Archive for July, 2013

In James Ryan’s liner notes to Aaron Michael’s eponymous debut, Aaron Michael, he mentions that the Sydney saxophonist took an unusual tack when picking the players for these sessions. He put together people who did not usually play together, players from different parts of the jazz community – a risky move, but one which paid off, as the band appears to greatly relish the new accents and flavours of the experiment. You can hear their buzz jumping from the tracks.

pic aaron blakey

pic aaron blakey

In the goldfish bowl of the Australian jazz scene this might be the sort of calculated risk that we need to see more of. All evolution needs diversity and the occasional short sharp shock to the status quo.

Opener ‘Leytonstone’ is an immediate illustration of the ensemble’s joy: a bright expression of positivity – a happy strut with maybe a whiff of New Orleans gumbo, the tune’s broad smile disguises an intricate melody – intricate in harmony as well as phrasing. Michael digs in for a solo duet with drummer Paul Derricott that cuts up hot and sweet.

And here it must be mentioned that Aaron Michael’s playing has not had the edge knocked off, despite being the go-to horn-guy who seems to be playing all the time, with everyone… everywhere… Consummate professionalism can be a hell of a thing – too many players lose their own identity, their own voice, working nine-to-five replicating the voices of others, as superbly as that may be. But the most beautiful thing, ultimately, is a musician’s own voice, as it has all the scars and laugh-lines and happy-sads of life which make it as unique as fingerprints or a face. Session work can suck that right out of a player.

Aaron Michael’s voice is as true to himself as he would want – a clean, nimble, modern tenor tone, unadorned with effects or false sentiment, it is astringently honest. Check ‘Por Favor’, a lanquid pulseless ballad that Michael’s soprano floats over – bringing to mind Wayne Shorter’s ability to express every part of the straight sax’s vocabulary, sometimes within the same phrase: the sharp jabs widening out to round, sonorous tones. (The lovely bonus track at the end of the CD is for once, truly a bonus – a second take of ‘Por Favor’ with a spare piano accompaniment – lovely stuff indeed).

‘Here and Now’ shows Aaron Michael’s compositional strengths – it is a piece of contrasts: 3/4 against 4/4, swing pulse against straight, with a smartly conceived ensemble section towards the latter part of the tune (and, as a bon-bon, a typically measured and balanced piano solo from Matt McMahon). Michael’s ‘Spicy Beans’ with its rush-hour head and his 9/8 gospel blues ‘Communion’ (with a testifying bass solo from Duncan Brown) are sharp pieces of writing that also show him as a jazz composer to watch.aaron michael Album cover

‘Spicy Beans’ and Paul Derricott’s ‘Evening Haze’ have the band plugging into some fusion electricity. Guitarist Dieter Kleeman snaps, crackles and shreds on these – an impressive player equally at home playing a sweet acoustic jazz tone on the opener ‘Leytonstone’. The whole band, in fact, strongly convinces on the rock pieces while remaining totally mesmerising on the more ‘jazz’ tunes.

But as hot as the players are, and as fine as Aaron Michael’s compositions may be, it is really his playing which makes Aaron Michael such a startling debut. As a pointer, the sheer beauty and downright ‘heart’ of his solo on the last piece ‘Communion’ is a small masterclass in blues, restraint, humanity in music and transcendence of technique. Modern jazz has always been a balancing act between science and poetry, chops and soul – and sadly, too many players fall for the formulae and lose the funk.

Gladly, Aaron Michael is not one of them and you need go no further than Aaron Michael for actual proof.

Aaron Michael is available from http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/aaronmichael2

Aaron Michael’s website is http://aaronmichaelband.com/

Published June 2103 on australianjazz.net 

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The current major exhibition at The Art Gallery of New South Wales is Sydney Moderns. It has the subtitle Art for a New World, and the pictures shown – over 180 works by many of Australia’s most significant artists of the 1920s and 30s – express the excitement and fear that the rapid urbanisation of Sydney engendered in them.

The excitement was obvious. Technological and engineering advances (ironically, many rapidly advanced by the carnage of the First World War) were changing the face and the pace of the city. From its inception in 1923 till its completion in 1932, the Sydney Harbour Bridge loomed over the city as a symbol of modernisation and a technology that had been a dream only half a generation before. Artists painted the bridge from many angles – literal and philosophical – a God-like rainbow of steel, a symbol of the triumph of man. Grace Cossington-Smith’s The Bridge In Curve from 1930 is a thrusting thing of beauty, actually changing the fabric of the very sky around it.

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Grace Cossington-Smith – The Bridge In Curve

But there were others who saw it as something that dwarfed the humanity that scurried ever-faster beneath it. And here is the fear. It was all going too fast: Grace Cossington-Smith’s Rush and Crowd, both show a panic at the new pace of Sydney life. The brutality of it was anathema to the sensibilities of artists such as Cossington-Smith and Margaret Preston.

Whereas Cossington-Smith seemed to react with a Cezanne-like analysis of the new shapes being built daily before her, others reflected the New World they saw in different ways.

Margaret Preston applied a cool graphicity to her pictures – hard edges, flat planar colours. Her Flapper of 1925 is a work of graphic sang-froid – it was only logical that she moved soon into a woodcut style (hand-coloured) that was only line and fill. The Bridge didn’t frighten her; her Sydney Bridge woodcut of 1932 has the steel icon knitted firmly into the cool lattice of lines and colours, safely in the middle distance.

Margaret Preston - Flapper

Margaret Preston – Flapper

Others reacted differently in trying to understand the shock of the New. Roy De Maistre – a highly skilled technician who easily straddled academic rigour and abstract adventure – leapt at it all, as the Italian Futurists had done earlier. Together with Roland Wakelin and others, he developed colour theories and colour keyboards and made synanthesic images of music. He is credited as the first Australian artist to use pure abstraction, and it is the experiments of the over-heated 20s that led him there.

However, the abstract works shown in Sydney Moderns are not as successful as the figurative works, as they seem to be in thrall to Kandinsky and Sonia Delaunay and chiefly European innovations. But the light in the figurative works can only be Australian – just like Roberts and Streeton before them, this new generation knew their Antipodean light and it is everywhere in these works – bright, white and dry-hot.

Another unique aspect of the times was the brief marriage of high Art and commerce. Max Dupain created photography for Hoover ads, Margaret Preston and Adrian Feint illustrated covers for The Home Magazine (‘The Australian Journal of Quality’) and Roy De Maistre designed colour schemes for interior decorators. For a while it all blurred – before Art alienated everyone and Commerce dumbed down again. It was the time of Art Deco, where decoration – a blasphemy to any modern cap-A Artist – was for a time held as a high goal.

It is telling that even an artist as visionary as Margaret Preston would write (to the artist Norman Carter): “I was very interested to hear of your decorative work – it’s the only thing worth aiming for this century – it’s really the keynote of everything – I’m trying all I know to reduce my still lifes to decorations and I find it fearfully difficult.”

Sydney Moderns curators Deborah Edwards and Denise Mimmocchi have smartly organised the enormous number of works into five broad categories: Colour, light and colour-music; Modern life, modern city; Still life as laboratory table; Landscapes of modernity; and Paths to Australian abstraction. As an exhibition, it is a superb telling of a time when Australian Art looked forward with some trepidation, but mainly excitement, to a future that was truly a New World.

Sydney ModernsArt for a New World runs until 7 October 2013.

Published July 2013 on megaphoneoz.com

 

It took me three attempts to actually find the new Bill Henson exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This has nothing to do with the AGNSW’s signage or the directions I was given by their ever-helpful staff. It’s not them, it’s me – I just seem to have trouble with orientation: maps, signs, right, left, grids, logic – I can’t relate and therefore spend a lot of the time lost.

So it was such a pleasure, when I finally found it, to immerse myself in the cool miasma of Henson’s Cloud Landscapes in the AGNSW’s Photography Gallery. No grids or maps here, no harshly lit intersections and arid timetables: Henson’s world is one of shadows, moonlit semi-light and milky uncertainties.henson1

The fourteen-picture exhibition shows recent works from the Gallery’s own collection as well as several from Henson’s Paris Opera Project of the early 1990s and his Mahler series (begun in 1976 and still ongoing).

Henson said in 2004: In some respects not even being able to see the whole structure is partly what the work is about – the way in which things go missing in the shadows. Shadows can animate the speculative capacity in the viewer in a way that highlights can’t,” and it is what goes on in the shadows that make Henson’s work unmatched in modern Art photography.

Meticulously lit, shot and hand printed by Henson himself, each work is a thing of sublimely mysterious beauty, a pool of delicious inky darks and moonlit highlights – a cool world of almost bloodless eroticism, if such a thing can be. That these works span thirty years is amazing – the consistency of vision, the technical mastery and the opaque perfectionism is staggering (Henson has seamlessly transferred his printing methods from analogue recently to digital – I defy anyone to see any change at all in the soft grain and perfectly held vignettes of the pictures).

There are clouds and old stone, foggy trees and deep voids of abstract dark. There are also beautiful images of faces, bodies, curves of white flesh and crimson-mauve lips. An image (called, as they all are, Untitled) of young people, naked, embracing in a Greek glade by a car wreck – a tattooed Adonis hugs his tough-looking Venus – call to mind the ugly episode in 2008 where Henson was accused of creating paedophilic images. Everyone, from the then (and now!) Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on down, weighed in with their tut-tuts and finger-pointing until the whole grubby beat-up blew over and they all moved on to the next outrage, whatever that was.

Henson’s work may involve the flesh but it is the darks between that he is really photographing. These fourteen pictures are works of rare and visionary beauty, works whose shadows and half-darks will take the viewer to places of meditation and reverie. It is an experience not to be missed.

Bill Henson Cloud Landscapes runs at the AGNSW until 22 September 2013.

Published July 2013 on megaphoneoz.com

Heavy guitar rock comes in and out of fashion with almost meteorological regularity. Who is this week’s saviour of rock?

The truth is that heavy guitar rock never ever goes away and whenever things get too precious, it appears to be a rockin’ guitar band that pops up to give it a shot in the arm – or an analogue kick up the auto-tuned arse.

Rock and roll, metal, punk, grunge, pub rock – they are all manifestations of the primal urge of rock. The mutant hybrid of a guitar, an amp, a teenager – all pushed beyond what they were calibrated to do – has given us some of rock’s most feverishly thrilling moments. From Link Wray to The Who to The Stooges to Iron Maiden, it is Boy’s Own fun and fantastic stuff.

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Australia seems to do guitar rock exceptionally well – giving the world one of the most iconic guitar bands of all time in AC/DC, and producing enormously popular and influential bands such as Rose Tattoo and Midnight Oil. Because much of Australia’s toughest hard rock was born in pubs, clubs and skinned-knuckle venues, it has always had a feeling of being bullshit-free and unvarnished – more ‘real’ – much as Australians see themselves.

Adelaide three-piece, Tracer, seem set to follow that fine hard rock lineage that recently has wavered a little too into cartoon territory with bands such as Airbourne. Their new album, El Pistolero has garnered top marks from Kerrang!, Classic Rock Magazine and Total Guitar and it is no surprise.tracer 1

Produced by Kevin ‘Caveman’ Shirley – the go-to guy for anything truly rocking (Black Crowes, Led Zeppelin, Joe Bonamassa) today – El Pistolero hits all the marks, ticks all the boxes and kicks all the pricks. Shirley has drawn a great sound out of a band that already had a big, thumping rock and roll heart.

Tracer’s sound balances their precision with sludge, their momentum with thud and their howl with growl. The mix is one of the most exciting I have heard for a while.

No cartoons, no posing, no weekend warriors – Tracer are a hard-working band who sound great because, like all the real bands – old like the Stooges or new like Kyuss – they do nothing but work at what they love.

El Pistolero is out today, June 5, thru Mascot/Warner.

The band’s tour kicks off June 12; details are here – http://www.tracer-band.com/?page_id=6

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Prior to posting this review I asked Tracer’s Mike Brown a handful of questions. Here are his responses:

TheOrangePress: The title, graphics and 3 part ‘Del Desperado Suite’ give El Pistolero that eternally-cool spaghetti western vibe – what drew you to this theme?

Mike Brown: We’re movie nuts in the band and we’re especially drawn towards directors like Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez for their quirky, oddball films that are just dripping in coolness. I think we take that approach to our music too, trying to make cool music with a bit of a weirdness in it. I was watching the Rodriguez movie Desperado and I started tinkering with a flamenco guitar to learn the song in the film and that led to me writing a couple of tunes that were inspired by the film. I mean, the guy is a guitar playing, vigilante super hero! That’s fuckin’ awesome! We started writing songs that had a Mexican/south-of-the-border vibe to them and I was writing lyrics that followed the storyline of Desperado just to see if it could be done. It was a bit of a challenge for us because there was a high possibility that it could end up corny or a bit cliché but I think the songs that are based around the film came out really cool. We already had a bit of a tex/mex, dry, desert sound but with this album we wanted to open it up a bit and push the barriers in the stoner rock genre that we’ve been classified in (not something of our doing by the way). So we tried to get a more expansive, cinematic vibe to the tracks, which I think really came out in songs like ‘There’s A Man’ and especially ‘Until The War Is Won’.

TOP: Tracer’s sound is obviously inspired by ’70s guitar bands such as Led Zeppelin but there is just as much Soundgarden sludge in the mix as well. How did to arrive at this mix – why not go entirely one way or the other?

MB: It happened very organically. We never decided to write songs that sound like a certain band or consciously copy a sound. I think it’s derived from our influences. We kind of pick what we like from them and it subconsciously goes into the melting pot for us to pick and chose from when we’re writing songs. At the end of the day, we write songs that we want to hear. And that’s mostly because nobody else is making the music that we want to hear in our heads. I love the sludgey Soundgarden and Kyuss stoner rock, and I love the free form of Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple so we take elements from those guys and leave behind the stuff we don’t dig, mix it in with what we want to hear and Tracer is what comes out. I have no problem in wearing my influences on my sleeve and I always remember what David Bowie once said… ”I have never had an original idea in my life.” This from an artist who I would consider one of the most original that has ever lived!

TOP: ‘Caveman’ Kevin Shirley – you really couldn’t find a better producer for the Tracer sound. How did working with Kevin come about?

MB: Kevin had worked with a few artists on our label, namely Joe Bonamassa, Beth Hart and Black Country Communion and our music got put forward to him by the head of our label. Apparently he got very interested in recording with us and we got an email about two weeks later saying “Kevin is in. Be in LA at the end of November to record an album.” We just thought “Holy fuck! We should write some songs!”

TOP: What was it like working with him? He appears to have pulled some great performances out of you – was there any blood spilled?

MB: Yeah he really did get the most out of us for the record. He has a great ability to read people and knows when to push people to their limits and when to mother them towards a good performance. There wasn’t any blood spilled but there was plenty of sweat and hard work. Dre and I went to LA to prove a point with our playing and we had been working really hard on getting our level of musicianship up and also concentrating on good performances, especially with the vocals. I think Kevin picked up on this and pushed us further in the studio. With Kevin taking the producer role, which was something we had previously done ourselves, it really freed us up to concentrate solely on the playing and I think it shows on the record.

As far as his methods, all I can say is he is extremely quick in making decisions and recording in general. He catches the vibe very fast and then moves on before the magic dies. We had 14 songs tracked with drums, bass, guitars and main vocals in 6 days! He has a great knack for capturing that live excitement that comes from musicians playing together and getting excited by the music together.

TOP: Why do you think there is pretty much always a market for heavy, guitar-based analogue rock?

MB: Because it’s real! It’s emotion provoking and I don’t think people get enough of that in their lives from external sources. I think guys in particular have anger that needs to come out and I think that vocalizing it through rock music is a really healthy way for people to do it. Also I think people still appreciate good musicianship and well-written songs. Dave Grohl has been banging on about this for the last couple of years and I think he is absolutely right. There is a magic, a vibe, an indescribable feeling of when musicians play instruments and it’s recorded as is, warts and all. The artifacts and little fuck ups became that favourite part of the record and you can hear the musician’s soul. You can’t do that with auto tuned, computer music. There is so much terrible crap on the airwaves today that people can’t hang their hat on because it’s there one day and then it’s completely forgotten the next. Artists aren’t creating music anymore they’re creating adverts for a brand and I believe that people are starting to see through it again as they did in the 80’s. Punk, grunge and metal were the saviours in the 90’s because of the plastic-ness of the 80’s music. And I think the same thing is happening now.

TOP: And finally, what are your thoughts on music, in general, today? Please feel free to use bad language.

MB: See rant above haha! To be honest I try not to get caught up on it. There is an underground swell throughout the world at the moment for rock music and it will only take a couple of bands to break through before we start seeing a resurgence in real music for real fans and not fake music for scenesters.

Thanx.

Published July 2013 on theorangepress.net

 

 

A Playlist

Posted: July 10, 2013 in Uncategorized

In July 2013 I was asked by my good friends at TheOrangepress to submit a playlist of the stuff that’s been floating my boat over the last few eons. here it is – take a listen. There is some scary good music out there.

https://soundcloud.com/john-hardaker/sets/orangepressplaylist

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Ah, Fat Freddy’s Drop – more than just a band, more a force of nature.

Aotearoa’s ‘seven headed soul monster’ has grown organically over the years, eschewing much modern music-biz marketing stratagems and long-range forecasts. They just play music, man. I always loved the fact that their first full length, 2001’s Live at The Matterhorn contained four 18-minute tracks – four gorgeously open-ended deep soul/dub adventures in sound. (It was barely promoted and sold and sold and sold…)

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Subsequent releases have been more song based in parts, but it is still the great strength of The Drop (named after LSD blotters carrying a pic of Zap Comix freak brother, Fat Freddy) to take us out to the further reaches of dub with an almost Jazz sensibility laying the road beneath us as we travel.

New album Blackbird holds some delicious dub as well as some beautifully stoned soul. Opener, title track ‘Blackbird’ sets up the trip with a bass line that is worth the price of admission alone. The track moves through some Latin piano, sweet soul vocal and dubby horns, coming out the other end into a big, blazing horn coda. All the FFD elements are there, better than ever to my ear – Blackbird seems to have distilled the most perfect expression of their sound yet.

‘Russia’ continues the trip, digging even deeper. ‘Clean the House’ suggests a Motown soul thing, complete with squelchy guitars and floating horns – you won’t hear another rhythm section play a straight 1/8th-beat pattern as funky as this.

You also won’t hear another band roll out a shuffle – the track ‘Silver and Gold’ – quite like The Drop. And here is where the genius of FFD and the remarkable interaction of the band lies – after playing this many gigs (innumerable European and Australian tours) each member seems to work ego-less and uncannily as a part of the ‘seven headed soul monster’, intuitively shaping the sound. Telepathy abounds! It is a very ‘black’ music consciousness – working as part of a greater community, the opposite mid-set of the ‘white’ thing of ego-battle and cult of the individual. (Pardon my glaring generalisation here – but you get my drift…).ffd

And it makes for some entirely sumptuous grooves – the soul pump of ‘Bones’, the almost surreal dubscape of ‘Soldier’, the rattling Latin clip of ‘Mother Mother’ (which contains some of the tastiest horn writing on the album). What is always remarkable about Fat Freddy’s Drop is that they can pick the eyes out of contemporary music, mixing elements of any style – blues, dub, techno, jazz (acid and acoustic), electronica, soul, R’n’B and rock – and always come up sounding like themselves. Is it magic? Blackbird certainly sounds like it is.

To their fans and to new audiences at home and around the world, Fat Freddy’s Drop can do no wrong. It is music that has an irresistibility that comes from its deep humanity and echoes of the most deeply-felt musics of the recent and deep past. And Blackbird will continue to spread the good word, in wider and wider circles.

Details of the Blackbird AlbumTour are at www.fatfreddysdrop.com

Published July 2013 on theorangepress.net