Australian-in-New-York, tenor saxophonist and composer Evan Harris has given us a day in the life of the Big Apple with his debut album, Skylines.

Whether intended or not, these ten tracks seem all of a piece – short stories of NYC tied together by the three ‘Skyline’ tunes.

‘Skyline at Sunrise’ is vividly evocative as tone poetry, painting the sun rising over the jagged line of the city’s skyscrapers; the improvisations arc up and up until they hit a unison note at the top of the rise. The sun is out.

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‘Skyline at Midday’ is a hard-swinging hustle, all elbows and shove, like midtown at noon. The city surges in the rhythm. Altoist Will Vinson‘s Parkeresque solo is wonderfully nimble, threading in and out of the groove. The other Australian-in-New-York, the ubiquitous Sean Wayland plays Bud Powell to Vinson’s Yardbird with sparkling invention. Always a joy to hear Mr Wayland speak.

Vinson and Wayland are perfectly matched for Harris’s session, as are the rhythm section of Des White on bass and drummer Jochen Rueckert; perfectly matched to each other and perfectly matched to the music. Harris’s smart tunes and arrangements range from hard-bop (‘Equilibrium’), through sinewy percussion grooves such as ‘Inertia’,  across to bop-bossa (‘Spring Song’ – which has some exquisite writing for unison tenor and alto; always a lovely pairing) and the band he has selected breathe life and great beauty into them all.54r-004-evanharris-album-cover-bcamp

‘Resignation”s spry feel belies the title with some sharp horn writing. Harris’s solo here is particularly inspired, his lines working against each other and switching back and forth within their own logic. His playing seems to inspire Vinson to great things – his solo here is a highlight – full of invention and seeking and finding, all with the joy that is particularly at the heart of the alto’s tone.

The final ‘Skyline’ piece, ‘Skyline at Sunset’ evokes the city-that-never-sleeps going to sleep, with Wayland’s piano all stardust and skyscraper lights and the horns painting in indigo and deep mauves. Harris’ writing  surprises in its breadth. Whether impressionistic, or ballad-gentle, or bop-tight, he has complete control over the shape and intent of these pieces.

To say Skylines is an impressive debut – whilst being true – can also sound patronising, suggesting Harris has a way to go. Don’t we all. But he is leaps ahead already and his promise is as exciting and unpredictable as the city he celebrates on Skylines.

 

Skylines is available through 54 Records – https://54records.com.au/evan-harris-skylines

Evan Harris’s website is https://www.evanharrismusic.com

 

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Australian saxophonist Andy Sugg‘s recent album Tenorness is nothing less than a deeply felt love letter to his instrument. Recorded with two different Andy Sugg Groups in those two darkly glittering Gothams of jazz, New York and Melbourne, the eight tracks on Tenorness span the breadth of the tenor’s expression in modern jazz.

As Sugg mentions in his wry and enlightening liner notes, the sax largely exists today because the visionaries of 20th Century Jazz adopted the visionary invention of Adolphe Sax and ran with it. And ran and ran and ran with it.

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Was it the vocal  quality, the blues expression in the machines throat that got to them? Was it the range that the horn can encompass, from the ballad’s indigo sigh a la Getz to the biting snap of a Pharaoh or Trane? Was it the often otherworldlyness of the tone that suggested new poetics as the music became ever more sophisticated and arcane? Across Tenorness, Sugg answers these questions through example and artistry.

The NYC sessions are more electric and fusion-textured, the Melbourne tracks more acoustic. Opener ‘Out of The Office’ is funky and phat, with Sugg biting and intense and Sean Wayland creating a dense synth solo from the Miles/Weather Report groove.

The ballad ‘Little Sparrow’ is wistful, with Sugg’s modern, vibratoless tone saying all it needs to say. Solo piece ‘The Truer Thing’ brings to mind cocoas and blues and a line from a poem about John Coltrane by Michael Harper:

“In the eyes of my first son are the browns /
of these men and their music”

The NYC rhythm section of Matt Clohsey (bass) and Mark Whitfield (drums) really push the groove of ‘Special K’ in the best way, pushing Sugg to a strutting, joyous solo.500x500

The title track ‘Tenorness’ is from the Melbourne sessions and rhymes with ‘Tenderness’ in its ballad dynamic and the simpatico piano comp. of Andy Vance.

‘Shimmy Hop”s Afro groove and ‘B22”s second line NOLA jump were recorded a world apart but cohere through Sugg’s verve and taste; the former’s Trane/Elvin horn/drums conversation and the latter’s smart and piquant double-tracked tenor standing out.

Tenorness leaves us with the heavy electric funk of ‘Columbia’ – synth washes and below-the-belt bass and almost electric horn – suggesting a future that the tenor is hurtling towards. It has often been the chosen instrument of the mussic’s seekers – those who push and rend the envelope. A younger generation is now doing it too.

Andy Sugg deserves a thanks for being part of that seeking tribe, while still reminding us of the roots that now look for new earth.

Andy Sugg’s website is http://andysugg.com

Tenorness is available at https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/andysugg4

 

 

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

 

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