Archive for May, 2012

The MCA is a jewel in Sydney’s crown that many of us – distracted by beaches, bistros and beer barns – somehow miss out on. Since its opening in 1991 as the flowering of the John Power Bequest it has shocked, bemused and confounded Sydneysiders – as all good capital ‘A’ Art should.

Under the directorship of the astonishingly dynamic Elizabeth Ann Macgregor  – forget The Avengers, this woman is a real superhero – the MCA (and with it Contemporary Art) became not only – horrors! – popular but something that corporations and the influential fell over each other to be associated with.

But even though the old Customs House building was big, it could not hold the ever-swelling – and phenomenal – MCA collection of Modern and Indigenous Art.

In 2005 a redevelopment was mooted – money was pledged, plans were drawn up, machinery chugged and rattled, time passed. On the 29th of March this year the MCA opened up to us again with now much more space for Art – the refurb increased the MCA’s total size by almost 50 per cent with the addition of 4,500 square metres, including a new five-storey wing.

And they have used all of it to fantastic effect.

Volume One: MCA Collection displays a great slab of the MCA’s collection. One is initially pulled up by Stephen Birch’s Untitled (2005) – a lifesize Spiderman pondering a snake-necked old man who leans out at him from the wall. Wonders abound: Hossein Valamanesh’s The lover circles his own heart (1993), a fabric cone that rotates unsteadily in dim light; Tracey Moffat’s Something more #3 (1989), glossy photos with glossy people taking us to some unglossy places; Rebecca Baumann’s Automated Colour Field (2011), flipping colour cards, beautiful, familiar and unfamiliar in one.

Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists are represented by a staggering wall of extraordinary bark paintings – there are also woven bags and baskets as well as video, photography, drawings and collage. It is worth the trip just for these – one can get lost in their earth tones, fine cross-hatchings and dot rows which are of the here and now, yet suggest the infinite in time and space. Yet another treasure right under our noses.

The exhibition Marking Time, curated by Rachel Kent, is an exhibition it seems hung off one its major works. Swiss-American artist Christian Marclay’s The Clock is a 24 hour film that is synchronized with real time. It is a collage of film snippets from existing movies (Marclay claims to have had to obtain clearances for over 5,000 films – such is the world we live in…) that all pertain to the time of day outside in the real world. As fascinating as the concept is – and as mesmerizing the pop-culture miasma feeding into one’s brain is – The Clock seems one of those art pieces more exciting in concept than experience, like Andy Warhol’s movies 5 ½ hr Sleep (1963) or 8 hr Empire (1964). Also, The Clock is impossible to watch as intended – although the MCA allows you to stay overnight to watch it, it doesn’t allow for toilet or meal breaks – only those with bladders of iron and no need for nutrition could physically withstand it. There, see? – I have already written much more than intended about The Clock; such is the PR power of a cool concept…

The Art works surrounding The Clock and making up the rest of Marking Time are jaw-dropping though, in both concept and experience. Around the unwieldy idea of Time, Kent has brought in some stunning works: Katie Pearson’s player piano playing the Moonlight Sonata recorded from distorted waves bounced off the moon (!); Tom Nicholson’s vast wall drawing (writing) of geo-political dates throughout history done in spidery, ephemeral pencil; Lindy Lee’s almost religious burned-hole paper works or ‘weather drawings’, Conflagrations from the End of Time (2011) which suggest space and time rotating off in all directions.

Are these about Time? Well, go on – prove that they are not. Daniel CrooksStatic no.12 (seek still in movement) – brings home in more convention (rational?) how time works: that we exist static in frames, slices of time, that move forward making the movie that is our lives. Showing an elderly man going through his graceful tai-chi arcs and swoops, it freezes him mid-movement, stretching and drawing that movement across the screen. It all is so gracefully and musical one almost forgets how elementally disturbing and unsettling it makes one feel – as all good capital ‘A’ Art should.

Published May 2012 on liveguide.com.au

Sydney saxophonist and composer Adrian Cunningham takes us on a fantastic round-trip of styles and textures on his new CD, Walkabout. With his superlative quartet on board, he has also packed a string quartet and a hilarious (‘snotty’ says the liner notes) airport announcer. It’s a fun ride.

The quartet – Bill Risby, Dave Pudney and Gordon Rytmeister behind Cunningham – fly through whatever is before them, whether it be the humid swing of ‘Baby Please Don’t Go (For New Orleans)’, the stately ballad ‘What Can I Take With Me?’ or the cooking rock-samba of ‘Dancing Into the Sun’.

Cunningham’s virtuosic gifts on all saxes, clarinet and flute never overshadow his expressiveness or clog his clear voice. There are few more exciting soloists in jazz than those who have much to truly say and almost infinite facility to say it: the fleet, fragmented alto lines of ‘Transit #2’ (prefaced by the wonderful ‘snotty’ airport announcer, Emily Asher), the cool woody clarinet dexterity of ‘Chasing the Horizon’, especially the burred and spat Roland Kirk-like flute passages at the beginning of ‘Winter’ – reminiscent of the scraped and slippery violin effects which herald Vivaldi’s ‘Winter’ from ‘The Four Seasons’. 

Cunningham’s use of the string quartet of Phillip Harti, Ursula and Angela Nelius and Paul Stender is dazzling throughout. The writing is smart, witty and used to great effect – the snarled and barbed string clusters that bookend ‘Oasis (For Central Park)’ (with a languid peaceful middle section – get it?) are startling, painting a vicious and edgy New York City. The gorgeous writing in ‘Prologue-Wanderlust’ really seems to lay the map, and the world out before you. My only reservation is with the stabbed string section as we get into ‘Oasis’ – it seems the strings are pushed a little, forced into an area better left to the muscle of horns. It’s a small quibble in a smart and evocative piece of music.

Yes, the entire ensemble shines all over Walkabout but I must give pianist Bill Risby my gold star. Whether languidly painting washed tones over the ballad ‘What Can I take With Me’ or effortlessly doubling Cunningham’s fleet flute lines in the 7/8 samba of ‘Winter’s End’ (a lovely bright sprite of a tune after the glassy ‘Winter’) Risby is style and ease personified.

It’s a trip worth taking, and while it migh not take us into outer space or metaphysical realms, Walkabout is the ticket to Adrian Cunningham’s passionate, colourful, very very beautiful world.

 

Published May 2012 on http://www.jazzandbeyond.com.au/

For a few days there, it was everywhere, the striking PR photo of Norah Jones – blue-black hair, ivory skin, cherubic good looks. Gradually, as pop-culture does, the story of her new album, Little Broken Hearts, osmosed into my daily life: Jones had made the record at the rough end of a relationship, the album was produced by wunderkind Brian Joseph Burton AKA Danger Mouse and it was “dark”.

Jones’ link to Danger Mouse went back to the producer’s concept album Rome (with Italian composer Daniele Luppi), a tribute to spaghetti westerns which also featured Jack White as well as Jones on guest vocals. She and Burton cocooned themselves in the studio, wrote Little Broken Hearts as they went and between them played pretty much everything.

Two talented artists, pop heavyweights – she sold 20 million of 2002’s Come Away With Me, he (as half of Gnarls Barkley with Cee Lo Green) ruled the world in with 2006 with ‘Crazy’ – coming together in creative union. Fireworks? Not really – some sputterings, a little smoke, but mainly a damp squibb.

The problem is a mismatch of talents. Norah Jones has a sweet, light touch – whether it be voice or piano – and her songs and delivery are rooted in the pop end of jazz, with tailings of country pang. Never heavy, never overtly full-blooded or tear-stained, her music’s popularity rests on her predictability and niceness. Her current side-band, the very pure country Little Willies  – is the perfect vehicle for her natural style, framing her voice in a glow of grand ol’ homeliness.

Danger Mouse, by contrast has a heavy, insistent touch – forcing beats and textures into places they really shouldn’t fit, usually to great effect. It is his sometimes overloaded style of production that gives (almost) everything he touches a sense of contemporary immediacy and ‘now’ness. He is a go-to guy who has worked with U2, Beck and Gorillaz.

And he just doesn’t click with Norah on Little Broken Hearts. The break-up and revenge backstory is already a little hard to swallow – Jones just doesn’t seem to have a vindictive bone in her body – but when the moods are as forced as Danger Mouse makes them, the whole thing implodes and sags, emotionally.

Opener ‘Good Morning’ seems typical Jones – smoky vocal, piano arpeggio, smudged acoustic guitar – and is nice enough. From there we are spun through various styles and sound-worlds which are all beautifully shaped and crafted tracks – but not for Jones.

‘Say Goodbye’ could be perky Japanese pop. The title track ‘Little Broken Hearts’ attempts to be dark and menacing but the vocal is too even and sane (it is actually a fantastic song and would be a hell of a thing if interpreted by someone truly unhinged, like Florence Welch). On ‘She’s 22’ Jones compares herself with her ex’s new (younger) girlfriend – and although I should know she is bitter, I really have no idea how she feels.

Burton’s production seems forced – he largely dresses mundane musical ideas in squiggly or raspy or electro-haloed timbres for effect, which too often fall short. Or maybe it just seems that way behind Jones’ too-sweet and measured delivery. His spaghetti Western reverberations on ‘4 Broken Hearts’ are a misfire (though, once again, a great piece of songwriting – I would love to hear this done by Adele). The lowered distorted vocal of country-ish tracks ‘Travelin’ On’ and ‘Out On the Road’ are prime examples of the mistake of tampering with a flawless voice such as that of Norah Jones.

Two tried, trusted and much-loved artists – victims of huge early success – who seem lost as to what direction to take next. Little Broken Hearts could have been such an artistic blast, but I for one feel very much let down that it isn’t.

Published May 2012 on theorangepress.net

Many great works are made in prison. Whether it be a prison of brick walls, a prison of melancholy or a prison of ill-health and pain, the hermetically sealed private world can create a universe of black planets or an efflorescent garden of delights.

Sydney singer-songwriter Liz Martin spent six months in a room recuperating from painful hip surgery, dealing with her father’s death, lying still. And that room became the garden from which flowered her third album Dance A Little, Live A Little. And what a garden the twelve track collection is – tropical vines grow around blood-red European roses, sunflowers sunnily melt snowdrop edelweiss. Varieties grow all over.

Proof that Martin’s spirit is a strong one is in the first tune, ‘So Long’ – a tune that seems to have grown out of a sunny childhood rather than a dismal sick bed. ‘I’ve been trippin’ along’ – it’s infectious and radiant, name checking Jiminy Cricket as it sweetly bounces down its afternoon road. The vibe continues through ‘Be What May’ with its New Orleans slightly tipsy brass.

The title track ‘Dance A Little, Live A Little’ is a piece of country rock’n’roll that is part mission-statement, part-call-to-arms. To think it was written and worked up while Martin was forbade to even tap a toe by her surgeons is pretty amazing.

Drummer Hamish Stuart and double bassist David Symes set up beautifully the spry groove for Martin’s cover of David Bowie’s ‘Sound & Vision’. The initial vocal lines are sung by guest Mr Percival to great effect – so that when Liz Martin enters the piece goes to a new place. As faithful in verse form as this is to the original, this version is truly Martin’s – a delight of jazz-pop lounge swing.

But not all is sun, fun and Low covers. The moodier pieces on Dance A Little, Live A Little are entirely captivating and deeply effecting – one can hear the isolation they were created in. ‘Olives and Wine’ with its lovely uncurling, softly crying viola line is intimacy itself. ‘Night Time’ is ragged shards of raw dead black guitar hung on a black sky. ‘Darling’ is one of those preciously held moments where a singer and a song are all you need for a few minutes.

Martin and arranger-producer David Symes have framed each piece perfectly – whether piano and strings, Allen Toussaint swaggerin’ horns or rock guitar trio – each song is given all it needs to live. The musicians who make these arrangements spark and roll are among Australia’s finest – jazz go-to guy Hamish Stuart shines on everything he touches here and Stu Hunter’s piano goes beyond ideas of restraint and colour to organically breathe through its teeth throughout the album.

Liz Martin is touring Dance A Little, Live A Little national wide over the May and June with a crack band featuring Dirk Kruithof and Elana Stone. It will be a pleasure to hear these songs that were born is a small, shaded room played in bigger, brighter rooms all across Australia.


Liz Martin’s website is www.lizmartin.com.au     

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Prior to posting this review, TheOrangePress asked Liz Martin six questions about Dance A Little, Live A Little. Here are her responses.

1. Where did the songs on ‘Dance a Little, Live a Little’  come from?

They come from a particular time when I was hanging in my room for quite a while… around six months.  I’d had some tricky hip surgery done and was told to keep still for quite a while, so it could all set.  I know the walls of my room very very well.  It was a strange time.  And quite a lonely, physically uncomfortable, painful time.  The best thing for distraction, the one thing that could hold my attention and keep my mind off the pain, was writing and recording these songs, adding little horn lines, string parts, experimenting, harmonies.  Just playing.  That was my only intentional thought really.  To be playful and not get all angsty with my situation, but to step outside, to let music be a place of time travel, imagination, to take me outside of myself.  And it worked a treat.  Now that I look back at these songs, they surprise me.  Tom Waits talks about grabbing a song by the tail as it wizzes by, that sometimes it comes out word for word all backwards.  In many ways it’s true.  They have their own life.  You just sit quiet, try not get in the way too much, and…

2. Some of the arrangements are huge – strings, horns etc. Do these arrangements come to mind while writing the song or is it a process conceived later while recording?

Some of the ideas came while I was writing and recording in my room.  I’d sing little horn lines in, play string parts, bass lines, etc.  A lot of the classier arrangements were written by Dave Symes who co-produced the album with me.  His solo string line he wrote for ‘Olives and Wine’, the string quartet for ‘Darling’, the crazy horns on ‘Be What May’ and ‘Long Bad Day’, absolutely beautiful.

3. What prompted the cover of David Bowie’s ‘Sound and Vision’? And why did you have Mr Percival sing on it with you? 

I wanted to have a go at doing a cover.  I’d not really done that many covers in the past – I’d definately never recorded one.  It takes a certain skill to be able to interpret someone else’s song, to bring something new, and to do it well.  Some people are incredible at it.  Nouvelle Vague for example.  And David Bowie’s ‘Sound and Vision’ seemed to sum it all up perfectly, my strange little time in my room, the music, the quiet, the mystery –

‘Blue, blue, electric blue
That’s the colour of my room
Where I will live

Pale blinds drawn all day
Nothing to do, nothing to say
Blue, blue

I will sit right down, waiting for the gift of sound and vision
And I will sing, waiting for the gift of sound and vision
Drifting into my solitude, over my head

Don’t you wonder sometimes
‘Bout sound and vision”

And Mr Percival, he and I had crossed paths a few times in the few months prior to the actual recording of the album and he was the perfect fit.  His voice is warm, but light and playful.  He’s currently doing the rounds on The Voice.  Fingers crossed for him x

4. You have some of Australia’s jazz heavy hitters on the album. Do you prefer to work with jazz musicians? 

No, no preference.  Although it was startling! These guys are amazing players who have total respect for the music.  It’s all about the song, bringing the best to the song.  The album is probably half big jazz heavy weights, and the other half some of Sydney’s finest gypsy players like Veren Grigorov and Dirk Kruithof.  It was an interesting mix.  Basically friends of Dave Symes, and friends of mine, coming together bringing their own elements to the songs, bringing the songs alive.

5. The cover art is particularly striking. What drew you to these Paola Talbert images?

I was looking for an image, an idea, something that would match the spirit of the album, the playfulness, the sensuality, the idea of dancing a little, a quiet celebration… And it was Jacqueline Amidy who is touring with us as special guest, releasing her stunning new album ‘Cut’, who suggested the idea.  Not everyone could suggest I get into the freezing cold waters of Little Bay with nought by a little tiny shiney material and some pearls.  But Jacqueline, whose music is charged, emotional, sensual, rich, of great depth, Jac is just the right sort of person to be able to push, encourage, convince someone of the brilliance of such a plan.  And so it was.  A brilliant idea.  And the result is beautiful.  It’s magic.  The process was freezing, scary, confusing, fast, confronting and a little exhausting.  The end result is dreamy, graceful, titillating (ha), timeless, and free.  Perfect for “Dance a Little, Live a Little”, an album written during scary, uncomfortable, lonely times, and the end result, this beautiful, tender, surprisingly playful album.

6. Do you realise how much fun it is to sing ‘Let’s do the Time Warp again!’ to the chorus of the title track?

Yes!  Nicely spotted.  Totally.  A complete chordal rip-off.  It’s all there.  The tight pants, the ridiculous hair.  We do what we can to join them.  It’s weird… you don’t realise these things at the time… and then a little while later, listening, it’s like,… hang-on… that’s! and yes, it is.  An unintended slip back to another time.  A time warp all of its own.

 

Published May 2012 on theorangepress.net

Jazz has often invigorated itself over time through transfusions of the blood of other musics – musics decidedly less blue-blood than itself. Rock has, since Gary Burton’s and Charles Lloyd’s psychedelic jazz of the 60s, through Miles Davis’s Hendrix-like albums of the 70s and more current groups such as EST, given jazz a shot in the arm it has sometimes – arguably – needed.

In jazz guitar, a legion of young post-rock players have been informed by such artists as John Scofield who added heavier rock flavours and Bill Frissell who has stripped and modernized the tonality of jazz. This is a massive and sweeping generalisation but one has to start somewhere.

Melbourne guitarist Tim Willis’s band The End is undoubtedly a jazz group – free wheeling group improvisation, exciting and taut communication between players – but one within which beats a very rock heart – solid and definite backbeats, grungy guitars, not afraid to have a bit of noisy fun.

Willis has put together an intriguing combo of electric guitar, double bass and drums with a frontline of tenor (John Felstead) and alto (Jon Crompton) saxes for The End’s eponymous debut album. The twin-sax front line is a smart move, adding a layer of rock crunch and bite but with traditional jazz instrumentation. Their timbre is such that, together with the distorted guitar they make some chunky block chords, and playing in unison they take on a ringing, almost-metallic voice.

The rhythm section of Gareth Hill, acoustic bass and Nick Martyn, drums have got the balance between rock’s solid riffing and the fluid of jazz down perfectly. The guitar of Tim Willis though, is the element that excites and inflames the whole concoction. Grungy, fleet lines with blues inflections flow out of him. The heavy riffing on ‘Dark Cloud’ could be a Black Sabbath riff – ominous and sulphurous – and his solo, haloed with reverb is a standout of this collection. 

This track ‘Dark Cloud’ is a good example of the freewheeling nature of Willis’s musical vision. Halfway through, the riffing drops abruptly away and the two saxes play an intertwining two-toned solo. It is a slight shock to leap between the two styles but it illustrates what is very cool about The End – this is not jazz-rock fusion as such, the two styles seem to be given more of their own space here. It is a conceptually clearer listen than many such style-pairings, bringing to mind what was so cool about Swede Esbjörn Svensson’s EST group.

Like rock, jazz never ever really needs ‘saving’ – but groups like The End and original thinkers such as Tim Willis can, by their youthful vigour and vertical vision, sometimes help the old tart out when she loses her puff.

The End’s website is here

 

Published April 2012 on theorangepress.net

Within 3:37 I was completely convinced someone had been soaking my iPod in a concoction of mescaline and red cordial (with more than a dash of ADHD splashed in). By the end of ‘Gritos Dulces’, the opening track of Darth Vegas’ new album Brainwashing for Dirty Minds (Romero Records), I felt as if my eyes were pinwheels out on stalks, my tongue lolled like a pink lolly snake and little mushroom clouds puffed from both of my ears as my brain imploded with mirth.

The world had become a cartoon fun-maze of gyrating buildings, heaving footpaths and gulping trashcans. And it was all Darth Vegas’ fault.

The last time I saw Michael Lira’s 7-piece mutant-soundtrack ensemble, they were providing incidental music to a Robert Landridge animation short (“Fred’s Dream”) at the 2011 GRAPHIC Festival. It was Star Wars into silent-film, surf-pop into Stravinsky – often within a few bars of music. But listening to Brainwashing for Dirty Minds there is no visual except for the onslaught of pop culture references – horror movies, schlock sci-fi, ‘exotica’, black metal, goofy musicals etc etc ad cheesuem… – that make images swim into the black lagoon of one’s mind like nasty little creatures.

There is the knock-kneed can-can of the abovementioned ‘Gritos Dulces’ (translates as ‘Sweet Screams’), the nutso 9/8 polka of ‘Prokletsvo Gummina Kokoshke’, the Star Wars ‘cantina’ jazz of ‘Swami Salami’, the Loony Tune lunacy of ‘A Night To Dismember’… can you see a pattern forming here? Silliness, madness, hyperactivity of all kinds, and a great deal of fun.

Once you get over the simultaneous spin of space-sickness and gut-busting laughter, you realise how amazingly well-made this music is. Many of the arrangements bring to mind Carl Stalling’s frantic soundtracks for classic Warner Bros cartoons such as the Loony Tunes and Merrie Melodies series – insane jump cuts from style to style, mood to mood, the band stopping on a dime, only to plunge shrieking down yet another roller coaster right before your very ears. Darth Vegas make it look so easy, the musicianship is transparent (as it should be) but don’t try this at home without adult supervision, kids. It really is quite the shit. 

And just when Brainwashing for Dirty Minds is getting all too confusing, the Romero Records website explains all:

‘Essentially it’s the soundtrack for a cult B-grade sci-fi/horror/porno film about an opium-addicted ghost falling in love with a nympho robot with four breasts, set against the backdrop of a war between a horde of vampire gypsies and surf­loving ninjas from outer space.’

So now we know.

Darth Vegas launch Brainwashing for Dirty Minds at The Factory May 18 with guests The Tango Saloon, Rescue Ships and Jay Katz. Go here for tix.

Romero Records website is here.

 

Published April 2012 on theorangepress.net

Sydney tenor saxophonist and composer Richard Maegraith is a deep human being. A committed Christian and free-thinking artist, his work has always resonated with a sophisticated spirituality while maintaining a heartfelt directness. Whether it be blowing tenor with the Australian Jazz A-list – James Morrison, Sean Wayland etc – or whether leading his own ensembles, his voice and soul are unmistakable.

For their new album, The Richard Maegraith Band has become the intriguingly titled Galaxstare. The album title is equally thought provoking – A Time, Times and Half a Time. For this album – recorded live at Sydney’s Sound Lounge – the personnel remains the same as 2007’s buoyant Free Running but you can hear the development from Track One.

And what a Track One it is! ‘Romans VII’ snips along in a clipped Latin groove before relaxing down into a languorous swoon of jazz vocal; the track moves back and forth from one tempo to the other throughout – this band really breathes. Throughout the album, the spicy doubling and great interplay of Maegraith’s horn and Kristin Berardi’s vocal again reminded me of Chick Corea’s early 70s band with Flora Purim, before the synths moved in and Purim moved out.

And like Chick Corea, Maegraith is not afraid to move beyond of the bounds of whatever constitutes jazz in his time, (he refers to Galaxstare’s music as “Jazz-ish sort of music; call it what you will”). His pairing of voice and tenor with Gary Daley’s accordian and/or Rhodes makes for some otherworldly results.

For the title track, ‘A Time, Times and Half a Time’, this otherworldliness goes beyond anything I have yet heard. The track is dedicated to Japanese friends of Maegraith’s, survivors of the 2011 tsunami that wrought such indescribable havoc across Japan. Switching to bass clarinet and using only the live resources of his band, Maegraith creates a vision of universal pain, wonder and depth. It is one of the most startlingly spiritual creations I have ever heard, Ligeti-like in its suspension of time and space.

We are snapped out of it with the propulsive snap groove of ‘Waiting’ – drummer Tim Firth putting the pots on and cooking all the way. Firth whips Maegraith along during his solo, recalling some of those mighty Coltrane/Elvin Jones codas that seemed ready to split reality right down the middle at any time. Intensity!

The final track ‘The Journey’ – all Maegraith’s track titles have a telling positive/seeking/spiritual resonance to them – is 10:36 of jazz funk reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s spacier moments (special mention to bassist Jonathan Zwartz who lays down the deep river that this tune floats on). ‘The Journey’ takes its time to rise to the sharp peak of Maegraith’s tenor solo. You couldn’t get a performance this juicy in a dulled studio – the decision to record ‘A Time, Times and Half a Time’ live in front of a more-than-appreciative audience was a wise one.

Published March 2012 on http://www.jazzandbeyond.com.au/