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 

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