Archive for February, 2013

One of the true delights of any music festival is that, for a few days – or even just a few precious hours – you are in a strange and beautiful new world, away from the tangle and hum of city life. The 4th Jazzgroove  Summer Festival reigned over Sydney’s Redfern-Surry Hills Delta for four days in January, staking out the territory in the name of modern composition, improvised music and the jazz life.

And what a strange and beautiful world they conjured for us among the bricks and grime, the litter and the 7-11 Stores.

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I was fortunate to start at the very beginning, with Tom O’Halloran’s solo piano opener on Thursday at Surry Hills’ Tom Mann Theatre. A smart choice to open the Festival, O’Halloran’s sure touch made the piano sigh and glitter. His closer, a sparkling ‘No More Blues’ served as a teasing appetiser for a weekend of stellar music.

jazzgroove mothership orc

And stellar was the word (a TV sports cliché yes, but too apt to not use here) for Jonathan Zwartz’s band, up next. A Dream Team of players – Slater, Maegraith, Greening, Julien Wilson blowing (his and) our minds, Dewhurst, Matt McMahon, Hamish Stuart and percussionista Fabian Hevia holding it down with the calm river that is Zwartz himself. And from that calm river flowed strong and sure compositions, with melodic lines that were often country-simple but Gospel-true. From the opener ‘Shimmer’ through to ‘Henry’s High Life’, it was transfixing soul-blues that had the soloists reaching within – Phil Slater and Richard Maegraith especially going deep on the latter tune – leaving the audience at Tom Mann visibly affected. Like all true wisdom there was very little flash, but a universe of quiet fire.

The opening night was climaxed by the mighty Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra, paying tribute to genius jazz composer Bob Brookmeyer (who sadly passed from this earthly plane last year). Even though the Orchestra bristles with astounding soloists, it was the Festival’s International Guest Artist (I suppose Aotearoa counts as international) tenor magus Roger Manins that was featured on all charts. The Orchestra is truly a national treasure and for this, their 10th anniversary gig, they played better than I have ever heard them – snapping and roiling on the fiery pieces and painting colour washed mists on the quieter pieces such as the lovely ‘Fireflies’. Manins stood toe-to-toe with the band on the blasting finale, ‘See Saw’, his tenor sassing back and cajoling the Mothership. Big kudos to drummer Jamie Cameron who rode the roaring beast on all pieces with great style and verve.

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Friday was Fusion Day for me as I took in the electro-jazz of the Alcohotlicks at 505 and later, the flamenco-jazz of Steve Hunter’s Translators down the road at the Gaelic. It had been Sydney’s hottest day ever (!) on record and the evening was still dripping from the day.alcohotlicks

At 505, The Alcohotlicks’ Evan Mannell admitted to ‘shitting himself’ at the prospect of working without a drum kit. He then won us all over with a beautiful funky groove, cut-up on his sample box from Jimi Hendrix’s throaty ‘Who Knows’ riff. Joined by Ben Hauptmann on MIDI guitar and laptop, and Aaron Flower (the hoary traditionalist of the group who merely plays a guitar through an amp) the trio – winners of the inaugural Jazzgroove Association Recording Artist Award  – astounded with tracks from their album Danaïdes. ‘Neon’ was neo-NEU! motorik funk; ‘Baader’ was Goldfrapp/Moroder replicant-porn boogie. Did I sense a few members of the 505 audience shifting in their seats during the Alcohotlicks set? Artists such as these are the ones who move any music forward and all kudos to them for working at the edge of the Jazz comfort zone. A little seat shifting is always a good sign.

steve hunter, the translatorsDown the steaming street to the Gaelic. By now slightly drunk on the merlot and the humidity, I was taken away completely by The Translators. Too loud for the room – not a bad thing at all – electric bass toreador Steve Hunter and the quartet blazed through a set of flamenco-flecked originals that had Míro dancing with Manitas de Plata, Chick Corea dancing with de Falla in my swirling head. At times Ben Hauptmann’s electric mandolin solos sounded like a 70’s micro-Moog, the otherworldly tone beautifully offset by Damien Wright’s flamenco gut-string. ‘Turquoise’ was blue in green in orange. ‘The Last Trannie’ was Madrid via Soweto. Always a fiery and sparkling group, tonight – after not playing together for two years – The Translators shone like a Catalonian sun and lit all our faces with broad smiles. Not so long between sangrias next time, please amigos!

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the fantastic terrific munkle

Saturday my hangover needed the peace of Prince Alfred Park and the gentle afternoon humour of The Fantastic Terrific Munkle. Cool breezes blew, people picnicked on the grass, and from between two huge trees, The Munkle – powered by Sam Golding’s tuba and the (snake-)charming clarinet of Jeremy Rose – wove their musical tales of whimsy, recalling ragtime, Dixie, weird old blues and French salon jazz. The song announcements were made through a megaphone, the guitar amp was powered by solar panels and guitarist Julian Curwin wore thongs. It was all so sweetly organic, it made the afternoon time stand beautifully still.

Too much daylight – bah! Back into the night and the Steve Barry Trio with Alex Boneham and the quicksilver Tim Firth at 505. This is the trio that played on Barry’s recent album, Steve Barry – a startling album made (conjured from the elements, rather) by this startling combination of players. All the telepathic play and spiritual-empathic magic that lights up the album was here on stage tonight. Reminding me of Bill Evans’ trios or Keith Jarrett’s ‘standards’ trios, Barry-Boneham-Firth could spat and spar – as on opener ‘B.W.’ – or dissipate like evening mist across an introspective ballad such as the lovely ‘Epiphany’. Some of the most fluidly intelligent music in jazz has been made within the piano trio format and groups such as Steve Barry’s trio remind me why.

After the rollicking fun of altoist Ross Harrington’s vibey, young and fun Midnight Tea Party – Dixie, klemzer, ska flavours; a huge hit with the 505 crowd – we were treated to the Andrew Gander Band.

richard maegraithIn a Festival line-up luminescent with musical wonders, I can unreservedly say the Andrew Gander Band was the highlight for me – and I am sure many there would agree. His five-piece group hit their jaw-dropping stride from the first note and ascended from there. I had already seen each of Gander’s sidemen in other Festival groups but playing with Gander seemed to push each of them into the deeper reaches of their own musical universe. Tenor player Richard Maegraith seemed particularly inspired, blowing hard into the white-hot areas of his horn’s capabilties. (My friend, CC – who knows about such things – said after one of Maegraith’s solos “I could see his aura and light flashing off him!”) Bassist Brett Hirst twinned with Gander through all of the music’s twists and turns almost preternaturally. Steve Barry would smartly sit out during guitarist Carl Morgan’s solos, allowing the drum-bass-guitar trio to stretch the harmonies and rhythms into new fluid shapes. The Gander originals such as ‘Retrograde’ (with one of those sizzling rock feels that Billy Cobham does so well) and the 5/4 roller coaster ride of ‘Prism’ were just eaten alive by the band, who also managed great takes on radically reshaped standards such as ‘Star Eyes’ and Dizzy’s ‘Con Alma’.

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ben hauptmann, zoe and the buttercups

Where to go from there? Thankfully the Sunday program offered sweet soul relief in the form of Festival Guest Roger Manins and the original lineup of his soul-jazz champions, Hip Flask. To a packed 505, Manins’ testifying tenor led the quintet through ‘Bang’, ‘Big Sis’, ‘John Scon’ and others from their Jazzgroove catalogue. Against the indigo-blue Hammond of Stu Hunter, Adam Ponting’s peppery shards of piano dissonance put Hip Flask in their own category without losing any soul-jazz juice. The intro to ‘Blues for Adam Ponting’ moved in and out of harmonic focus until Manins brought us back to the planet with some real deep earth. (Manins was also one of the drollest bandleaders of the Festival, his tongue popping almost through his cheek at times during his stage announcements…)

By now saturated to the brim with music and fine 505 merlot, I took one last rolling stroll down Chalmers Street, climbing the stairs to the Gaelic to bid the Festival adieu with Zoe Hauptmann and her Buttercups. The six piece snapped my jaded mind awake with their patented country-soul stomp and Tele-blaster Aaron Flower’s always-exhilarating chicken-pickin’. Watching Ms Hauptmann leading her Buttercups up there, a question swam into my mind: Where were all the women musicians at the 4th Summer Festival? Ok, there was Zoe H and new bassist Hannah James (yes, Elana Stone too, but I am not counting vocalists in this equation) – that’s two out of an awful lot of male musicians. This is not a polemic point, nor is the question rhetoric; it is an honest query. The Con and other institutions turn out many many women musicians, musicians who have graduated alongside their male contemporaries, women musicians who are out there any night of the week paying as many gig dues as the guys. So why, when you get to the highest levels of jazz in this country – such as the annual Jazzgroove Festival – are women so insignificantly spoken for?

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In his Sunday night wrap-up speech, Jazzgroove President (and Buttercup trombonist) John Hibbard admitted that this year’s Summer Festival almost didn’t happen. The committee had sat around Matt McMahon’s dining table and voted on going through with it or not. It was that dire. After four days of wonderfully attended gigs by our best and brightest – and some performances that seriously deserve to pass into myth and legend – it is hard to believe that meeting ever took place. But positive energy ruled that day – the vote was to go ahead – and that same positive energy ruled the 4th Jazzgroove  Summer Festival.

And thank God, Miles and Duke that it did.

The Jazzgroove website is here.

Published January 2103 on australianjazz.net 

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British soul diva, Alice Russell, has always pushed the art of soul singing into the future.

Since her 2005 debut, My Favourite Letters, she has eschewed the obvious retro stylings of fellow UK soulstresses such as Amy Winehouse (RIP) and Adele in favour of a more taut and synthetic hip-hop groove. This has led to collaborations with Mr Scruff, Quantic, DJ Yoda, Nostalgia 77 as well as David Byrne and NZ funksters Fat Freddy’s Drop.

Under the production eye of her guitarist, producer and Soul mate TM Juke (known to his mother as Alex Cowan) Russell’s four studio albums have put her in a special place artistically – a place where there is nowhere to hide if you don’t have Soul.

Alice_Russell

Just as Damon Albarn’s up-to-the-minute production hints, tips ‘n tricks brought out the beauty and heart of Bobby Womack’s voice on 2012’s The Bravest Man In The Universe, Cowan’s sleek and hard-edged production makes Russell’s newie, To Dust, a stand-out affair.

Her first solo album since 2008’s Pot Of GoldTo Dust seems to have perfected the soul vs production balance – gone are the songs that leaned too far into the beatz or, conversely, too far into over-egged Aretha-worship that irritated on previous releases.

First single ‘Heartbreaker’, is a perfect example. Cowan and Russell mix up elements of soul, pop and hip-hop into a smoothly groovy gumbo – the track’s trés-2013 production (nice panned drum figure throughout) never letting it sink into retro pastiche while the cap-G Gospel vocals keep it cap-R Real. A little later on the album there is a gorgeous ‘Heartbreaker Interlude’ – one minute or so of Russell and her backing singers riffing the ‘Heartbreaker’ hook-chorus over boxy beatzs – tasty.

(Check the video for the single on YOUtube. It stars long-time Russell fan Harry Shearer from The Simpsons and Spinal Tap, and is a beautifully touching little vignette/short story. Worth a watch all the way through, you ADHD kidz).

The Gospel of ‘Heartbreaker’ is just one feel among many though and To Dust has a nice sense of exploration about it. The pugnacious ‘Hard And Strong’ – one of the few modern soul songs to name check British Isles warrior-queen Boadicea – has a Prince-ish kick. The title track ‘To Dust’ brings back the Gospel shouts but now over a driving rock beat.

Torchy groove-ballad ‘I Loved You’ shows how damn good Alice Russell really is – a total command of her voice and all its shadows and light, a complete understanding of the history of her chosen genre and a straight-arrow conception of her style. And in this music, as in everyday life, style (yes, cap-S Style) counts for a lot.Alice_Russell-To_Dust_b

Speaking of working with her musicians, producers and collaborators (‘the boys’) Russell says: At times I think you feel a lot more vulnerable than the band. Generally you have an instrument that you’re translating your emotions through, whereas with the singer, it’s inside of you. There’s nothing to hide behind… Also sometimes when the boys are jamming, there is something about just instrumental jamming. It’s very tight. When you add a voice it changes it into something completely different, going scatting or something in that jazzy root. Sometimes you feel like you’re out of it. Very much with the boys I work with, I’m in it though.”

And on To Dust, Alice Russell is very very ‘in it’.

To Dust will be released worldwide on 22 February 2013 through Brighton-based label, Tru-Thoughts.

Published January 2013 on theorangepress.net

Saxophone icon Wayne Shorter is – apart from Miles Davis – possibly the most uncompromising artist in jazz, if not in modern music. Shorter, whether in his own early Blue Note recordings, in his playing and composing for Miles’ 1960’s quintet or his time co-leading 70’s jazz-rock juggernaut, Weather Report has only ever done things Wayne Shorter’s way. And the jazz canon has undeniably been the richer for it.

In March 2010, Wayne Shorter toured Australia with his quartet and – as all truly pioneering artists do – fiercely divided audiences across the country. I was at his Sydney Opera House gig and recognised more than a few of our supposedly more progressively minded jazz players in the streams leaving the hallowed hall during his set.

Wayne Shorter

Shorter’s new album, Without A Net is eight live recordings (and one orchestral piece) from a late 2011 European tour with the same band that blitzed Australia – pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and the explosive Brian Blade, a hyper-kinetic drummer that makes Keith Moon look like Karen Carpenter. This is the 80 year old Shorter’s first album for the Blue Note jazz label for 43 years – yes, the numbers suggest great age and a charitable homecoming, but Without A Net is far from a creaky, olde tyme trip: it is as vital and new as tomorrow’s sun, each track roaring out of the speakers with full-blooded urgency. It is the three younger sidemen trying to keep up with Shorter rather than the other way around.

Of the three remakes on the album – Shorter also reworks his own Weather Report composition ‘Plaza Real’ and the 1933 film tune ‘Flying Down to Rio’ – the opening track ‘Orbits’ sets the pace. ‘Orbits’ was a piece Shorter contributed to Miles Davis’s 1967 album Miles Smiles – there it was a brisk bebop line, here it is a lugubrious piano riff that gets thrown around from piano to bass to soprano sax until the whole band has picked its bones.

Unlike most jazz you will hear today, it is not just one solo predictably following another but more of a group improvisation as the muse takes them. This group soloing not only aligns Shorter’s new music with the Free Jazz movement of the 1960’s but, surprisingly, with original Dixieland jazz of the 20’s. It also seems to cheese off the more conservative jazz listener more than it really should.

It’s not all frenetic momentum though – the lovely ‘Starry Night’ and the opaquely impressionistic ‘Myrrh’ show the band’s more introspective side; the intro to ‘Myrrh’ in particular is like listening to music underwater, floating in a warm current, unafraid and tranced-out. The band can also pull off a great Latin groove too (Shorter has always drawn heavily on the rhythmic innovations of Cuban jazz and the harmonic quirks of Brazilian Bossa Nova) – ‘SS Golden Mean’ (with a wry quote from Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Manteca’) and ‘Flying Down to Rio’ have a light Latin skip to them – but of course, as seen through the lens of Shorter and his band, which can be a sharpening lens or conversely, a distorting lens (groovy either way to my ear).WayneShorterQuartet_Withoutanet

The centrepiece of Without A Net is the 23 minute tone poem ‘Pegasus’. Recorded with the quartet and The Imani Winds, ‘Pegasus’ moves between shadowy, veiled passages which move slowly like cloud-shadows over savannah and sharply rhythmic passages with the orchestral ensemble stabbing and riffing in and around the jazz group. As is expected of Wayne Shorter, ‘Pegasus’ is like nothing you or I have ever heard: like much of his Weather Report work, it pulls in flavours and energies from European classical music, African talking drums, American jazz and points north south east and west. The result is pure Shorter and pure wonder. Not an easy ride, but what soul-deep experience ever is?

I will give the final word to Wayne Shorter himself. When reflecting on his lifelong dedication to the path of the artist, he says “The challenge we as artists face today is to create a ‘singularity’ or an ‘event horizon’ so that as human beings we will break the cycle of ego dominated actions which through repetition keep us bound to stagnation which denies us entrance to the Portal of Life’s Ultimate Adventure!”

Without A Net will be released worldwide February 5, 2013.

Wayne Shorter’s website is here.

 

Published January 2013 on theorangepress.net