Archive for November, 2013

Songwriter Jodi Phillis is perhaps best known as one of the frontwomen (with Trish Young) of early 90s power-pop sirens, The Clouds. The Clouds played six Big Day Outs, garnered three ARIAS, gained a worldwide following, sold bucketloads and were critics’ darlings –  all the time consistently producing literate, highly idiosyncratic music which seemed to draw equally from the glittering perfection of 60s pop, the fuzzbox muscle of 90s rock and European art and poetry.

Their most memorable song – Phillis’ ‘Hieronymus’ – is an ode to the 15th century religious phantastist painter Hieronymus Bosch which astounds to this day for its depth, power and pop smarts. (It is relevant that Phillis is a fine illustrator as well, as her songs seem to shimmer with highly visual imagery).

Bestowed by Rolling Stone Magazine the prickly mantle of ‘a national treasure’, Jodi Phillis has never stopped creating (what truly creative soul can?), working as a film composer as well as currently with vocal group The Glamma Rays and duo Roger Loves Betty with husband Tim Oxley.

jodi phillis 2

Her new solo album – Sonum Vitae – has nothing to do with all of that, and yet everything to do with it all. Six tracks – six improvised tone-poems – charting impressions of life from conception to adolescence, Sonum Vitae is a remarkable body of music from the mind and heart of a truly remarkable musician.

Phillis stresses that Sonum Vitae (‘The Sound of Life’) is ‘art, not pop’. The pieces are lush and evocative in a cinematic sense, shaping six surprisingly complete sound-worlds for each of the six life-stages (so far) – ‘Conception’, ‘Incubation’, ‘Birth’, ‘Infancy’, Childhood’ and ‘Adolescence’.

‘Conception’ sounds as mystical and mysterious as is the biology of that life-stage, with luminous vocal incanting before a steady rhythm begins a pumping incessance – the rhythm of sex but also reminiscent of Stravinsky‘s ‘factory of nature’ from The Rite of Spring – the rhythm of growth and life.

This regular rhythm rises again and again across Sonum Vitae – a metaphor for the hammer of time that drives us through life, as well as the pulsing pump of life that won’t – can’t – let up. ‘Birth’ takes up the rhythm with cyber cellos pushing life out into the world and then – aaaaaaahhh – massed vocal like the light of the world outside the womb, and the warm love of mother.jodi phillis 1

It may be ‘art, not pop’ but Phillis’ songwriting smarts cannot be helped – the nursery rhyme harpsichord that intros ‘Infancy’ and the Debussyesque wonky piano of ‘Childhood’ evoke these times of life where discovery is a minute-by-minute thing. ‘Childhood’ also has a spoken word conversation between Mum and Dad on the meaning of Life and love, a conversation that is perfectly placed and apt.

The final tone-poem ‘Adolescence’ is a pink-cloud 50s doo-wop vibe, mirror-ball flecked and romantic as romantic gets. The chorus ‘I’m just sitting on a cloud‘ evokes the opposite of what one would expect from a modern, angsty adolescence. But Phillis writes with such authority that we go with her vision wherever it may lead.

Sonum Vitae is a remarkable work from one of the masters of Australian music and worth a deeper listen. It is available from rogerlovesbetty.com and can also be accessed thru www.facebook.com/jodiphillismusic

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Prior to posting this review I asked Jodi Phillis a handful of questions about Sonum Vitae. Here are her responses:

TheOrangePress: Firstly, and most obviously, where did the idea and spark for Sonum Vitae come from?
Jodi Phillis: Do you want the naked truth? Ok here it is. I was going through a bit of a low period, what with being a broke, middle aged songwriter without much hope of making any money out of my songs anymore, on and off the dole with my songwriting husband for 15 years, 2 kids and insomnia, so unable to tour very much… washed up, jaded, depressed… but unable to give up the addiction to making music… completely incompatible with working a ‘real job’ or studying anything that would help with that.
I shared my frustrations and my creative desires with my therapist. He suggested I just follow my instincts and create the album that was brewing in my head, without any thought of how it would be received, or whether or not it would even be released.
What a good idea I thought. Fuck it all, just express yourself.
So I did. I didn’t actually have the idea of making a musical autobiography until I sat at the computer and ‘Conception’ came out. I knew then what was happening and just had to follow the story.

TOP: You mention that the pieces were virtually improvised from out of the blue – why did you choose this way to work?
JP: I made sure I didn’t conciously brew the songs in my head before because it instantly broke the spell. I found that if I just sat there and started with a vocal or an instrument, the music would just come out. I would just kind of go into the zone of how I felt as a toddler or child or whatever the age was. It got harder as I got older. I think the first 3 tracks were easiest and best because they came from a completely spiritual, transcendant place. People who know me have said that it’s surprising how chilled the ‘Adolescence’ track is. I was a very rebellious teenager, so I think I expected it to come out jagged and angry and loud… but it is also when I got into marijuana and acid, so the mood was definitely altered.

TOP: Sonum Vitae is ‘art, not pop’ but as a writer and performer who obviously relishes Pop, the sensibility must be a background radiation to everything you do.
JP: Of course, you can’t help where you come from and you can’t ignore all the music you have made, heard and loved over the years. It was very nice though to have a break from having to come up with something that I would be proud of… melodic, wise, original, soulful… give me a break!

TOP: Sonum Vitae is six tracks from ‘Conception’ through to ‘Adolescence’. It has left me (and I am sure almost everyone else who listens to the album) with a painful case of ‘vitae interruptus’. When can we expect Part 2?
JP: I agree it is a little bit short. I was going to sit on it and finish my whole life, with a funeral at the end but I have recently bought a new computer, so I have all these new sounds to use so it would sound too different.
I really just felt that those 6 songs were a complete unit. I will revisit and complete the journey for sure but it won’t be for a while.
I am so busy becoming a film composer and playing with my groups The Glamma Rays and Roger Loves Betty and going to my kid’s dance concerts, it’ll have to wait. But I am so glad that I did it.

TOP: And finally, what are your thoughts on current music – of your own genre/s and others?
JP: Current music is awesome… anything goes, it’s changing every second it seems. The possibilities are endless. It seems that art is all there is to do in this world now that there aren’t many jobs for people. It’s an incredibly exciting time for us humans. Create, it’s great!! Now I gotta make that t-shirt!.

 

Published November 2013 on theorangepress.net

Lou Reed has passed on overnight age 71.

Leader of The Velvet Underground, iconic superstar of 70’s rock, irascible Gutter King and true poet, Reed’s vision for music will live, like background radiation, long after his name slips under history.

Revisionism in Rock and Roll History tells us that The Rolling Stones were the anti-Beatles – where the Beatles were cheery, psychedelic and positive, the Stones were bad boys blah blah blah. But it is not true – The Velvet Underground were the anti-Beatles, and you can pretty much chart a family tree from that Great Schism to today. One branch is melodic, uplifting, bathed in daylight, awash with colourful benign drugs – the other, The VU branch, is sunless, minimal, low-key, smacked into numbness and yet equally staggeringly beautiful. And, of course, impossibly romantic.

Lou Reed and Nico in the Studio

Andy Warhol may have given The Velvet Underground its perma-shades and John Cale may have added some Euro drone-theory, but it was Lou Reed’s songs – delivered with not much more than a nasal four-note range – that turned day into night for all of us. Not a dead night, but a transfigured night of amorality and amyl, of Venuses in Furs and obverse sexuality – a delicious and eternal night of the rock and roll soul, and it was just what rock and rock needed. Elvis was fat, Jagger was lost at the society horse races and The Eagles were approaching fast.

The songs were perfect – three chords (any more than three is jazz, said Lou) and some words, but not minimalism. Minimalism is a dead thing; these songs built such stories and peopled them with such characters that they opened a window to a world. The same sort of windows that all the great artists do – windows to worlds that could never exist but seem, for a while to us at least, to feel more real and solid to our touch than the world of jobs, bills, dull TV and rent.

David Bowie was turned on – check Hunky Dory‘s ‘Queen Bitch’ – and returned the favour by producing (with Mick Ronson) Reed’s second album, 1973’s TransformerTransformer contained the worldwide hit ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ which, to this day enjoys regular airplay despite its subject matter of transvestitism, dope and blowjobs. It is irresistible, from the gentle jazz chug groove and ‘do do do do do, do-do-do’ chorus to the baritone sax coda – a rainslick picture of night and litter and existential resignation made out of three chords and some words. A window, a world.

The cover of Transformer shows Reed in wash-out, his face as blank and forgiving as Christ above a neon-edged Epiphone Casino. The back has arty images of an angular drag queen and a t-shirted leather boy, a monstrous cock bulging in his pants. They are the denizens of the world within, not good, not bad, just characters in Reed’s extended tone-poem.Lou-Reed-John-Cale-lou-reed-24175960-1768-1394

This extended tone poem extended to the end, as any artist’s voice will – with his collaboration with Metallica on 2011’s Lulu. Although much derided and entirely misunderstood by both the metal tribe and Reed’s die-hard fans, it is pure Reed: based on two plays (1895 and 1904) by German playwright Frank WederkindLulu explores themes of sexual obsession, an upside down morality and passion raised to the heat of murder, all in the blackened world of streets and bars, shadowed alcoves and alleyways. Like Bowie, like Dylan, Reed distilled High Art ideas into Stuff for Us, dragging it out of the fusty Halls of Europe and adding pop-art excitement, beauty and romanticism along the way.

His sound and attitude is in most of the music you listen to. In 2011 Lou Reed and his wife, American fine artist Laurie Anderson, curated Sydney’s VIVID festival. One of the acts he brought out were the Japanese noise-rockers, Boris. The Cult‘s Ian Astbury jammed with them on the second show, encoring with The Doors‘ ‘The End’. Noticing Reed in the audience, nodding off during their set, Astbury shouted “Wake up, Lou. These are your children!”

HEROIN (Lou Reed)

I don’t know just where I’m going
But I’m goin’ to try for the kingdom if I can
‘Cause it makes me feel like I’m a man
When I put a spike into my vein
Then I tell you things aren’t quite the same

When I’m rushing on my run
And I feel just like Jesus’ son
And I guess I just don’t know
And I guess that I just don’t know

I have made big decision
I’m goin’ to try to nullify my life
‘Cause when the blood begins to flow
When it shoots up the dropper’s neck
When I’m closing in on death

You can’t help me not you guys
All you sweet girls with all your sweet talk
You can all go take a fucking walk
And I guess I just don’t know
And I guess I just don’t know

I wish that I was born a thousand years ago
I wish that I’d sailed the darkened seas
On a great big clipper ship
Going from this land here to that
I put on a sailor’s suit and cap

Away from the big city
Where a man cannot be free
Of all the evils in this town
And of himself and those around
Oh, and I guess I just don’t know
Oh, and I guess I just don’t know

Heroin, be the death of me
Heroin, it’s my wife and it’s my life
Because a mainer to my vein
Leads to a center in my head
And then I’m better off than dead

When the smack begins to flow
Then I really don’t care anymore
About all the Jim-Jims in this town
And everybody putting everybody else down
And all of the politicians makin’ crazy sounds
All the dead bodies piled up in mounds, yeah

Wow, that heroin is in my blood
And the blood is in my head
Yeah, thank God that I’m good as dead
Ooohhh, thank your God that I’m not aware
And thank God that I just don’t care
And I guess I just don’t know
And I guess I just don’t know

 

Published October 2013 on theorangepress.net

Two jazz releases around the beginning of the year that really made me prick up my ears were Mace FrancisLand Speed Record and Alice HumphriesELICA. Both were bristling with unique vision and sparkling with ideas. Both contained performances among the best I’d heard in Australian jazz. Both emanated from Perth-based artists.

This month I was sent a quartet of new releases from Perth’s Listen/Hear Collective, the ‘record label – music community – home of creativity’ set up by Mace Francis and Johannes Luebberslistenhear3

They were Sweethearts by the Sam Anning Trio (beautifully open and conversational trio work), City Speaks by Callum G’Froerer (impressionistic and sharp music from the trumpeter who leapt out at me from the ECILA album), Wear More Headbands from THE GRID (quirky and tough grooves, jazz power trio) and lastly – the one that really knocked my socks off – Caterpillar Chronicles from the Steve Newcombe Orchestra (some of the most ecstatically original large ensemble material I have come across to date).

Again, the same daring, fun and crackling energy of creation that I had earlier encountered on the Francis and Humphries albums sizzled off each of these releases. Looking through the online catalogue of the Collective I saw an embarrassment of riches in creative music.

And I really fell for their line: ‘The recordings we sell will paint a picture of a scene without a name, without trying to give it one.

Even though some of the artists are based elsewhere – Newcombe in Brisbane, Perth-born G’Froerer now in Melbourne – there was a definite Perth thing going on. I asked Mace Francis and Johannes Luebbers a handful of questions about the Collective and Perth and music.

Here are their responses:

What has attracted me to the Listen/Hear Collective is your reaching for eclecticism. Do you feel that jazz needs cross-pollination from other genres to survive?

Mace Francis – Definitely.  Musicians and composers have access to so many more influences and each generation grows up listening to different styles of music that gets stuck into your subconscious.  I certainly didn’t grow up listening to Ellington or Armstrong rather it was commercial radio, then guitar gods like Clapton, Hendrix, then hip hop, then jazz.  Jazz is different in every period of history and has relied on cross-pollination to grow and survive since the beginning.

listenhear2Johannes Luebbers – I agree. In my view, the capacity for jazz to draw on other kinds of music is the thing that most defines it. It grew out of the collision of different styles and has evolved pretty consistently over the past century through the assimilation of other influences. So rather than needing cross-pollination to survive, I would say cross-pollination is core part of it’s identity. I love swing and bebop, but I think the overemphasis on these styles runs the risk of turning jazz into a museum piece, when its essence is really improvisation and spontaneity. You need new inputs to keep these aspects alive.

You say the Collective is not afraid to explore the ‘places where those genres meet’. What is that place? Could it be a new music?

MF – We don’t know where that place is either but, the excitement is in the journey to find it.

JL – The reality is most people creating contemporary music sit in between traditional genres. I suppose we just want to acknowledge and support these growing areas and support a space where artists don’t feel the need to conform to a particular label. If we name the ‘place’ it might stop being so open!

I have been pretty knocked out by much i have heard from WA – is there something in the water?

MF – Maybe its all the chlorine? It is a small but strong scene.  Musicians understand that you need to train, practice and rehearse.  WAAPA and WAYJO have certainly helped to instil this in young players and then you just get some freaks that come out of nowhere… and then move to Melbourne (unfortunately for us).

JL – There are limitations to a scene the size of Perth, but I think there are certain benefits also. It can act as a bit of an incubator. You get to know pretty much everyone in the scene and there is often great camaraderie.

WAAPA seems an epicentre. Is it all WAAPA or is that institute just a lightning rod for a wider scene?

MF – WAAPA has a great reputation around the country and here in Perth.  It was the reason I moved from Victoria.  It has great musicians on staff and they really push the importance of the fundamentals of the music.  There are other organisations in WA that then support these pools of great musicians that graduate every year.  WAYJO (WA Youth Jazz Orchestra) has been around for 30 years and gives young musicians great professional performance, recording and touring opportunities.  Perth Jazz Society is the longest running modern jazz society in the country (40 years) and they promote performance opportunities.  We now have the Ellington with music 6 nights a week so there are many more performance opportunities and there are more venues opening up and hosting live music.listenhear1

JL – WAAPA is also the reason I moved from Victoria to Perth. It’s certainly the hub of the jazz scene, but as Mace said there are various other organisations and opportunities that surround it. From a people point of view WAAPA is certainly the hub. Most of the top players in town would teach there and as a young artist that’s where you meet people at a similar level. Most of the people I work with now I either studied with or met through WAAPA in other ways.

Manhattan pops up as a jazz sister city to Perth – Mace Francis’ ‘Land Speed Record’ was as much of Manhattan as of Perth and the Steve Newcomb Orchestra grew out of trio jams at the Manhattan School of Music – what is the connection there?

MF – It is the new home of jazz and a mecca to many musicians.  Most of the connections have come out of personal ones.  There are loads of Perth musicians in NY at the moment, Matt Jodrell, Troy Roberts, Des White, Sam Anning, Linda Oh, Sean Little and they are all doing well.  My connection was with Jon Gordon who came to Perth to work at WAAPA, he then randomly suggested Matt Jodrell as a trumpet player to play on the recording.  Steve Newcombe studied with Jim McNeely and had many Aussie musicians on the recording.  It makes the world a smaller place when you have personal friends and contacts around the world – just so happens that many friends have moved there.

JL – Steve is actually based in Brisbane, but as Mace said there are quite a number of Perth (and Australian) musicians in NYC. I think perhaps because of the relative smallness and isolation of the Australian jazz scene, and the Perth jazz scene specifically, musicians feel more of a need to move elsewhere to expand networks and, to an extent, validate what we do. Australians aren’t always great at acknowledging our own worth. If you’re going to move anywhere New York is a pretty good choice! Some of the greatest artists of any genre are based there, so the potential to network is huge. So I think the desire to leave Australia, combined with the huge number of excellent jazz and improvising musicians already in NYC, results in the high representation there.

It seems too glib to suggest that all this creative hothousing comes from Perth being the most isolated capital city in the world, but it is the sort of too-neat shit that us writers thrive on – indulge me…

MF – It is isolated, in that it is 4 hours flight to the next big city but I am happy with that.  Perth is great for all the reasons above and the weather is sweet.  It would be different if we were on horse back.  I dont ever think about the distance or isolation.  We are speaking across the country, you can email/skype anyone in the world for pretty much free and we are closer to Europe than the eastern staters, depending which airline.  So no, I wont indulge you.

JL – Ha, it is the classic question. As I’ve already said, I think isolation plays into it. But at the same time we are no more isolated than Melbourne from the happenings of New York, London, Berlin etc. The interweb means it is all a click away! I guess when it’s just me, the desert and the roo’s out here what else there to do but go and practice more?

Following on from that idea – I am sent a lot of jazz releases over time, but I did find many of the releases from Perth refreshingly original in concept – Mace Francis, Alice Humphries’ ECILA ensemble (a favourite) and now the rather amazing Steve Newcombe Orchestra. Am I imagining it?

MF – What can I say – we are awesome! Steve has always been based in Brisbane but we would claim him if he was here.  Perth has a strong large ensemble composition culture for quite awhile now which was started by Graeme Lyall almost 20 years ago. He was involved with WAAPA and WAYJO and many composer have come through that program and all been bitten by the large ensemble bug.

JL – Yeah there is a great culture of composition which really lends itself to large ensemble writing. As well as those you’ve mentioned there are people like Tilman Robinson (who’s soon to release his debut), guys like Andrew Murray and Jordan Murray (unrelated) in Melbourne, Grant Windsor and Chris Grieve over in the UK… As Mace suggests, it really is the legacy of Graeme. He managed to teach you just enough, but not too much (probably to the frustration of many), which meant if you were interested you had to chase down leads he suggested and figure a lot of stuff out yourself. It resulted in a whole bunch of graduates who had come at it from slightly different angles. If you compare the writing of Mace, myself, Alice and others, we don’t sound the same at all. The experience of WAYJO for many was also a fantastic opportunity that furthered the interest in big band music. Then once you get a few people starting their own group others see what’s possibly and follow suit. I was a couple of years behind Mace and his creation of MFO was an example for me of what I could do to – others then follow on as we go too.

Does the Collective seek out all the singular talents on your roster – jeez, where do you get a Callum G’Froerer? – or do they find you?

MF – It goes both ways.  We seek out some and some seek us out.  What we release is based on the quality and the timing of it.  Because we are a small organisation and we are also busy doing other things we can only limit ourselves to a certain amount each year.  Sometimes there are some great releases and the artists wants it out a week ago but we cant help at that time.  As for Callum, we was in my big band when he was 16 so it was only right that we released his first CD.  Now that he is famous he might want to go elsewhere.

JL – Yes Callum has worked with both of us in different contexts over the years, so we knew his stuff pretty well. To date we have been pretty reactive to things that have come our way, and we’ve just been lucky some interesting things have come. It would be great to curate things a little more, but it’s been hard to find the time and resources to do it properly. It’s been a slow burn but we’re slowly moving more in that direction.

What next for the Listen/Hear Collective?

MF – We have a part-time administrator now who is keeping us in line and we have a few releases planned coming out soon.  At the moment we are just trying to get the word out on our recent releases  http://listenhearcollective.bandcamp.com/

JL – Hopefully more great music. In the current financial and digital climate a record label is a tough sell. It’s an ever evolving process, but we’re trying to tighten up a few processes and do things better all the time. The website is about to be redesigned which is exciting. As Mace said, we’ve now got some administrative help too, which is great and we are doing some mentoring with Room40 Records in 2014, so will be hopefully developing the business further. Ultimately we just want to provide a great platform for interesting music to be heard! But sustainability is a constant question (know any mining magnates who love jazz?).

And finally – what are your thoughts on jazz at present and on the wider art/commercial form of music today? Feel free to use bad language.

MF – TV talent shows are ruining everything.

JL – There’s a lot of great music being made – in both commercial and art music spheres – but there is also a lot of shit. I find the sheer quantity of music out there overwhelming – there’s never enough time to check out all the things that seem to pop up. It’s also difficult to get noticed above the noise, and the democratising of recording means there’s a lot more noise out there. In terms of jazz, people seem to reject the term more and more frequently, which I guess is partly where Listen/Hear comes from (though both Mace and I’s music is probably often pretty firmly in the jazz camp). The rejection of labels and the fluidity of different genres has led to some exciting sounds – I’ve been listening a lot to the Claudia Quintet lately, who bring aspects of 20th century composition into a contemporary jazz setting, creating some wonderful sounds. A number of Australian jazz and improvising artists have been pursuing cross-cultural collaborations for some time, one example being Simon Barker and his work with Bae Il Dong. This has resulted in some really interesting stuff that also breaks away from conventional stylistic divisions. As a very different example, someone like Esperanza Spalding makes incredible music that pulls in the world of pop and and results in music that is completely accessible but very sophisticated too. Leading back to your first question, this all highlights jazz’s affinity for cross-pollination. I think the most exciting jazz related music I’ve heard in recent years is that which brings in other sounds and styles in some way.

Check out the Listen/Hear Collective online at http://listenhearcollective.com/ and http://listenhearcollective.bandcamp.com/

 

Published October 2103 on australianjazz.net 

Another strange but beautiful fruit has dropped from Yum Yum Tree Records – the label of great guitar jazz from Jess Green, Aaron Flower and Ben Hauptmann – in the shape of The Ben Panucci Trio’s Short Stories.

In common with the above mentioned guitarists, Ben Panucci is an entirely uncommon player, with a sound and vision entirely of its own logical and aesthetic world.

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Also, in common with Green, Flower and Hauptmann, Panucci’s sound is entirely individual and recognisable from the first notes – in this case the sliding chord of the perfectly named ‘Lethargy Blues’. A crisp, chiming, almost blues tone, Panucci operates without added effects – opting to explore and coax new sounds from the electric instrument with almost an acoustic sensibility, beyond virtuosity.

‘Lethargy Blues’ is an early indicator of the aptness of the album’s title, Short Stories – each track feels like a small soundtrack to an episode in which the characters are just out of sight or obscured by clouds. I have never liked the laziness of the term ‘impressionistic’ when applied to music but Panucci’s compositions and playing – as well as the perfectly simpatico bass and drums of Alex Boneham and James Waples – tend to conjure shifting hazy scenes and fogged dramas just out of sight of the mind’s eye.

‘but anyway it isn’t a game’ – the title a lowercase conversational fragment perfectly reflected in the opaque composition of the tune: Panucci in its solo intro suggesting melancholy in descending resolutions, the sadness only strengthened as Waples and Boneham join him.

The storytelling ranges from the more accessible emotionally to the fascinatingly abstract. ‘Harmonics’ is just that: a skein of bass and guitar harmonics scratched across the top of a snare beat for 0:54. ‘Percussion’ is the band percussing for 1:48 – Panucci scratching, smearing and drumming on his strings, a device used on various tracks for startling effect. The intro to the darkly woven ‘Get Well’ is something to hear, made of smears and scrapes until the notes come.Print

But not all is out-there abstraction – just as one is lulling on all the atmospherics and haziness, the band whips into the Monk-ish ‘Party on the Event Horizon’, its driving swing reminiscent of Larry Coryell’s later work. The trio works beautifully through the solo sections, conversing joyfully and putting a real grin on the playing.

‘A Dance’ conjures Django romanticism in a drowned abandoned ballroom. ‘Old Themes’ calls to mind the exact opposite – a Radiohead miserablist anthem of cold gray towers, its dystopia shattered by the hot primary-coloured splashs of the Trio in full flight as the tune grows and progresses.

Such is the range and span of colours and shifting scenes across Short Stories. That all of this can be expressed through the limited means of a jazz guitar trio – to all intents and purposes acoustic – is not only a measure of Panucci, Boneham and Waples’ creative mastery, but also of their vision.

And it is that vision which – in a musical genre which can all too often veer into the empty adoration of technique – over and over rescues Jazz back for us, for Music.

 

Published October 2103 on australianjazz.net 

Jazz fads and styles may come and go but the thrill of the big band – like Classic Rock, ABBA or Mozart – will never go away. To experience the heavy impasto textures or watercolour washes of a large jazz ensemble is a buzz like no other.

Importantly, the Big Band sound harks back to a time when jazz was King (yes, kidz, a Jazz Age!) yet, at the same time, suggests a future maybe not entirely Pro-Tooled and Auto-Tuned into meek submission.

Jenna Cave and Paul Weber’s Divergence Jazz Orchestra is one of Australia’s keepers of the big band flame. More power to them.

And now we have their (astonishing) debut, The Opening Statement.

divergence2

Of course, quality – of conception, arrangement and execution – is where it’s at. This is not a nostalgia trip (if it is only that, it deserves to wither and drop) – it is music of Here and Now. Luckily, the Divergence band has arranger Cave at the helm and an astonishing array of Australia’s best and brightest to breathe (literally, in the case of the horns) life into her brilliant charts.

Check opener, ‘A Stranger In Helsinki’ – a snappy (and snapping) chart based on a nimble guitar figure (like the later tune ‘Odd Time In Mali’). The noticeable lack of piano across The Opening Statement allows a greater range of dynamics – Luke Liang’s guitar solos and comps in a lighter way, with those slightly odd guitar voicings, allowing all nuance and colour of the horns to remain at the forefront.

This is apparent in the multi-part suite ‘Dear Miss Upstill’ – one of Cave’s most idiosyncratic and adventurous charts. Led by Wil Gilbert’s understated flugelhorn, the piece grows from a melancholy prelude through a punchy middle section – with smart and funky tenor from Michael Avgenicos – back into a translucently pretty restatement. The arrangement has no fat or flab, reinforcing Cave’s skill and great ear for economy and emotional trajectory. Gilbert shines on this track and across The Opening Statement – def a player to watch.

‘And Then There Was One’ is also built on a spidery guitar figure – 7/4 then 6/4 and back again, but hey who’s counting? – and features a sharp drum break from James McCaffrey, messing with the horn riff to great effect. Cave’s arrangement keeps the rhythm section to the fore, never forgetting – unlike too many contemporary large ensemble arrangers – that rhythm is King, which is one of the many delights of her charts all over The Opening Statement.divergence3

‘Jazz Euphoria on Frenchman Street’, a chart inspired by Cave’s visit to Where-It-All-Began, New Orleans, draws out some tasty/dirty blues guitar from Liang and some real joy-in-the-telling from the band. It also reinforces Jenna Cave’s – and through her, the Divergence Jazz Orchestra’s – commitment to the tradition of jazz and the big band expression of the past, and the future. It’s a beautiful thing.

Title track, ‘The Opening Statement’ (nice title for a confident debut, n’est-ce pas?) is pure modernist tones spread across the pallet of the ensemble. The writing is clear, aquatint and astringent and speaks to me of cities and streets and bars, with neon reflecting off wet nighttime streets. It also is a very beautiful reminder of the entirely original voice of the Divergence Jazz Orchestra.

Closing track ‘Odd Time In Mali’ holds a special place in me – I first saw Sydney’s all-woman Sirens Big Band, when Cave was their altoist-arranger, grapple with its tricksy Afro-Jazz 9/8 rhythm at their inaugural gig a couple of years back and it made me prick up my ears to this young arranger on the block, Jenna Cave.

Smoothing out to straight 4’s for a range of solo workouts (Weber trom, Matt Collins tpt, Josh Willard alto, David Groves bass and McCaffrey dms), ‘Odd Time In Mali’ seems to encapsulate the joy, chops and colour of the Divergence Jazz Orchestra.

The Opening Statement is, all up, one hell of an opening statement from a group that – it is apparent – has a hell of lot more to say. I, for one, am all ears for anything else they want to shout my way.

 

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Prior to posting this review I asked Jenna Cave a handful of questions. Here are her responses:

 

John Hardaker:  What was the spark that led to the formation of The Divergence Jazz Orchestra?

Jenna Cave: For so long it was one of those “dream scenario” fantasies that seemed impossible but that I couldn’t get out of my head. I remember about 7 years ago (when I was 22) I had a saxophone student who was about ten or fifteen years older than me. I think he thought it was inspiring that I was a musician.  He asked me “If you could do anything with music, what would you do, ultimate dream scenario” I thought for a minute and just blurted out of nowhere “to have my own big band that I get to compose for”. On election night 2010 one of my friends had a house party and a bunch of musicians were there. Paul Weber and I were chatting and he told me he wanted to form a big band, then I said ” Hey! I want to form a big band”. By the end of the night we’d pretty much decided we were going to form a big band together down the track. Then when we both had some time to dedicate to it in 2012, so it began.

JH: To compose, organise, record and perform with a jazz orchestra is a huge undertaking. What is the rush that makes it all more than worthwhile?

JC: I love composing. I love getting in the creative zone where all that exists is you, and the music in your imagination. It’s a fun place to be. Having your music performed really well, especially when it carries forth your emotional intentions, is an incredible feeling. For me there is no better way to express how I experience the world.

JH: The band is pretty much packed with some of the best and brightest of today’s young players. Do you seek them out or do they gravitate towards you? 

JC: When we started the band Paul and I had many a long discussion about who to recruit. In the end the bulk of the band we first put together were in the Con big band when we were both there (Paul doing jazz trombone, myself doing masters in composition). As time went on some players moved on as people do, and the new players we got on board tended to be people we knew and had worked with, or that other people in the band had worked with. Rapport is very important, considering we don’t rehearse all the time, existing musical relationships are very handy to draw from. Equally, it’s important to have players who are willing and keen to put in the group rehearsal hours. Even if someone is a great player, if they don’t want to be a team player there’s not much point with what we are doing here.

JH: Your compositions have always struck me as highly original in concept – where do they come from?

JC: I have heaps of influences, there so much music I love. But I don’t think this inspires me to go and write music to sound like those musicians. I mean sometimes ill like a groove and want to write something with that feel, but mostly other people’s music just opens up my imagination to all the possibilities. So when I compose I just sit down and write what I’d like to hear.

Sometimes this can take me a long time, because ill have a vague concept in my head of a sound that I imagined, but then actually getting that on to paper can take a lot of fumbling until you can hear it clearly. It’s very exciting composing this way though. It means you are following your instincts and intuition which is a lovely way to express yourself and have your own voice.

JH: What are your thoughts on the state of large jazz ensemble musical  today?

JC: There seems to be a fair bit happening!

JH: What are your thoughts on mainstream music in general today?

Not much, I don’t really follow it. Occasionally there’s something mainstream that I will really enjoy, but mostly I just listen to music that catches my ear.

 

Published October 2103 on australianjazz.net