trish Delaney-Brown’s website is https://www.tdbmusic.com.au