Archive for March, 2013

It feels so good to have David Bowie in the world again.

Not the David Bowie Juniors, nor the David Blow-Ins, nor the Lady Bowies or the Ziggy Bulldusts. (You know who I mean – we are all so tired of them). I mean The David Bowie, the one and for ever after, the only.

It also feels good to have Bowie make a Bowie album again, after so long. And I mean soooooooo long, that long long time since the final note of Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). The nine studio albums since – and I am not counting the two Tin Machines, that was DB joining a band, a gang; his best work has always been just David – were pale and scattershot. Maybe brilliant for anyone else, but for the supreme artiste who gave us the incomparable Ziggy Stardust, “Heroes” and Low – each time changing music, fashion and rock and roll indelibly – they were not. Let’s Dance? Yes, utterly killer – but a happy Dad David, danceable and smiling – the best Bowie has always been the literate, deeply poetic, dystopia-tripping word-painter.


The cover of this new album The Next Day – the first in ten years – is at once shocking, fuck-off cool and a measure of Bowie’s iconic status. Jonathan Barnbrook has appropriated Masayoshi Sukita’s Bowie-as-replicant cover image for 1977’s “Heroes” and rudely stuck a white square across it, spelling the title out in a barely considered typefont. It draws the past into the present only to fuck with it.

The music is much the same. Every track to my ear has a precedent in Bowie’s early (best) work. From the Low-ish Berlin-garage-rock 4/4 of opening title track ‘The Next Day’ (“Here I am, not quite dying / My body left to rot in a hollow tree”) through the Space-Cockney accents of ‘I’d Rather Be High’ to the cold Krautrock drones of ‘Plan’ it is deliciously, unnervingly, unavoidably Bowie.

Is it good because it sounds like his old stuff? No, DB doesn’t need to ape his old material – there are already far too many current bands doing that – he has moved on. Check out the stuttering and dislocated rhythms of ‘Love Is Lost’, together with the awkwardly scanning lyric over the top. Check out the claustrophobic baritone saxes and dissonant electric guitars of ‘Boss Of Me’.

Check out Tony Visconti’s production across the whole album. No one has ever quite shared Bowie’s vision like Visconti, who first worked with him on 1969’s Space Oddity. From the hollow post-apocalyptic landscapes of Low to the synthetic Soul of Young Americans, Visconti has always beautifully and fully second-guessed Bowie and wrapped his remarkable songs in just the right alien skin. When the two teamed again for 2002’s Heathen and 2003’s Reality the old sparks were expected to fly but there were more mirrors than smoke and both were a disappointment.David_Bowie_-_The_Next_Day

On The Next Day Visconti seems to have taken as his broad template the Art-Rock of Scary Monsters… – rock as Art, low art as High Art: cinematic, brave, challenging and what is missing in all the Faux-Bowies and their ilk. Not all of the 17 songs here work as part of the whole – one of the curses of CD and MP3 formatting is the lack of the more rigorous editing that vinyl mastering enforced. But none jar to any great degree, such is the breadth of Bowie’s style and canon.

The was a lot of press about the secretive nature of the sessions that produced The Next Day – sporadic sessions over months with musicians who had to sign confidentiality agreements. This is the hype and chat that fills music columns, blogs and zines while we are impatient for the music.

But now music is here and The Next Day is remarkable. Not a ‘comeback’, not a latter day vanity project, and (definitely!) not a creaky ‘new’ work by some beloved national treasure. It is a vital and full-blooded release by a master obviously still putting it out as well as ever.

And it feels so good to report that – like ‘The Bewlay Brothers’, like ‘Watch That Man’, like ‘Diamond Dogs’ and ‘Ashes to Ashes’, like all the best Bowie – it fucking rocks, it walks a nice line ‘tween pop-trash and Art and parts of it can scare the pants right off you.

Published March 2013 on

Since forming in 2010, the Sirens Big Band have been a blast of Persian-scented fresh air into Sydney’s jazz scene, a scene where the rare female musician (who is not a vocalist) can stand out like a sapphire in the gravel. The Sirens are all-female, all-funky and all-embracing in their influences.

Sirens - pic Quirijn Mees

Band co-leaders Jessica Dunn and Harriet Harding have guided the Sirens from the beginning into a unique style heavy on the world-music grooves – oh, how I hate that word (as John McLaughlin, himself a great cross-pollinator, said “we ALL live in the World, don’t we?”) – there are Ethiopian, African, Latin, Balkan, Indian sounds there as well as New York funk, Chicago swing and Newtown boogie.

The Sirens’ debut album, Kali and The Time of Change reinforces these pan-continental grooves just as it reinforces the good time the band has when making music. Opener ‘Balkanator’ – penned by trumpeter Ellen Kirkwood (definitely a composer to watch) – jumps out like a joyful and slightly tipsy village wedding dance, the players throwing the solos around over drummer Lauren Benson’s grinning groove.

Sirens mentor (“our jazz mamma”) Sandy Evans’ Indian-spiced nine-minute-plus piece, the title track ‘Kali and The Time of Change’ opens with Harding’s sopranino talking back to the Band’s unison riffs. The piece settles down into a floating groove over which Harding raps “something majestic/ something lyrical/ female Aladdin representing future changes yo…” – a bright rap that evokes scenes in the mind and a call for peace in the heart. Quite beautiful.

Harriet Harding and tenor saxophonist Ruth Wells travelled to the Middle East last year and came back with more than they took away. These inspirations fuelled Harding’s ‘Kali’ rap and also Wells’ gorgeous ‘Hawassa to Addis’. This piece has guitarist Milan Ring singing over the entire band singing as a choir. I don’t know why it affects so deeply but it does – is it the lovely pentatonic Ethiopian folk tune the piece is based on? or is it that the choir of female voices sounds like children? or is it the low blues moan of Jessica Dunn’s bass during her solo? Who knows – best not to dwell on these things, best to just dig beauty as she should be dug, unquestioningly.Sirens Kali

The Sirens have, since their inception, played charts by some wonderful local composers and it is gratifying to see they have included several pieces here that they have had in their setlists from Day One. Paul Murchison’s hip-shaking 7/8 (if there can be such a thing, this is it) ‘I Still Remember’ gets the whole band cooking before a coolly soulful piano solo from Monique Lysiak. Nadia Burgess’s evocative, watercolour-washed ‘The Music in My Dreams’ is a masterclass in jazz big band tone-colour and restraint.

Jenna Cave’s sprightly African-limbed 9/8 jaunt ‘Odd Time In Mali’ has long been a Sirens’ favourite – by the time it smoothes out to 4/4 for Emma Riley’s sinuous trombone solo and Milan Ring’s chicken-picked guitar solo, if your foot ain’t tapping you are either made of machine-parts or dead.

Closing track Mulatu Astatke’s ‘Yekatit’ has all the elements that we love about the Siren’s Big Band – Ethio funk that swings, killer solos (Sophie Unsen’s baritone sax burning here) over a blasting band, and a joyful vibe presiding over all. It is a combination you won’t get anywhere else and they are one of Sydney’s – if not Australia’s – treasures.

The Siren’s Big Band – long may they sing us over the edge.

The Siren’s website is

Published February 2103 on 

Several months ago I happened to catch a performance of a band called Video8 at The Annandale. They were tight, edgy, obviously influenced by the sharp end of the 80s and surprising. Surprising in their originality and sound, but also surprising because they were fronted by Maxine Kauter.genre maxine cred chris allen

I had only recently been enjoying The Maxine Kauter Band’s album Alibech The Hermit – a collection of literate, acoustic-flavoured songs that could not have been more opposed in style to the glassy funk of Video8. Yet the same Maxine Kauter who yearned and purred from within the carved wooden walls of Alibech… was up there before me proclaiming with equal intensity and depth from a very different place, an Orwellian synthetic tube-farm of right-angled rhythms and 80s guitars.

And she got me thinking about genre in music.

How can an artist seem totally and fundamentally committed to more than one genre? And how can their creativity work entirely effectively within both? Or in as many genres as they choose to work in? How can they even like such diametrically opposing stuff, let alone love it?

genre richard maegraith cred rifton recordsIt is not the pastiche of the teevee ad jingle writer, or the jack-of-all session muso or the numbed human jukebox of the RSL musician – it is original and fully-felt in creation. I’m thinking of Elvis Costello’s brief switch from caustic new wave to the alkaline pop-country of 1981’s Almost Blue, hippie roots-rocker Neil Young’s techno album Trans, and even Igor Stravinsky’s sudden dumping of High Art Modernism in the 1920’s for the cool marble touch of Neo-Classicism.

Thinking further on it, I realised this thing of genre-or-not can reveal something about the approach and mind-set of the creative artist – in music moreso than any other Art form – and that is something I always think is worth the price of admission.genre luis rojas cred john snelson

And thinking yet further I realised that it was probably best if I asked hose who knew – three Sydney musicians whom I have long admired for their individuality, genre-defying and plain great music.

As well as Maxine Kauter – who is always good copy – I sent the same six simple questions to jazz saxophonist Richard Maegraith and guitarist Luis Rojas. Richard has long been a leading light of Australian jazz and fronts his unclassifiable band Galaxstare. Luis is a member of the tranvestite-metal band Mechanical Black as well as Shanghai, an experimental group unfettered by genre, style or expectations.

Here are their responses.


1. Why do you think so much music binds to one genre or another?

Maegraith: Humans love to compartmentalise. Genres help us feel safe and secure, and like we’ve got control over it.

Kauter: I think it’s because we need patterns to understand things right away. It’s the way we learn to play music too. Certain ideas are grouped together under particular headings known as genres. I think all of that comes back to narrative and to the way we pass on information. Like why is the Madonna always front-on in Madonna and child picture? Because that’s what tells me what the picture is about. It’s sort of like that with genre. Put a pedal steel on a simple chord progression and everyone will say ‘it’s country’, or ‘alt country’. Why? Because the Madonna is face-on.

Rojas: Two things spring to mind: Instrumentation/equipment and Influence.

A lot of genres are formed as a result of like-minded use of instrumentation, the line up of a band and the instruments played (eg. 4 piece: drums, bass, guitar, vocals) and the influence of past musical groups with similar instrumentation.

Take ‘post-rock’ for example, a non-specific genre that popped up out of nowhere, is basically a rebellion against the stereotypical 4-5 piece rock band sound. Compositions can involve classical and electronic influences performed within the confines of a typical rock band’s instrumentation. Different playing techniques and use of effects further help to differentiate from a typical rock band sound. A lot of these bands have a similar mindset, creating a community with a similar approach to their music and their influence. Influence begets influence until these bands end up painting themselves into a corner or pigeonholing themselves into that specific genre.

From a composer’s point of view, you have a choice of whether to compose for the limitations of an instrument (eg. an acoustic guitar may not be able to perform something written for piano), or the perceived rules of a genre etc.

A composer can begin writing a multi-instrumental piece on piano, for example, however, they would need to understand the various limitations and expressive playing techniques of the instrumentation for which they are composing.

A genre can arrive through a natural and organic process involving the progression from an initial musical idea which is then influenced by the choice of instrumentation and available equipment, as well as with the composer’s knowledge of musical styles and how instrumentation is used to create and execute certain musical ideas.

2. Is the idea of genre important to you and your music?

Maegraith: Not really.

Kauter: Yes, but in the sense of a history. Some ‘genres’ are really pointless. Like ‘indie’. Indie is the shark jumping moment in bending the definition of musical genres. That and ‘world’. In fact world might be worse because it’s also really racist. These genres are not really about music and are unhelpful as designations because other genres actually describe certain musical attributes that people have found a helpful name for grouping them together. ‘Indie’ and ‘world’ are the devils of genre. They’re the product of minds that actually don’t listen. Probably marketing minds. ‘Make it sounds like it didn’t cost a million dollars to make and then we’ll say it’s indie’.

For me the idea of genre is important when it is capable of evoking a history. For example ‘folk’ tells me about a long tradition of travelling musicians who comment on the political situation of the day and societal pressures on the common human, infusing these with their own personal stories so that the listener is reminded that they are part of something. Society exists. There is American, Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese and on and on. There are lots of sounds in folk, patterns of playing that are particular to regions. All are characterised by the fact that they focus on acoustic instruments and a prominent singer. Lyrics are important. Emotion, story, the listener… all king. It’s democratic, it’s for the people.

In this sense, genre is important to me. I want to exist in that history, it informs me. I don’t have to sound a certain way. The patterns played, the roads travelled etc, they don’t have to be the same. I don’t need to stand in a field with my shoes off to say ‘folk!’ I just need to acknowledge that history and genre by recognising what it is at its essence. But that’s for me, not really for others. It helps me to stay connected to an idea of music that is important and poignant to me. I imagine people feel this way about a lot of different genres of music.

So, actually, the genres we bandy about are wonderful language devices that conjure whole histories comprising musical motifs, patterns, standards, instruments, repeated narratives, certain innovations, particular regions, sounds, political revolutions, great love myths, heroes, heroines, failures and villains. They all manage to be referenced by this one word that shoots out great lightning pulses like neurons into the collective consciousness, lighting up a whole galaxy of meaning and culture. And that can happen with any of these genres.

It’s for this reason that certain ones are really offensive like ‘world music’ because the history it lights up is such a boring one about ‘you’ vs ‘me’. This idea that there is me and all of my nuanced history with the many genres needed to express it and then there is all the other people who make this one kind of music called ‘world’. That’s the kind of story we don’t need to be lighting up. That’s bad logic that only gets worse the more we use it.

Rojas: Audiences use genre in order to make it easier to seek out music they may like according to their individual tastes.  I think as a composer, genre can be a hindrance, more than anything. Catering to any particular audience is quite easy to do once you know how, usually rendering the resulting compositions stale and derivative. As a fan of music, I can relate to the need for people to categorise music into easily to digest genres, but when I have my composer’s hat on, that need is superfluous.

I rarely start writing a song with any specific genre in mind.  As a song is formed though, it becomes clear which particular musical project I am involved in it would be most suited for.  Having said that, I have been able to translate a heavy metal song into a classical piece quite easily, because the compositions do not rely on the limitations or confines of any particular genre or instrumentation, rather their adaptability comes from a strong emphasis on melody and structure

3. Here are 3 genres: what are your brief reactions? – 1. Pop-country, 2. Blues-rock, 3. Hip-hop

Maegraith: Keith Urban, Gary Moore, Lecrae

Kauter: I think immediately of the film The Player by Robert Altman. There’s that great first shot that goes on forever and at one point we listen in on a writer pitching a film to a producer and he is describing a film in which a political candidate has an accident that results in him being able to read minds. The producer says, “So it’s a psychic-political-thriller-comedy… with a heart.”

I also think, “Hyphens are fun”.

Rojas: POP COUNTRY: Pop was my first love. I grew up listening to ABBA, The Village People, Elton John, and The Beatles.  I usually apply a pop mentality to everything I write. Pop music to me is catchy, concise and to the point, so just because you’re writing an avant-garde noise piece, doesn’t mean you can’t apply those same elements to it.

Coming from a guy whose standard answer when asked “what kind of music do you like?”, is “I like pretty much everything”,  I can honestly say that country music comes very close to the bottom of the list.  The amalgamation of something I love with something that I loathe can result in either one improving on the other, or one ruining the other.  When ‘pop country’ springs to mind, I would say it is the latter.

BLUES ROCK: I love rock music but I really do have a love/hate relationship with the blues.  As much as I appreciate its influence and importance in modern music, it is not the kind of music that inspires me or excites me on a day-to-day basis.  Having said that, my guitar playing is for the majority influenced by blues.  One of the only scales I know is the blues scale and so any solos that I play end up sounding very blues influenced regardless of genre.  Despite my apathy towards blues, it is very much an integral part of how I developed musically and currently unwittingly express myself.

HIP HOP: Growing up through 80s, hip hop was an unavoidable part of my musical shaping.  There was a particular movie called Beat Street that introduced me to artists such as Grand Master Flash, Kool Moe Dee, and Afrika Bambaataa, at an early age.  Later on, I also found an appreciation for NWA and Public Enemy.  A little known fact is that Shanghai sampled a Public Enemy track from ‘Fear of a Black Planet’ on our first EP, ‘Esoterica’. In more modern times, two bands that stick out to me are The Beastie Boys and The Avalanches.  The Avalanches’ first EP ‘El Producto’ is one of my favourite hip hop releases of all time, especially with its use of Theremin being a personal highlight.

genre rojas - shanghai

In more recent times, I appreciate hip hop when it is approached organically.  For instance my appreciation of Beastie Boys and Avalanches stems from their incorporation of rock band instrumentation as opposed to relying solely or very heavily on samples, synthesisers and drum machines. It’s the fusing of real world instrumentation with the electronic realm that works best for me in this particular genre.

A lot of recent hip hop does absolutely nothing for me as its stagnated into this pool of sexist, macho, repetitive, derivative, formulaic droll.  The only artist of late that has stood out for me is Kendrick Lamar and his second release ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D City’.

4. Is current music, in general, moving further away from genre constraints or aligning tighter to them?

Maegraith: Both, at the same time, I think. There are what I call ‘archivists’ (people/groups who seek to retain the ‘true’ or ‘original’ genre) in all genres of music. They can be forthright about what is ‘jazz’ or ‘swing’ or the notion that any jazz after bebop was rubbish, or whatever. These archivists appear in most genres. Thankfully, they’re in the minority, but they’re usually pretty vocal about it. These people are keen to keep genre lines tight. At the same time, globalisation has allowed a new kind of genre blurring o occur which is exciting for the most part, I think.

Kauter: Further away. We assign genres to things merely as a way of branding the music in a certain way. Usually we really need to talk about bands or musicians that a particular artist sounds like because the genres have become either very mixed or perverted by people hijacking them as a way of falsely associating certain music with other music. That perversion sort of builds up on itself until genres mean so little there really isn’t much to move away from. That in itself is an interesting thing to think about. The fact that when designations become so important that people feel they need to manipulate their meaning to infer greater importance, eventually those designations come to mean nothing and yet it is still very important. You might say assertions of genre are only as powerful as the agents making them, whether that is musicians, executives, critics or others.

Audiences are never involved in assigning genre. I think that’s significant, especially when it comes to the nonsense end of genre meanings. Only certain agents can assign genre and now they’re saying things like “indie/alternative grunge/dance” and the listeners brain explodes, they have nowhere to put it so they HAVE to listen. It’s genius. Delusions of genre.

Rojas: I would say that the genres themselves are actually expanding.  For example, heavy metal – once fairly easy to define – is now awash with a sea of sub-genres.  While it’s easier for people to describe themselves as heavy metal fans, a metal-core kid could quite easily detest a founding band of the heavy metal genre, eg. Iron Maiden. Black Sabbath fans may also detest the latest djent masterpiece.

The blanket term ‘Heavy Metal’ is a good example of where there are bands that have similar influences aligning under one broad banner, yet move away from each other in terms of sub-genre.

5. Have you ever been pressured to conform to a saleable genre for fame, limos and hoes?

Maegraith: No

Kauter: As a matter of fact I have. I was once playing at an open mic in a really upbeat afro-cuban bar in King Cross. It was a competition of sorts and my band and I were very much in the wrong place. It was the kind of place that you need to be high on cocaine to enjoy. The entire dance hall was crawling with B and C grade wannabe celebrities (now there’s a genre). After we had played I misplaced my drink and I headed to the artists’ dressing room to find an alternative. Metal featured heavily in in that room and from between a pair of bronze neo-celtic relief sculptures a woman appeared. It was Chan Marshall, aka, Cat Power: the queen of indie/folk. I’ve always really loved her so I was shocked. She said, “I really loved your set”. I looked at my shoes. She bought me a drink and told me that if I could ditch my band and become a lo-fi, ambient, trip hop artist that I could join her on a world-music tour as her support act. She had a lot of samples she’d been working on on her vintage casiotone and I wouldn’t have to write new songs, just set them to tiny drum beats and simple synths. I was quite freaked out.

She showed me her limo and told me she’d found a way to take the carcinogens out of cigarettes. She offered me one and it tasted sort of like the way I remember Malboros tasting when I was about 19 and they were still called Malboros. Of course, those days are over now. Hers were in these blue plastic bags marked “experimental house”. We made it to Japan before I woke up. My musical dream, in which I struggle with selling out and in the end reconcile myself to a life of public fame and personal sacrifice, was over.

Rojas: Not pressured, no. The only pressure in that regard would be any pressure that I put on myself in the past as a naïve young composer to try to fit into the stereotypes that I thought necessary at the time to progress successfully in a musical career.  Now with the benefit of hindsight, limos and hoes do not appeal to me, although some fame would be nice.

6. Who are your genre-bustin’ heroes? Why?

genre maegraith - Chris PotterMaegraith: There’s the obvious people like Ry Cooder and Bill Frisell but I’m pretty taken by Avishai Cohen and Chris Potter. They both have so many current influences permeating their music but still sound like jazz musicians. I dig that. Sometime world or really blurry genres end up sounding like what a potluck lunch tastes like. Neither this, nor that. And the musical conviction suffers.

Kauter: Hmmm, this is a tough one. Maybe my mother. She left school at 15 as a wayward fun loving, pubescent puberty blues-esque tearaway. At 16 she ran away with her sweetheart to Queensland where the odds were stacked against them and from where they returned 8 months later pregnant, prodigal. She worked as a checkout chick and had three kids by 22, a tough and kind-hearted down-on-her luck mother, fiercely protective of her kids and husband. Young and hopeful she began work for a major insurance company answering phones, ambitious and hard-working in a man’s world. Eventually she became a senior manager and policy writer at that company and was the high flying executive who feels guilty about leaving her kids at home alone after school. She was the perpetually busy career woman whose husband resents her success on some level. She was also a triathlete. Then she was the stay-at-home wife and mother who has seen the light and forsaken her career for the sake of her man and children. Now she is the happy, empty nester and grandma who spends her time working for the church and taking motorcycle trips through rural Australia with her teenage sweetheart.

Rojas: Frank Zappa. He has probably been the biggest influence on me since I first discovered his music, around the very early 90s, just before he passed away.  His prolific tendencies alone forced him to explore more musical styles within his lifetime than most composers of any standing.  I know that his roots lay in styles such as the blues, pop music and doo-wop, but even as a child, Frank appreciated the avant-garde music concrete just as much, with Edgard Varese and Stravinsky being two of his favourite composers.  He not only influenced me as a player – giving me a new found appreciation of the electric guitar – but also as a composer seeking out ways to fuse and reinvent different musical styles in a coherent and palatable way.genre frank zappa

John Zorn: Another prolific composer that has had a big effect on my writing, as well as exposing me to new musical ideas, approaches and artists.  From his covers of classic film soundtracks, to his intelligent use of musical game pieces, Zorn, and in particular his band Naked City, taught me that genre need not be a limitation on songwriting, and that the only restrictions as a composer or a musician are the ones placed on yourself.  Never did I think that an improvisational death metal grind-core band could exist with alto saxophone at its centre, totally devoid of guitar, but Zorn made it work in his band Painkiller, which also featured Mick Harris and Bill Laswell.

Carl Staling: Also a major influence on Zorn, Staling’s infinite smashing of genres and cut-and-paste aesthetic rings through my music in Shanghai.  I guess spending all that time watching Warner Brothers cartoons as a kid is paying off now.

Maxine Kauter, Maxine Kauter Band –
Richard Maegraith, Galaxstare –
Luis Rojas, Shanghai –
Published March 2013 on

Sometimes I think it is Europe that will save Jazz – not that Jazz really needs saving, just as Rock doesn’t need saving, but both could do with the occasional cracker up the wazoo.

Whenever Jazz seems threatened by the over-zealous or paralysingly-respectful American approach, I am heartened by Northern sounds such as Esbjörn Svensson’s  E.S.T. (R.I.P. the band and the man) from Sweden or more recently Norway’s crushingly heavy Elephant9. I also think back to the enormous popularity among the hashish-and-Escher set of the arty ECM label from Germany, who gave us Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett (Americans ignored initially by their homeland) and continues to break new and intriguing artists to this day.

Phronesis-58 long

The recent release of Walking Dark by Scandinavian-British trio, Phronesis, as well as reminding me of that particularly European approach to improvised music, is a delight. I say ‘improvised music,’ instead of Jazz, as their approach seems – like so many Euro Improv artists – to have leached any trace of the Blues out of it, finally cutting off that already shrivelled branch to Mother America.

The Euro approach seems to take as much from Northern European classical music as anything else, and (surprisingly) Latin music – especially the rhythmic quirks of Cuban music, which in itself was a beautiful mongrel of Spanish, African and anything else that happened to sail into port. Blues out, Latin in – ‘Chega De Saudade’ indeed.

Just check out Walking Dark’s ‘Upside Down’ which starts with a single, repeated syncopated piano note from Ivo Neame (UK). This simple-yet-complex motif is soon joined by the bass of Jasper Hoiby (Denmark) and the drums of Anton Eger (Sweden) to create a very Latin lattice of cross-rhythms and cross-currents that works so perfectly. Maybe it is because the piano cannot bend a note that the Blues is banished but I don’t see that as the full story. Phronesis seem to work best when creating this mesh of sound and pulling and pushing it into different texture and shapes.

Phronesis – the word means ‘wisdom’ or ‘intelligence’ or, more specifically ‘the wisdom to change our lives for the better’ – is the brainchild of London-based bassist Hoiby and was formed in 2005. The group has been described by Jazzwise Magazine as “the most exciting and imaginative piano trio since E.S.T.” and I think they are right.PhronesisLP

Much of this excitement, to my ear, comes from the democratic approach of Phronesis, each player given entirely free rein to move their strand of the music forward as they see fit, or feel at the time. In this sense, ‘democratic’ is not an accurate term, as it suggests a lowest common denominator. Phronesis are all leaders – they just lead simultaneously (is this the essence of true democracy?). Check out some of the improvising – or ‘blowing’ sections – on Walking Dark, such as the middle of ‘Lipwash Part II’ or the drum solo over a groovy montuno (there’s that Latin vibe again) in ‘Zeiding’.

Walking Dark is a revelation. Any Radiohead or Brian Eno fan out there will dig it – once again, the European-ness of it all brings it together.

Thinking of checking Jazz out? Now’s the time, Phronesis is the band, Walking Dark is the album.

Pics by Katja Liebing. Check out Katja Liebing’s gallery of photos from Phronesis’s recent Blue Beat show here.

Phronesis’s website is here.

Published March 2013 on

It is only six short weeks into the new year and I feel I have heard the best jazz recording of 2013. But that sense of time dislocation is okay because the album I am talking about was recorded and released thirty-two years ago, in 1981.

Live at PBSFM 1981 by the Ted Vining Trio was originally released as an LP by Bill Hawtin of Jazznote Records. Long known, and discussed in reverent – and not so reverent – whispers, this legendary recording has been reissued by Newmarket Music on remastered CD. The sound quality is good, not great; the performances are sky-high motherlovin’ fantastic.

Ted Vining - pic Laki Sideris

For a music such as Jazz – which celebrates ‘the moment’ by its very definition – the live recording has to be the apex. MilesFour and More, Bill Evans’ and John Coltrane’s separate Village Vanguard live masterpieces, Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert – their living-in-the-present immediacy has made for some of the form’s greatest performances.

Live at PBSFM 1981 deserves to be up there with these iconic albums. Drummer Vining, pianist Bob Sedergreen and bassist Barry Buckley – together with guest percussionist Alan Lee – whip up the excitement from note one and never let up. We hear it said all the time, but this gig truly sounds like the last one they will ever play, they play with such abandon – an abandon somehow reckless yet measured, the players simultaneously inside and outside the music.

Sedergreen’s McCoy-Tyner-flavoured piano intro to Trane’s ‘Impressions’ is physical, brutal and tangibly heated – he shows that poor piano no mercy throughout the entire recording; he rocks that box. And suddenly the band is there under him, flying breakneck down the freightTrane track. Buckley (who sadly passed on in 2006) has that compellingly raspy stringy bass tone here that is full of exclamations and percussive snaps popping out of his driving line. Vining of course is joy-in-drumming personified – his freedom is never at the expense of groove and vice versa – his short solo is a journey in and out and round again.

Blossom Dearie’s ‘Sweet Georgie Fame’ is three-quarter-time Gospel-soul that magically turns, at the coda, into a driving four-four, and back again into some fun play between the three. Live at PBSFM 1981 is brimming with these ultra-musical, extra-musical conversations between Vining, Sedergreen and Buckley – the three play, in every sense of the word. Peppered with vocal exhortations, affirmations and joyful egging-on between the musos, the album is as raucously cap-L Live as you can want.Ted Vining 2

Even Dizzy’s latin-Bop chestnut ‘A Night In Tunisia’ is exhumed, dressed in sharp new clothes and sent spinning round the block in a fast car. Dizzying stuff indeed, with Sedergreen’s elongated solo piano coda a particular high. ‘Little Sunflower’ is a 15:49 thrill-ride that has the trio and Lee taking every drop of musical material in Freddie Hubbard’s simple latin-jazz tune and twisting it, melding it and alchemising it into strange and sometimes alien alloys. It is a masterclass in making much out of very little – which is what jazz should be, n’est pas?

In fact, Live at PBSFM 1981 should be required listening for anyone studying piano-trio jazz at present and well into the future. As with John Coltrane’s best later work, it is an object lesson in what you get if you lose all inhibitions, stop thinking with the front-mind and just play and play and play – the result is something beautifully human, giddyingly spiritual and deliciously fullblooded.

Of course it does help to be Ted Vining, Bob Sedergreen and Barry Buckley – a trio that will live on through this remarkable album.

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Published February 2103 on 

Guitarist and composer Jessica Green saved me.

Depressed after listening through a covermount CD that came with a recent Blues magazine, her new album Tinkly Tinkly put a big goofy grin right across my face. (Now, I love the Blues dearly but it all is starting to sound the same – new Blues artists seem so scared of losing market share they opt for the tiresomely obvious and the well-worn over new ideas. Can this be the same music that is stamped with the character of great innovators such as Hubert Sumlin and T-Bone Walker?)

Wearily replacing the covermount with Tinkly Tinkly I was sat straight up by the loping township jive of album opener ‘Bamako Youth’. For the next 11:12 I followed the track through chirpy sax motif, tough fusion solo from Green, a Paul Simon-ish vocal section (again by Green – great lyric!) and a coda of massed horns and Matt Keegan’s snarling outro solo. Unlike the drab Blues-by-numbers that had brought me down, this track told a story and took me willingly along its dusty African road.

JessGreensBrightSparksSepia SIMA

The next track ‘Orange Rock Song’ was equally thrilling in its twists and turns, its unexpected rhythms, horn voicings and snaky riffs. Unlike the Blues-under-glass, this track and every one that followed showed Green and her band – the aptly named Bright Sparks – willing to experiment, take chances and strike out for the unknown.

I hear this a lot now in Australian jazz: younger players such as The Alcohotlicks, Aaron Flower, Tim Willis in Melbourne and anyone named Hauptmann (James and Zoe are two of the Bright Sparks on this album) taking the freedom and chops of Jazz as a starting point and filtering it through the kaleidoscopic lenses of rock, electronica, bluegrass, trip- and hip-hop. These mongrel musics – as in nature – cannot help but strengthen and invigorate the music nominally called Jazz.jess green 1

The title track ‘Tinkly Tinkly’ is a good case. Starting with percussionist Bree van Reyk’s glockenspiel-like intro, a building eighth-note lattice of harmony is built until a heavy guitar solo from Green pushes the tune over its tipping point into a jabbing 6/8 riff that could be a cousin of Weather Report’s ‘Boogie Woogie Waltz’. It all hangs beautifully together in a deceptively simple manner, but you are always aware there is a shrewd compositional mind behind it.

The moody blues of ‘The Alias’ transforming into a lop-sided oom-pah under Dan Junor’s alto solo; the ambience and snaggle of ‘Rothko’ (I could see the painter’s glowing colours at times here); the ominous leaden riff of ‘Postcard for Alice’ reminiscent of Frank Zappa’s ‘Filthy Habits’ leading into a sprightly latin 6/8 under Simon Ferenci’s spitting trumpet and back again; the hilarious high-spirits of party-jam ‘Dear Mr Cave’; transformation, play, smart decisions, seeking and finding – wonderful stuff from a bright spark.

Thanks for saving me, Ms Green, from a fate worse than deaf.


Prior to posting this review I asked Jessica Green a few short questions. Here are her responses:

1. You have recently completed your new album Tinkly Tinkly. What was the moment that told you now was the time to record?

Well the first session was 4 years ago, so it’s hard to actually remember! This project is way overdue really, we’ve had a bunch of new good tunes kicking around for ages, more appropriately the question might be “when did I know it was time to release” which was having a good tax return to fund it!!

2. Jazz nowadays – especially releases by younger players – seems to really stretch the genre thing. Tinkly Tinkly has heavy Zappa-esque rock grooves quite happily cheek-by-jowl with New Orleans joyful blues; what is it that you enjoy about mashing (and even utterly ignoring) genre divides?

Well I suppose it’s difficult for me NOT to mash up. This is how I hear music. I am heavily influenced by Zappa (I played in Sydney Zappa band Petulant Frenzy for a year) but also I’ve grown up listening to so much different music. I like to tell a story that leads the listener to unexpected places.

3. Your Bright Sparks really are quite a cast of the best and the brightest – how do you settle on your players?

Well this band had been around for a while. I loved their originality and talent right from the beginning, and at that time I was relying on recommendations. I’m just lucky they keep agreeing to play with the group!

What makes a lot of the songs work is their unique personalities coming through, I’ve always aspired to this sort of band, right from first hearing and reading about the way Duke Ellington worked. He wrote for each player.

4. As a guitar player myself, I am always interested in what makes a player settle on a particular weapon of choice. You seem to have your beautiful Telecaster Thinline in every pic i have seen of you – why the Tele Thinline?

The Thinline was a recommendation from James Muller. I was trying to find a lighter guitar and when I tried this one I was hooked!

It’s such a versatile guitar which suits my music. It can be warm as well as have lots of bite!

5. What are your thoughts on jazz on Australia today?

Seems pretty healthy to me! There’s a lot if experimentation but also it’s great to see a lot if younger players embracing some of the earlier styles of jazz and blues and making it their own.

6. What are your thoughts on today’s music outside of jazz?

Mmm I do listen to a lot of cross over indie pop/rock. I love what bands like St Vincent, Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear are doing and also groups that are under the New Music banner. Particularly in Australia there is some really interesting music being made.

For more information visit:

To hear and buy the album, go to

Label: Yum Yum Tree

Published February 2103 on 

Elizabeth Bogoni’s striking cover of the new album by WA composer/arranger Alice Humphries’ ECILA shows a deep blue forest symmetrically reflected upon itself. The title across the image is, in fact, Alice’s first name spelled backwards, with the letter C reversed to give us a clue – as well as playing a little visual game-within-a-game. Alice Humphries2

These symmetries and mirror-maze games pop up throughout the ten tracks that make up ECILA, the ensemble’s self-titled debut album. Humphries’ compositions and arrangements are brimming with smart ideas that use all manner of reflections, symmetries, crab-canons and latticed textures to great effect. Australian composer Iain Grandage has mentioned the “rhythmic surprises and games” in Humphries’ music.

But her charts are not some quasi-mathematical brainiac chess-game – far from it: the music here is bursting with life and fun –  as well as great great beauty. And her 11-piece ensemble, made up of some astonishing young talent (check trumpeter Callum G’Froerer on ‘Through The Barrier’ for instance) from Perth and Melbourne, is perfectly suited to Humphries’ challenging arrangements, breathing them all into vivid and deeply-dimensional life.

No less a musical thinker than Mike Nock has described Humphries’ as “…a great talent with a highly original musical conception.” One marker of this original thinking is her use of strings – viola and cello – amongst the usual jazz ensemble instruments. They shimmer on a piece such as ‘Processional’ but, played pizz., scratch at the back of your neck during the little-cat-feet scoring of ‘Blind Panic’. Humphries also uses toys – yes, toys – she and guitarist Brett Thompson employing them on ‘The Music Box’, the album’s nostalgic and evocative closer which brings to mind the atmosphere of Debussy’s ‘enchanted garden’ works, such as ‘Ma Mère L’Oye’.

Alice Humphries 1

As well as intriguing timbres, Humphries reaches into some interesting areas for her source material. Vocalist Allira Wilson is truly captivating on the two vocal cuts here – a cover of Billy Holliday’s heartbreaking ‘Don’t Explain’ and an idiosyncratic take on the early 20th century folk tune ‘Bury Me Beneath The Willow’. On the Holliday song Wilson is strong and clear over a glassy veil of instruments coming in and out like a breeze billowing and receding. On ‘Bury Me…’ the singer stays with the melody, hardly inflecting or bruising its strong, stately flow. It’s a nice demonstration of restraint and, for anyone with ears, it marks Allira Wilson as definitely a jazz voice to watch.

ECILA is a startling debut from an exciting new talent and a dazzling new ensemble. The gratifying part is that, here on their debut, we witness the beginning of a road that I truly hope will stretch far far into the future.

Mike Nock predicts that Alice Humphries is “…on course to make a big contribution to Australian music in the future.” Over the years I have found myself agreeing with pretty much everything Mike Nock has thought, played and said. And I don’t intend to stop now.

Alice Humphries: composer/arranger/glockenspiel/toys

Allira Wilson: voice

Aaron Wyatt: viola

Anna Sarcich: cello

Callum G’Froerer: trumpet/flugelhorn

Tilman Robinson: trombone

Ben Collins: saxophones/clarinet

Mark Sprogowski: bass clarinet/clarinet

Brett Thompson: guitar/toys

Callum Moncrieff: vibraphone/glockenspiel

Nick Abbet: bass

Ben Falle: drum kit

For more information visit:

To hear and buy the album, go to

Published February 2103 on 

It is a challenge to the non-Aboriginal Australian to consider that inanimate material objects can hold cultural memory. Even though we seem to spend the majority of our time chasing material possessions, we rarely, if ever, look beyond an object’s practical use – or emotional gratification. Stuff is stuff – dead and lifeless – certainly not capable of retaining memories of the life around it.

A chance meeting with Aboriginal elder, Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison has set musicians Kaleena Briggs and Nardi Simpson of the Stiff Gins and musician/producer Syd Green on a remarkable path of discovery. It is a path that will see them drawing out the ‘music’ remembered in Indigenous cultural objects. Spirit Of Things Collective

Their ‘Spirit of Things – Sound of Objects Project’ is exploring residual and embedded stories and songs retained in Aboriginal cultural material. The three musicians – known as The Spirit of Things Collective – will listen to objects held in the Australian Museum in Sydney; listen as those objects reveal their stories. They explain that they will then “interpret those sounds into song and image and release them into the world where again they can breathe and speak”.

The Project is conceived in four stages: 1. Connect – where the collective will sit with objects in the Australian Museum and produce a wealth of material, creative and journalistic inspired by these objects; 2. New Breath – new songs inspired and released by the objects will be recorded in a studio; 3. Speak – a series of performances incorporating objects, sound, image, movement, and storytelling; and 4. Bestow – the creation of a new object that retains the memory, story and song created during this project.

The new object created through the Spirit of Things – Sound of Objects Project will reside at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra.

To me as a non-Indigenous Australian and a musician, I find it a beautiful idea. It is an idea full of the spirituality I – and I am sure many, many musicians – yearn for in the act of making music.


I put a series of questions to Kaleena Briggs, Nardi Simpson and Syd Green regarding the Spirit of Things – Sound of Objects Project. Here are their responses.

JH: What was the spark that began your journey with the Spirit of Things – Sounds of Objects project?

Kaleena: We (Stiff Gins) were fortunate to play at the Two Fires festival in Braidwood, NSW a few years back. I remember we had the afternoon off and were about to get a coffee when we walked past the townhall/theatre. Sitting on the steps was Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison, an Aboriginal elder from the Yuin people of the south coast. He was to give a talk at the theatre but no one had come. He said he was going to wait a while longer and then go.  As we walked away, a wave of sadness fell over me and I started to cry. It saddened me/us that here was this very important person, an elder, a library of history, who was willing to impart freely that knowledge and his unique perspective of culture.

However, I believe it was meant to be, because Uncle was at the same cafe as us, with his family and we all got to chatting. And we realised it was meant to happen. Uncle discussed how stone and rock retained and were imprinted with the stories and sounds around it. This clicked with us as musicians, storytellers and as Indigenous people. That one afternoon, over coffees and good yarns a seed of an idea was planted. And that idea over the last few years has now become a reality. We are grateful that our paths crossed with Uncle Max.

JH: What role has Uncle Max Duramunmun Harrison played in the project?

Spirit Of Things logoNardi: Uncle Max is a very strong presence in the project. After meeting him at one of the first gigs Kaleena, Syd and I played together on his beautiful country, his words and outlook on culture and learning have imprinted strongly on us all. Looking back now, it’s as if his words were imbedded into our spirits and minds and led to the birth of the idea of Spirit of Things – Sound of Objects. Apart from his teachings on embedded story and sound and song, he is one of the most generous people we have ever met so not only are we inspired by his words, but his actions too.

We look forward to interviewing Uncle Max and capturing his ideas and thoughts so we can include them in the final performance of the project. But for now his words, and his gentle, generous and humorous spirit and support and encouragement of our music has led us on this incredible journey. His spirit flows within and through everything in Spirit of Things – Sound of Objects.

JH: How is the Australian Museum involved in the project? What other institutions are you looking at?

Nardi: The Australian Museum have allowed us access to their collections (which is available to all aboriginal community members) and supported us in three research days on site within the collections. The ultimate goal would be have a touring exhibition the objects and their accompanying performance in cultural institutions around the world, something we’d love to work with the museum on making happen next year. While informal in its nature, we feel our relationship with the museum as mutually beneficial. We get to access and interpret the collections stored there while the museum get a first hand insight into a creative and cultural framework which animates their collections through a unique, Indigenous world view. We are both learning to navigate each other’s needs and expectations which can be challenging but ultimately very rewarding.

We are also really excited to be entering into a formal partnership with the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra and with the help of their technicians and the Indigenous unit, will create our own ‘antiquated’ object with embedded story and song in the form of a wax cylinder of our recordings that we will then donate back to the archive. This is a really exciting prospect, and we are so excited about how this part of the project will take shape. We feel very moved when we think we are going some way in recreating the steps taken 120 odd years ago by Fanny Cochrane Smith when she recorded the songs of her Tasmanian Palawa peoples onto wax cylinder.

JH: Do you feel it is possible for someone with a non-Aboriginal worldview to understand the project and its aims?

Syd: Definitely. The culture of storytelling is more alive than ever. One of the special points about The Spirit of Things – Sound of Objects is that it seeks to release stories residing within cultural objects. In a way we’re acting as the voice for these stories but interpreting it as creative and musical beings. We’re really excited to share the journey. People are vibed with the project and curious and we’ve had such receptive and supportive responses from the community.

JH: What has the Spirit of Things – Sounds of Objects Project achieved so far and where does it go next?

Syd: The time at the museum has been about taking the time to listen with the objects and process these responses into musical ideas. We’re heading to a secluded farmhouse in the Southern Highlands of NSW to bunker down and write together. We’ll be taking everything we can carry to capture something unique to previous recordings we’ve made. It might resemble a sound track or soundscape that embraces rhythm and the magical harmonies of Kaleena and Nardi’s sweet voices. It’s going to be fun too creating from an artistic perspective. We also have some audio sketches from the Museum debriefs that will be a great starting point. It’s so exciting to be going into a recording session with the idea of creating an ambience as opposed to the standard verse-chorus type of songs.

JH: What is your ultimate goal for the project? Or is it an open-ended loop?

Kaleena: The importance of this project is to not rely heavily on any one aspect. I guess we all three have certain personal goals that we would like to achieve. But I believe I speak for all of us when I say that the process, the journey is the reward. This project is important because it steps away from the recognised machine that we have followed before. Write songs+sing songs+record songs= a CD. We have played that mode before. And we are at a point in our lives and careers where we are searching for that passion again, that spark and would love to create something that moves us.

Main photo: Spirit Of Things Collective. Syd Green, Nardi Simpson and Kaleena Briggs. Photo by Elhi Green, styled by Lucy Simpson.

The Collective’s website is here

Published February 2013 on