Archive for August, 2013

To pay tribute to any artist by releasing an album covering their songs is a brave step. The kicker is that any artist worth paying tribute to is usually a one-off, an utter original – in effect, uncopyable. When the artist is Etta James, the brave step veers close to kamikaze.

James was a restless, troubled and driven soul, who blazed through a wild and rocky career, bouncing from gospel to blues to rock and roll, writing the book on cap-S Soul styling along the way. To pay tribute to such a chimeric and meteoric talent in a meaningful way is a tall ask.

But, if the tribute is done with love and a sense of celebration – as Darren Percival recently did with his Ray Charles album – it can work like a charm.

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Sydney soul singer, Alex Hahn‘s new release The Wallflower – named for the ‘polite’ renaming of James’ sexually explicit ‘Roll With Me Henry’ (which appears here) – works. In fact it works like a fucking voodoo charm.

Hahn – one of Sydney music’s best kept secrets – has put together one hell of an album covering all of the styles that Etta James chewed up and spat out in her career of almost six decades. From the rolling blues of ‘Baby What You Want Me to Do?’ (with its growling vocalese solo) through the boppin’ rock’n’roll of ‘Tough Lover’ and minor key gospel of Randy Newman‘s ‘God’s Song’, Hahn and her band never hit a weak spot.

A mention here needs to go to the band – The Blue Riders – who easily capture the vibe of the song, be it a pumping Motown strut like opener ‘Tell Mama’ (Janis Joplin also paid tribute to Etta with her own version in the early 70s), or the evergreen (everblue?) Etta James staples, ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ or shimmering alum closer ‘At Last’ (special mention here – and across the whole record – to guitarist Charlie Meadows who reads the songs’ intent and vibe beautifully; limpid or bullying accompaniment could kill these tunes, and he shines on every track).

But of course, it is Alex Hahn who has taken the kamikaze step – it is her voice and the sincerity behind her delivery on which The Wallflower will be judged. While it would be unfair – and missing the point – to directly compare these tracks to Etta James’ versions, one rightly expects the same tough/soft, fiesty/sweet, rockin’/weepin’ complexities (the same that go for all the greats such as Bille Holliday and Joplin) to be preserved in Hahn’s interpretations.

To my ear, not only are they preserved intact, but they are built on – the band and Hahn grabbing many of the tracks by the mane and taking them higher.alex hahn2

And this is where the sense of celebration comes in and entirely vindicates The Wallflower project. It is one thing to get the music and groove right and replicate towering songs such as these – but it is merely replication, cover versions in the most base sense.

It is entirely another to generate the passion, insecurities, bruises and lionheart of a truly iconic performer such as Etta James and to let that blaze up through the blues or rock or gospel or whatever format the songs take. Alex Hahn with The Blue Riders have done it on The Wallflower, painting a bright and vivid portrait of a multi-dimensional artist in the best way possible – with their own voice.

Alex Hahn launches The Wallflower this Sunday, September 1st, at the Roxbury Glebe from 6.30pm.

Alex Hahn’s website is www.alexhahn.com.au

 

Published August 2013 on theorangepress.net

From time to time the modern music lover can be afflicted with ennui. As an outgrowth of the general modern malaise, our appetites – dulled by experiencing countless hours of music – can become jaded. Jaded to the point of boredom, even when faced with the best there is.

Artists often leap to the forefront of the Pop and Art consciousness simply by being willfully weird and opaquely obtuse. But that is a dead end street, in the main, for as soon as the Emperor’s new clothes fall away, we see he is naked, ordinary and empty, and always will be.

Jazz is a music that prides itself on innovation and forward thinking but, especially in this age where the Con turns out astounding young virtuosi by the sheaf, it can often all sound the same. On the other hand, dressing up and self-consciously setting out to shock – look at 60s jazz – ain’t the way to go.

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Tenor magus Sean Coffin debuted his new sextet at Sydney’s Sound Lounge for SIMA recently. And he reminded me that there is still room for truly innovative jazz that swings like Charles Mingus’ mutha and resonates with echoes of the past – while still pointing to the future.

Sandy Evans has said of Sean’s main trip over the past 20 years, The Coffin Brothers“There is great love for the jazz tradition in their music, a joy in the energy, spirit and language of jazz. They build on these powerful roots to create imaginative sonic journeys that are completely their own…” , words which also apply perfectly to the Coffin Sextet.

The Sound Lounge gig presented new and old tunes – opener ‘That Night’ was a reworking of a 20 year old piece – that the Sextet gave their all to. The frontline of Coffin, Nic Garbett on trumpet and alto man Dan Waples sang Coffin’s arrangements with real joy in the telling.

It is a while since I have heard such inventive arrangements for a three-horn frontline – smaller Jazz Messengers-size sections seem to play most lines in parallel or simple harmony, ignoring the possibilities that arrangers use when writing for big band horns. Coffin’s arrangemental trick-bag had the horns playing off each other in myriad combinations to astonishing effect, covering a wide range of emotive colour from rolling chorale to bristling car-horn dissonance.

The arrangements also smartly wove in the rhythm section of Gavin Ahearn, Brett Hirst and James Waples. Ahearn, moving between Rhodes and acoustic piano impressed on me yet again his almost big-C Classical logic. Hirst and Waples fortunately did what they always do – invent, underpin, drive, colour and have wicked fun with rhythm. During the 7/4 funk of ‘The Strength of Your Convictions’ I thought for a minute that Waples was going to bash his kit clear across the stage (and that was in his socks, sans shoes!). Once again, joy in the telling.

Coffin stood beaming like a proud papa – obviously thrilled with the lineup and the stars and colours they wrung from his charts. ‘Alright, Today We’re Gonna’ was written, Coffin explained, just as Mingus and Ellington had written for their own ensembles, as a piece for the band to have fun with. And they did, the logical Ahearn now grinding illogical Don Pullen-style clusters out of the polite Sound Lounge piano and the Waples brothers warming up the winter’s night with a heated horn-drums duet.

Sean Coffin’s tenor tone and approach fits the music perfectly. In his sound there are distinct echoes and cries from jazz history – the blues is prominent if abstracted – yet the same imagination that elevates his arrangements carries through to surprise us in his solos. Funky as fuck in ‘Booga Dunny’ (get it? ‘I’m  a funny cat’, says SC), a soul-jazz boogaloo, he also plays a ballad such as ‘Quiet Thoughts’ with great depth – the coda cadenza was a composition in itself. His horn can bite but it can also kiss.

Closing piece, ‘New England Sketches’, flew through tempo and mood changes as if we were motoring through a landscape. The Sextet flexed their bebop muscles on the fast section, creating horizontally and vertically at a high level. I was reminded – not for the first time that night – that this Sextet was a cap-B Band, a rare mix of particular players, a six-headed entity that breathed and jumped and laughed together.

Sean Coffin promises recordings of this band within the next six months or so. I for one keenly look forward to them – but recordings are recordings. True Jazz is of the moment and the Coffin Sextet gave us some shining moments that night. Do not miss them when they play again.

 

Published July 2103 on australianjazz.net 

 

 

 

Chamber ensembles can be a beautiful thing. Intimacy, flexibility, improvisation, new tone colours, astringent dissonances are all aspects of the small group that cannot work within the heavy logistics of an orchestra or jazz big band.

Chamber ensembles comprising instruments of the same family – string quartets, brass choirs, woodwind ensembles – up the aesthetic ante by creating colours and moods that are utterly unique, and often otherworldly. Check Beethoven’s late quartets – could anything be added or subtracted? I think not. Perfection.

The maker-or-breaker of course is in writing for the small ensemble. With such a limited musical palette of timbres and instrument capabilities, every decision has to count. Done badly, it can be turgid or insipid. To hit the sweet spot that is the intersection of composition, knowledge and vision, it helps to be a hell of a player, listener and thinker.

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Altoist Jeremy Rose is all of those and with the Compass Quartet, he has a hell of a group. Baritone Luke Gilmour, SSO soprano Christina Leonard and tenor Matthew Ottignon make up the other three points of the compass. Without listing their multiple awards, accolades and huzzahs, suffice to say, this is an A-Team of Australian saxophony. Guest pianist Jackson Harrison is also one of Australian jazz’s best and brightest.

The Compass Quartet’s third album, Oneirology (~ study of dreams), is dominated by a four part suite by Rose, as well as containing one piece each from Rose and Harrison. The ‘Oneirology Suite’ was inspired by the recent Christopher Nolan film, Inception – a film about dreams within dreams within dreams, déjà vu and strange loops in time.

Rose’s writing for the suite exploits the full range of the saxophone quartet. Opening movement ‘Daydreamer’ has a nice woozy country vibe, a feeling of lying in a field with your mind drifting. The saxophone writing is warm and choral. Harrison’s piano calls to mind the blue-sky pastoralism of Aaron Copland and suits the mood perfectly.compass quartet2

Yet ‘Dream Within A Dream’, the Suite’s third movement has a fragmented surrealism that folds back on itself to unsettling effect. Rose’s solo, leapfrogging Jackson’s piano over sighing grey chords, is perfectly held and serves to sharpen the claustrophobic mood.

To hear Rose and Matthew Ottignon soloing with such sensitivity in a chamber setting such as Oneirology (~ study of dreams) is a pleasure, as I have been recently grooving to their funky side – Rose in the reggae-jazz Vampires and Ottignon in his afro-beat guise as Mr OTT. They are exceptional players, as are Gilmour and Leonard. But, more importantly, the Compass Quartet are a group that breathe (literally) together. John Shand has said of the group, “The horns curl around one another in dramatic precision, or explode in joyous or sultry improvisation”.

The addition of Jackson Harrison, on paper seemed a misjudgement – I was concerned that the piano would clog the astringent voice of the four saxes and intrude on their conversation by its very nature. Not only was I wrong – Harrison’s measured playing gets the balance right on all tunes – but he contributes the beautifully conceived and wittily titled ‘Charcoal Chorale’ to the set.

Jeremy Rose’s final piece, ‘Interplay’ – a lightly syncopated 7/8 groove – features the four saxes playing around each other, together, apart and in subtly myriad combinations as the piece flies by. Rose’s solo on ‘Interplay’ is a delight for anyone sacrilegious enough to suggest (maybe me) that the alto is the most ‘jazz’ of the horns – nimble, fleet, dappled with flying colours, with an edge of blues cry in its trajectory, a pure joy.

It is all wonderful stuff – and Oneirology (~ study of dreams) is a beautiful album from The Compass Quartet, a group who continue to amaze as they explore deeper and deeper into the possibilities that can bloom from the conversation between four saxophones.

For more information visit: http://compassquartet.com/ and http://www.earshift.com/

Published July 2103 on australianjazz.net 

There must be something in the water lately. The last year or so has seen a welcome glut of excellent roots flavoured albums – Mia Dyson’s jagged and soulful The MomentClaude Hay’s country-blues ass-kicker I Love Hate You; and now Tombstone Bullets from Johnny Cass and his Band.

Each release is highly distinctive and a keen distillation of their sound: Dyson’s heart-ripping vocal is more harrowing than ever, Hay’s junk-shop boogie is as juicy as it will get and Johnny Cass sounds as if has really found his thing.

Johnny-Cass-2Even though Tombstone Bullets is the debut of his Band, John Cass has been bothering the higher quality end of Australian blues for years – from earlier blues-rockers Parker, through The Widowbirds with Simon Meli, right up to the current Muddy Waters Tribute shows he shares with luminaries such as Dom Turner, Kevin Bennett and Ian Collard.

As already suggested, Tombstone Bullets sounds like a culmination of Cass’s artistry and craft – not the culmination, as any true artist never stops growing. That said, the styles and playing on the album seem so right that I hope Cass stays in this zone for another, say, two or three albums at least.

Opener ‘Sun Goes Down’ sets up a warm country chug for a blues muso’s mission statement – ‘When your day is ended/Mine has just begun…’. The flawless and tricky clawhammer guitar parts set out the virtuoso’s stall for what is to come.

Yet even though are more than enough jaw-dropping moments from the album’s guitarists, shredding takes a backseat to the songs throughout the album. Which is as it should be, especially with songs this strong.

The nine originals (the album also finishes with a humidly atmospheric take on Bruce Springsteen’s noir mood-piece ‘Open All Night’) – all written or co-written by Cass – cover blues, country, soul and rock, often mixing all together into a piquant and heady-heavy gumbo.

‘Open At Sunset’ is Motown four-beat soul-stomp; ‘Rather Be Here’ is banjo-powered country jig; ‘Keep Your Lamplight Alive’ is a greasy slice of Humble Pie-flavoured fuzz rock.Johnny-Cass-1

All the songs hit the hot spot and, in ‘Holdin’ On’, Cass has penned a stone classic. A languid soul-rock trip, with heavy guitars wreathing the song in curtains of blue-black night, ‘Holdin’ On’ builds through several peaks of gospel intensity. Cass’s vocal is superb here, cracking and rasping at just the right points.

I truly believe ‘Holdin’ On’ is worthy of being up there with eternal Australian songs such as ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’ or ‘Flame Trees’. But what do I know? I’ve been wrong before – but in this case I really do hope I’m right.

Tombstone Bullets is, all up, worthy of making a real dent in the Australian blues and roots catalogue. Its eclecticism and tougher rock edge on some songs will widen its appeal beyond the often purist roots scene, which can’t be a bad thing. Tombstone Bullets is a good thing – take a listen. Buy it. Vote for Cass.

Tombstone Bullets is out August 1 2013. Album purchase and tour details are at www.johnnycass.com

Tombstone Bullets cover artist, Sindy Sin’s website is www.sindysinn.com.au

Published July 2013 on theorangepress.net

The first time I saw David Low’s Through a Glass Darkly was at a local open-mic nite at an inner west pub. The other acts ranged, as they are wont to do on a rough night, from passionate tunelessness through two-schooner-Bowies to bedroom romantics and beyond. Needless to say, Through a Glass Darkly shone, and I made a mental note to keep up with what the band were doing in the future.

What largely grabbed me that night were the songs written by guitarist and vocalist David Low. These were songs that came from an original place – songs that were informed by the past. Not the Stooges or Ramones past, but the artfully sophisticated songwriters of the past: McCartney, Elton John, David Bowie. Although delivered with a rock trio crunch, these songs had pop smarts and went somewhere. Low had done his homework and his grades were looking good.

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The danger of ambition in songwriting is that an alive mind can over-egg the mix and try to cram too many thoughts and ideas into three minutes (hence the success of Lennon-McCartney, Jagger-Richards etc where the frisson of clashing personalities does all the editing). The same goes for lyrics – what looks smart or poetic on paper can sound twee or clever-clever against three or four chords.

Low’s songs for Through a Glass Darkly on that open-mic nite had some moments of too-clever or too many ideas, but the promise was overwhelming. Recently grabbing a review copy of their debut – Double Standard –  I was glad to see these elements have been reined in to sharp effect.

What we have is a punchy, sleek modern rock album that occasionally blurs its edge into dark alt.country but has a shiny chrome-tattoo rock and roll heart. The beautiful design and packaging of my 12” vinyl LP copy (go on, spend the extra $$$, it’s worth it) shows the commitment Low and the band have to all aspects of the music.Through a glass darkly small

Opener ‘End of the Line’ immediately struck me as unique in that mixer Luis Rojas has sat the vocal just below the churning guitars. This references much classic rock of the 70s – think Bowie’s ‘Watch That Man’ or anything from Lou Reed’s Rock and Roll Animal, the effect being of the voice fighting to stay atop the guitars – a highly dramatic and effective mix.

The classic rock atmosphere wraps around many of the songs here – ‘Double Standard’ and ‘Antisocialism’ bring the tough but creamy USA crunch of the Foo Fighters (a sound which in turn references everyone from Boston to Judas Priest). Low’s production and bassist/keys man Lachy Street’s recording keeps analog grit and heart to the forefront. The bass is mighty, Amelia Sim’s drums are fat as phat and the guitars are literally drooling mid-tones (a big gold star from me, Mr Low). TAGD’s take on the legend of ‘Stagger Lee’ could just be the best ZZ Top song they never recorded.

‘Dark Country’ at first seems a cry-in-your tequila pastiche – a minor key country tune of heartbreak – and would be if the lyric was ironic in any way. But it is not, and the song has heart. Lyrically, the whole album, while having some clever fun with pop-culture and words themselves, has enough heart to remain very human.

Many of Low’s song-characters are complex, doubling back on their feelings – while the music struts with confidence, the lyrics mottle the songs with enough doubt and human imperfection to keep it interesting.

Double Standard lives up to the promise of the band I saw many months ago on that small stage in Newtown. I am confident that it will take Through a Glass Darkly to larger and larger stages in the near future – this music is built for stadiums and nothing less.

Through a Glass Darkly launch Double Standard at The Town Hall Hotel, Newtown on Saturday August 3 with special guests Scarlet’s Revenge and Upside Down Miss Jane.

Their website is throughaglassdarklymusic.com/

Published July 2013 on theorangepress.net