Archive for November, 2012

People seem amazed when I tell them that I saw Led Zeppelin at Sydney Showground in 1972, when the four rock deities descended from the sky to perform for us and then returned to Asgard (or maybe London) – could it ever have truly happened? The Led Zeppelin hagiography has enlarged to almost mythic proportions as the years have gone by, but in 1972 they were another hard rock band – albeit one of the globe’s biggest and most innovative.

Upon the death of their astonishing drummer, John Bonham in September 1980, Led Zeppelin split and went their separate ways. It seemed the only thing to do: without Bonham’s thunder and lightning, it was not and never would be the same. The remaining members – the leonine Robert Plant, the savant John Paul Jones and the truly visionary Jimmy Page – individually produced music over the years, much of it very very good but none of it matching the vast scope – from Middle America hoe-downs to Middle Earth musings to towering Middle East anthems, all with lashings of the Blues – that Led Zeppelin could conjure.

And despite their prolific and unmatched recorded output – each new album pushed the boundaries of rock into new lands – it was live that Led Zeppelin could work magic. The improvisational jazz/blues ethos behind their music, coupled with an almost preternatural chemistry, produced hours of astonishing musical trip-outs, pulling audiences along in their sparkling wake.

On 10 December 2007, the band came together for a one-off show at London’s O2 Arena as part of a tribute concert to Ahmet Ertegun, founder with his brother Neshui of Atlantic Records and the man who signed Led Zeppelin to the label in 1968. It was the first time the band – now with, touchingly, John Bonham’s son Jason in the drum seat – had played together for 27 years, bar brief appearances at 1985’s Live Aid and Atlantic Record’s 40th Anniversary in 1988.

Worldwide, 20 million fans bid for the reunion tickets with around 20,000 witnessing the show. The rest of us had to make do with YouTube clips and bootlegs. On October 17 this year, the film of the concert – named ‘Celebration Day’ after the Led Zeppelin III track – was released worldwide with cinemas screening it across Australia for one day only.

And from the opening two-beat salvo of ‘Good Times, Bad Times’ – cleverly the first song of the concert and the first song of their 1969 debut album – it was plain fans of rock were in for a treat. Virtually devoid of special effects, sweeping audience shots or heavy production, the film put us front and centre, Dick Carruthers‘ direction never diverting from the sheer power and animal grace of the band.

The sound was loud and clear and pretty much at chest-thumping gig volume level. As it should be – listening to led Zep at polite volume would be as wrong as listening to Erik Satie’s French piano miniatures through a Marshall stack. The enormous dynamism of modern cinema sound systems, having to replicate shattering glass, tinkling rain or a train wreck, is perfect for the huge wall of sound that rock puts out. These cinema concert experiences are quite something.

All the Zep classics were there – ‘Dazed and Confused’, ‘Black Dog’, a never previously played live ‘For Your Life’, a shimmeringly beautiful ‘No Quarter’. Jason Bonham seemed a little in awe and restrained for the first few pieces, but by the heavily funky ‘Trampled Underfoot’ he seemed to attack the drumkit with the same joyously unbridled ferocity of his late father.

Joy was all around – that same ferocious joy went through every tune. Jimmy Page says “Our DNA is in these songs” and the enjoyment and love leapt from the screen. Indeed, the versions of ‘The Song Remains The Same’, ‘Misty Mountain Hop’ and ‘Kashmir’ were the best live recordings I have ever heard – ‘Kashmir’ especially was entirely transporting, with Robert Plant conjuring minarets and desert winds before a swirling Arabic sun, one of many astounding, yet never distracting, visuals that played behind the band.

A double encore of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ – showing that intense improvisational aspect of the band – and ‘Rock and Roll’ (“Been a long time since I rock and rolled…”) and it was over. There was sadness that it was over for ever now, but the joy at the magic we had witnessed outshone that by far.

There will never be another band like this. I am thankful that there ever was.

Published November 2012 on megaphoneoz.com

Purity. There is not much of it about in the modern world. In fact, there seems a conscious effort to move away from purity towards distortion, clumping amalgamation and cloying over-decoration. It is so all-pervasive that one only notices all this impurity when comes across something entirely pure, like a child’s eyes, or a folk tune.

Soprano Jane Sheldon has gone for purity on her new independently-released album ‘North+South: Ten Folk Songs’. From the top down this collection of songs from The British Isles and the United States (North), and Australia (South) has been built with simplicity and clarity in mind. And it is a pure delight.

New-York based Sheldon has a voice that is stunningly luminous. It is like a clear light in the dark of the void. As weightless as light, yet as penetrating, it makes all ten songs simply glow. The spare and beautifully held accompaniments of the Acacia String Quartet or Genevieve Lang’s harp seem often barely there, sometimes only a slipstream behind that voice or a halo around it.

The arrangements of the songs are so effective that they tie together a collection that is, at first look, disparate: Irish folk, Berio, The Go-Betweens, Benjamin Britten. But music is music, good music is good music, so we move seamlessly from the gorgeous ‘She Moved Through The Fair’ (the loveliest version I have heard since Alan Stivell’s 1973 ‘From Celtic Roots’ recording), to the convict lament ‘Moreton Bay’, to Sheldon’s sentiment-free arrangement of ‘The Dying Stockman’– taking the corn out and infusing the old thing with some real emotive depth.

Her selection, arrangement and treatment of the Go-Between’s literate and lovely ‘Cattle and Cane’ is a smart one. A song as evocative of time and place as any other piece on here, its nostalgic summer-haze is perfectly distilled by Sheldon and the Acacia Quartet.

Of the North+South project Jane Sheldon says “Once we started, it became apparent that stories told by immigrants, fragments of the lyrics and melodies had traversed the globe and belonged to more than one nation’s folk history… We opened up the program to include, for example, Britten’s arrangement of an Appalachian song. ‘I Will Never Marry’ is an English song set by two American interpreters in different centuries, which influenced my own arrangement.”

The lightness of Sheldon’s ‘I Will Never Marry’ – as did many other selections here – brought to mind the archaic term for a tune or song – an ‘air’. ‘North+South: Ten Folk Songs’ is as light as air, as light as sunlight and a little oasis of purity in a dim-lit, noise-clogged world. A pure delight.

Published November 2012 on megaphoneoz.com

 

Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ of 1917 – his infamous display of a porcelain urinal (signed R. Mutt) as a work of Art – was the Big Bang of all Art that followed. Art could now be Thought and not necessarily Action. That was one powerful pissoir.

American composer John Cage’s ‘4’33’ of 1952 had the same explosive effect on Art Music. But it was a silent explosion, as it consisted of nothing but four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence – spread over three movements. Just as Duchamp’s urinal shocked and outraged people because is ‘wasn’t’ Art, ‘4’33’ confounded audiences because it ‘wasn’t’ Music.

But it wasn’t silence, either. Cage intended you to focus on the sounds of the world around you, not masked by the noise of music. It was four minutes and thirty-three seconds of ambient noise, the sounds of the room – your own breathing, a program rustling, a cough.

As part of The Sydney Opera House’s recent John Cage Centenary Celebrations, New York’s Bang On A Can All-Stars presented ‘Ambient Evolution: The Music of John Cage and Brian Eno’. Paired with two Cage works was a four-part work by Brian Eno, one-time member of Roxy Music, a Cage acolyte and an innovator of modern ‘ambient’ music.

Another of Cage’s innovations was the ‘prepared’ piano – a piano ‘prepared’ by inserting screws, wires and other dulling or sharpening objects between and around the piano strings. I have heard many recordings of the ‘prepared’ piano, but seeing one played in The Studio of the SOH – by All-Stars pianist Vicky Chow performing excerpts from Cage’s 1948 ‘Sonatas and Interludes’ – was a truly cap-M Modern experience. So much of 20th Century Art is taking one thing and re-inventing it as something else, and the ‘prepared’ piano fits that bill perfectly – it looks like a piano but sounds now like a gamelan, now like a tightened drum, now like a plucked koto; even sometimes like a piano.

Performed beneath huge projections of three of John Cage’s scratchy and opaque watercolour works, ‘Sonatas…’ and the following piece ‘Improvisations’ were transfixing. ‘Improvisations’ consisted of duets and silences between electric bass (Robert Black) and snare drum (David Cossin). Each instrument – neither known for its expressive range or timbre – were taken beyond their limits by scratching, pulling, brushing, stopping, starting, until any event became a little universe, as time and consciousness contracted. All very Zen of course, all very Cage.

Guitarist and Bang On A Can co-founder Mark Stewart prefaced their performance of Eno’s ‘Music For Airports’ with a cheerful suggestion that, since this music was designed to be ambient music for public spaces – and not to be directly listened to by an audience – we should feel free to get up and stretch or change seats or move around, as we would if waiting at an airport. Of course, during the full four movements of the work, played by the full six-piece ensemble, no one dared move.

And why would we? ‘Music For Airports’, or as it was originally called, ‘Ambient 1: Music For Airports’ is as lusciously icy and serenely featureless as it was on Eno’s 1978 release. There had never been anything like it (yes, ‘Music For Airports’ was another Big Bang that informed so much that followed: Ambient, Chill, Trance and all their chilled-out children). Re-imagined for the All-Stars’ piano/synth/clarinet/cello/bass/percussion/guitar ensemble, the work’s long long tones appeared to stretch time into an elongated ellipse that would come back on itself in slower and slower arcs.

So much so that when, towards the end, clarinettist Ken Thomson offered a scattering of brief and not-too-wild extemporisations, the spell was almost shattered. They seemed to intrude like wind-scurries on a broad broad river, such was the power of Eno’s conception and the All-Stars’ sure hold on this music.

The irony of an audience sitting still, intently listening to every detail of a work that was never intended to be listened to at all, was an irony that would have not been lost on John Cage. But The Bang On A Can All-Stars’ joy of playing together took this music away from the airless and arid brainspace that modern concert music too often inhabits, into a place of play and delight that Cage would have loved.

Published November 2012 on megaphoneoz.com

 

The wonderful time machine that is the modern period ensemble is one of the true delights of music today. When that ensemble has as much fun as the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, the delight is doubled.

Under the direction (and buoyant spirit) of the boundlessly energetic Paul Dyer, the Brandenburg has been knocking out music fans for over two decades. And having great fun with it, as was clear from the opening performance of their ‘Beautiful Minds’ Series at Sydney’s City Recital Centre.

Recreating the sounds of Baroque composers on instruments of that period seems a dry old thing – an academic purism, an airless stifle in the vacuum of a bell-jar. Dyer’s Orchestra achieves the exact opposite – taking us back to a time when these pieces were not Concert Hall art-pieces, but the Pop music of the time, sometimes functional, often fun. It was music for people, written for an event or an entertainment that was part of church, court or daily life.

We hear the music as the composer – Bach, Handel, Mozart – thought it; in the timbres that he wrote to. In the hands (and soul) of the Brandenburg, it leaps to life in a transporting and transfixing way.

Three of the four works played (performed seems too formal a word for the evening’s vibe) on the opening night were by Mozart – which added towering, glowing art and, at the same time, deep humanity to the program. Mozart, maybe more than anyone – even Bach – seems to take us to the outer limits of beauty, yet without our feet ever leaving the earth. The choice of these works could not have been better for an ensemble whose perfection is matched by its humanity.

The Brandenburg Orchestra had intended to open with the Allegro 1st Movement from Mozart’s Divertimento in D, but rehearsals went so well Paul Dyer decided to perform the whole thing. And I am glad – it was a joy: the ear sometimes needs to adjust to the faint wooliness and subdued volume of the period orchestra and this was a great way in. The slightly odd timbres (flutes are a good example)  and ‘imperfections’ of the period instruments – the ear being used to more brazenly ‘perfect’ modern instruments – add to the humanity of the experience.

This quality was obvious in the Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A. Clarinettist Craig Hill performed the work on the basset clarinet, an early relative of the modern clarinet. Oddly resembling a hashish-smoking implement and played between the knees, the basset clarinet has an entirely different tone to its modern cousin, filling the room with pearly, rounded upper notes and cocoa-blue lower tones. It was a case of the ‘imperfect’ instrument (falling out of favour over time) having whole qualities unachievable on the perfected modern version. And it was utterly beautiful.

Period violinist Madeleine Easton followed with the Mozart Violin Concerto in G, the formality of her midnight blue dress contrasting with the fun she had with the ensemble. With Easton playing entire passages turned in towards the Orchestra, her 1682 Grancino violin (not anchored with a chinrest as modern violins are, but floating freely on the shoulder) skittered and flew through the first and third movements and wept through the lovely Adagio. Mozart composed this when he was only 19 and it holds both youthful bounce and, in the Adagio, a sweet ache beyond sentimentality.

Because of the lighter overall dynamic of the period orchestra, there is room for wonderful contrasts – which both the Clarinet and Violin Concertos exploited: meditative solo sections answered by, or wrapped in, rollicking or deeply rich tutti passages. The final piece, Mendelsohn’s ‘Die Hebriden’ (known as ‘Fingals’ Cave’) seemed to push the ensemble a little too hard. The group used timpani (yes, period timpani) and trumpets in its evocation of crashing waves and roiling waters. Maybe I had been lulled a little too deeply by the spritely Mozart triple-whammy to be in the mood for cold Hebrides waters and salt spray.

But the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra could charm a stone, and in the end I loved it. There were grins in the violas, the basses were dancing, every player cared deeply about every note, they were all friends, we were all friends. The two hour-plus program flew by and I enjoyed every note of it as much as the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, if that were possible.

More details are at www.brandenburg.com.au

Published October 2012 on megaphoneoz.com

Galaxstare. The name Sydney tenor savant Richard Maegraith rechristened his rather prosaically named Richard Maegraith Band for their second album, is a word to conjure with.

Galaxstare. Is it the feeling of staring outwards towards the galaxy, seeking answers, in awe of its wonders? Or is it the stare of the galaxy back towards us; the eye in the sky, its vast omni-vision casting its diamond gaze over our little lives? As a spiritually-attuned man and musician – his Facebook page declares “I’m a student of everything… and I play the saxophone” – Maegraith perhaps is suggesting both.

Galaxstare the band suggests this wide cosmic vista in their playing and sound. Maegraith’s compositions seem to come from a place wider than Jazz and the band’s acoustic/electric sound gives a wider timbre than Jazz to realise them.

Not that there is anything wrong with Jazz timbre: the opener at Galaxstare’s 2 October gig at Sydney’s Venue 505, the piano-bass-drums Chris Poulsen Trio, proved that. Great driving piano jazz – but with the funky colours Herbie Hancock raises up whenever he plays acoustic piano – Poulsen’s witty and swinging heads won us all over. His bass player, Jeremy O’Connor stood out – are you allowed to have this much fun with jazz?

Then Galaxstare – with Matilda Abraham filling in for the group’s vocalist, Kristen Berardi – took to the stage and played us four tunes in a row, without pause. As on their album, A Time, Times and Half a Time, three tunes – ‘Love Feast’, ‘New One’ and ‘The Comforter’ (with an extended and involved Rhodes solo from Gary Daley) were fused together into a seamless flow. ‘The Comforter’ then grew into a new tune – Maegraith’s tribute and celebration of Indigenous Australians – ‘The Ones Who Were Here First’. The new piece was meditative and roiling by turns with Maegraith featuring the black-on-black tones of his bass clarinet. I heard ochre, deep desert wind and crackling dry branches – as with much of Galaxstare’s music, the piece was entirely transporting.

After the deep meditations of the opening quartet of tunes, Galaxstare snapped us out of it with the funk of ‘Romans VII’. And I realised that the band has toughened up their sound considerably. Karl Dunnicliff’s electric bass and Tim Firth’s drums – for all their hair-trigger dynamics and inventiveness (and Tim Firth constantly amazes) there is some serious rock crunch in the grooves, with backbeats that pay the rent. The funk under Maegraith’s tenor solo was electric, snapping and crackling.

A mention here must go to vocalist Matilda Abraham who filled in “at the last moment” – her canny negotiations of the rhythmic quirks and intervallic leaps of Maegraith’s melodies was admirable. Dig the relentless 16th offbeats of ‘Romans VII’ – whew. Her scatting on the bright and funky closer, ‘The Journey’ was inspired and lit up the room.

The most staggering piece of the night was ‘A Time, Times and Half a Time’, the title track of the band’s latest album. A tribute to Japanese friends of Maegraith’s who survived the terrible Japanese tsunami, it is a deep deep meditation on existence, the galaxy-sized power of nature, and the depth of sorrow. That Galaxstare are capable of creating this huge, deep, wide, bottomless universe of music in a room on Cleveland Street using only bass clarinet, voice, accordian, bass and drums is astounding and humbling.

Richard Maegraith’s music draws from many musics. It is nominally Jazz but, like Miles Davis and Weather Report, and today’s Christian Scott, it kneads in many other flavours. Maybe Maegraith’s music has greater depth because he moves in a world away from only Jazz and jazz musicians – he is a deeply committed Christian and a family man with three boys.

All I know is that the thought “Why is this room not full to the brim? Why doesn’t the world better know about this music?” came into my mind – as it does with saddening regularity these days. Of course I know the reasons why, but in the case of Galaxstare, the question needs to be answered. If this review can motivate you to buy their albums and/or go see their next gig then my words will have been worth it.

 

Galaxstare’s website is http://galaxstare.com/

 

Published October 2102 on jazz-planet.com

 

 

 

New Orleans piano funk master Jon Cleary is living proof that you don’t have to be born to a thing to become its leading light. Whatever you want to be, you can just go out and (with a lot of work – and, yes, balls of steel) you can be whatever you want.

Twenty years ago, Cleary first got the NOLA bug almost 5,000 miles away, in Kent in the UK – the Englishman moved to The Crescent City to try his luck and is today one of the finest exponents of the New Orleans piano-vocal style.

I saw him a little over a year ago as part of the Legends of New Orleans Tour along with the wizard of the genre, Allen Toussaint. Cleary performed that tour with his turn-on-a-dime rhythm section, The Philthy Phew. Prior to that he had toured Australia with his immensely popular and genre-defining group, the wonderfully named Absolute Monster Gentlemen.

But tonight at Sydney’s Basement he was alone. Just him, a Steinway grand and a rapt audience, hanging on his every note. He emerged in cream suit and trademark big-brimmed hat (also cream) and explained that he had just come off a long, long flight and would it be cool if he played a little piano for us?

Yes, it was cool with us. Which was fortunate, because before he sang a note Jon Cleary treated the Basement audience to a master-class in New Orleans piano virtuosity. Like a roots-Rachmaninov, Cleary – unencumbered by the frameworks that even the most telepathic band has to adhere to – took free flight, moving in and out of time, in and out of key, suggesting a blues here, a sing-song melody there. The great charm of New Orleans music is that it is as virtuosic as any form of jazz but it never loses its groove – its feet are on the earth at all times, and they are usually dancing. It is Jazz, but jazz for everyone.

Cleary’s Steinway extemporisations gradually wound down enough for him to sing – it was his version of the murder ballad “Stagger Lee”, very freely done. When we finally got a chance to applaud, the place went wild.

But Cleary flew between songs, not taking much time for talk. He did however take time out to preface a Professor Longhair 8-bar blues which took in elements of the NOLA classic “Tipitina” – Cleary explained that the 8-bar blues can be ‘messed with’, which he did – and did some more. And then some more…

He reached into his back catalogue for the funk of “Help Me Somebody” and the bootie-roll of “I Feel So Damn Good (I’ll Be Glad When I Get the Blues)”. He also played a couple of selections from his new album “Occapella” – an album made up of only Allen Toussaint tunes. The reading of Toussaint’s knowing “What Do You Want The Girl To Do?” was particularly tender.

Jon Cleary’s command of this music is mind-bending – again and again taking a simple form and twisting and turning it, inside out and upside down, while miraculously never taking it too far above-the-waist. That is the genius of New Orleans music and the particular genius of the amazing Jon Cleary, the funkiest Englishman you are likely to meet.

Photos by Katja Liebing, Blue Moon Photography.

Published November 2012 on theorangepress.net

Guilty pleasures – we all have them (ok, mine are 70s Glam Rock and New Idea). To many ‘serious’ Jazz musicians, that much-derided mongrel, Jazz Fusion (Jazz-Rock Fusion, Jazz-Funk Fusion, Fusion), is one such guilty pleasure, lurking in the aesthetic wardrobe, way up the back.

Seen through the clearer lens of time – unencumbered by the era’s afros, flares and white guys wearing dashikis – 1970s Jazz Fusion can (almost) be forgiven for spawning its idiot bastard, Smooth Jazz. Groups like Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter’s Weather Report, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and Chick Corea’s Return to Forever (and, later, Elektric Band) – and of course, the electric bands of the genre’s sire, Miles Davis – had some serious jazz mojo going on: brilliant creative arrangements, in-the-pocket ensemble playing and stunning solos. Many jazz fans, used to the timbres of piano, horn and jazz kit were perhaps turned off by the wah-wah’s, clavinets and swooping synths; but there is much of lasting value in this music.

Sean Wayland, in the liner notes to his staggering two volume, 27-track Jazz Fusion-inspired new release, Slave To The Machine Vols 1&2, offers the droll caveat “Some of this music is corny fusion music”. But he obviously loves this synthesizer stuff and doesn’t care who knows it.

From electro-popping whimsy such as ‘Rotovibe’ – a collage of scratch-mixed ideas – to the entirely acoustic pieces such as ‘Special When Lit’ – a beautifully measured sound-river featuring his current band of Matt Penman on bass and Jochen Rueckert on drums – Slave To The Machine Vols 1&2, has a over-arching cohesion that belies the fact this music was recorded over a 5-year period, from 2007 to 2012.

That cohesion is tested by Wayland’s strangely cool take – powered by his Nord Modular and astonishing drummer Mark Guiliana – on John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’ and at the other end of the spectrum, the truly spiritual ‘Devotional’ – a duet with the always-transporting singer Kristen Berardi. But it all hangs together just fine; hardly a surprise as all this dazzling music springs from the mind of one of Australia’s most gifted jazz composers.

Speaking of hearing fusion guitarist Alan Holdsworth’s Flat Tyre, Wayland says, “The sounds of the synths really captured me. That’s when I realised it was possible to do something very interesting and original with synthesizers.”

And like Chick Corea, like Weather Report’s Joe Zawinul, he has transcended the inherent hollowness of timbre and often stilted expressiveness of these keyboards. Whether it be Nord, Oberheim or Yamaha synths and sequencers – check out ‘Neu Neu’ – grooving Hammond B3 or slinky Rhodes (‘I Still Got It’), Wayland’s solos never lack the same rich expressiveness he has always coaxed from the teeth of a Steinway.

His players on Slave To The Machine Vols 1&2 are worth the price of admission. As well as current bandmates such as Penman and Rueckert, Wayland features Oz mates such as drummer Andrew Gander and guitarist James Muller – Muller as ever making the ears prick up with his deft balance of stratospheric chops and earthy blues (his neo-Sco jazz lines on ‘Boxing Day’ make some beautiful arcs and curves).

Heavy friends such as NYC guitarist Wayne Krantz and drummer Keith Carlock add some Mahavishnu-metal to the deceptively-named ‘Marshmallows’ – the heaviest tune here.

But the brightest shining star here is Mark Guiliana. Wayland says of the rapidly rising young drummer, “I think Mark has revolutionised improvised drumming. It’s a real step forward in the language and concepts. He sounds like what has been in my head for years and previously only my computer drum programming could realise…”

To let the music speak what words can’t, have a listen to Wayland and Guiliana on the last track, the 11-minute ‘I’ll Face Ya’. Pianist and drummer play (in the true sense, the child-like sense) over a synth ostinato that drops in and out. Over the length of the piece, as well as some genius playing, there are quotes (Monk’s ‘Rhythm-a-Ning’), terse silences, even snatches of good-natured talk between the two, picked up on the drum mic.

But the musical conversation is the thing – this is jazz in its heart, transcending its machinery as all great jazz has transcended its machinery, from Armstrong onwards, the slave to the machine becoming its master.

For more information visit: www.seanwayland.com

Published October 2102 on jazz-planet.com