Archive for December, 2013

The cover art for Melbourne pianist ade ishs’ new Trio album is of a dark deep lake, its surface untroubled, its edges calm and waveless.

Being a visual person, images often swim though my head while listening to music. This image appealed instantly as a perfect expression of the Trio’s music and especially of ishs’ playing – calm and settled on the surface, held in place by a spiritual gravity, its smooth face belieing the many cross currents interweaving and shaping the dark waters below.

Strength without force. Power without friction.

ade ishs 2

Opener ‘Acceptance’ is a perfect manifestation. At first almost too pretty, it asserts its calm power beneath ishs’ sure fingers. Drummer Chelsea Allen and acoustic bassist Daigo Nakai supply warm undercurrents to the untroubled waters of ishs melody and soloing.

‘Night Birds’ (composed in 2002) heats the Trio with its latin-rock groove propelled by Allen’s snapping backbeat – ah, a jazz drummer who doesn’t mind a backbeat, kudos! Nakai’s bass solo on ‘Night Birds’ lowers the dynamic with no expense to the groove.

ade ishs (lowercase respectfully observed) says of the Trio: “I’m trying to avoid having the piano always the front liner. On this recording the bass and drums are all front liners on different tracks”. As well as a nice balance across the album between the three – as all good piano trios must have, from Bill Evans down – Nakai also features prominently on the driving waltz ‘For What It’s Worth’ and Allen delivers more of that tough backbeat on the short, sharp shock that is ‘The Differing Sky’.

ishs’ own playing reminds me – although they are vastly different players technically and stylistically – of Dave Brubeck (of all people). The smile that is across his solos, the sometimes pugilistic attack, the open-heartedness, never afraid to play pretty but also never afraid to drop a dissonance, sweet-and-sour – the things I love about dear departed Dave I also love about ade ishs.ade ishs 1

After several solo piano recordings, this is the pianist’s first with his Trio. The lovely solo piece ‘Understanding’ makes me keen to check his solo albums. Truly beautiful, the pace of this measured and deeply meditative performance slows the worlds to its tempo – the openness and poised spaces in its intro and outro are haiku, breath in winter, bare trees.

As the ade ishs Trio album begins, it ends. ‘Go On 3’ is, like opener ‘Acceptance’, a calm waterway of three currents moving through time and days. It carries its stillness with assuredness, both knowing but not knowing where it is flowing to. And that is what has always made great jazz.

Published November 2103 on 




Conceptual art divides people as fiercely and clearly as it divided the Old from the New early in the 20th Century. Art that can be an idea, or a mere instruction or a thought – often independent of a material resolution or form – is anathema to many.

And all too often, conceptual art is itself to blame. By creating impenetrable layers of obscure meaning or by expressing an ultra-personal iconography (as in the work of Joseph Beuys) it can lose people, who can see it as coldly intellectual, its poetry alien.

The work of Japanese-American artist Yoko Ono is different. Although highly conceptual and loaded with many layers of meaning, Ono’s art has always carried a very human message. Almost everything she creates can be immediately felt on some flesh-and-blood level, which can be a doorway to the deeper storeys of stories within. Ono’s work is outwardly simple, but it is as loaded as a bear-trap.

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece,1965

War Is Over (If You Want It) Yoko Ono recently opened at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art. It gives us a unique and wide-ranging look into Ono’s world (and through it, our own). The title comes from massive billboard posters that Ono and her husband, Beatle John Lennon placed across the world’s cities in Christmas 1969 as a message and gesture of peace.

Peace is a theme deeply associated with John and Yoko and many of Ono’s pieces express a yearning for peace, both on universal and personal levels. Her ‘Play It By Trust’ (1966) is a chess set where all the pieces are white as are their squares. As the players play, they lose track of which pieces are theirs and which are those of their opponent, and soon the idea of ‘sides’ is blurred – we realise, just as fraternising trench troops during World War I realised, we are really all the same. The simplicity, the whiteness, the life-affirmation of this piece are pure Ono – her emotional palette as well as her colour palette is white, water, clouds, dreams, love, peace. Blurred edges of personality that connect us all in a universality.

This universality of humanity is equally expressed in her 2006 piece ‘We’re All Water’, a row of identical bottles containing identical amounts of water, but all with a name attached – Groucho Marx, John Coltrane, James Joyce, John Lennon – different names, identical containers and contents. A simple idea but one which grows many thoughts, like branches, upon reflection.Yoko Ono, We're All Water 2008

But it is not all sweetness, love and light. Ono’s meditations on sexual politics – especially as they relate to women – can be disturbing in their power. Footage of her famous ‘Cut Piece’ from 1964 – where audience members are invited to cut away the clothes of a passive, kneeling Ono with sharp scissors – is shown on a wall here, adjacent to a more recent performance from 2003, where the piece is carried our on the artist, now 70 years old. Aside from the power of the obvious sexual and political connotations here, it is remarkable that the piece takes on even greater depth and raises new questions when ‘Cut Piece’ is now applied to the artist as an elderly woman.

‘Touch Me III’ from 2008 is a series of boxes, each containing a silicone replica of an erogenous part of a female body – lips, breasts, pubis. We are asked to wet our fingers in a bowl of water and touch the flesh-like silicone. The sense of violence here is inescapable, even though all is dark and still. When ‘Touch Me III’ was first shown in New York, the silicone was left with so many cuts and gouges by visitors that the gallery decided to remove it. Ono declined the idea, leaving the damaged ‘flesh’ in view of all.

Ono has created a specific artwork for Sydney – ‘Wish Tree for Sydney’ – six lemon-scented eucalypts on the Sculpture Terrace with materials to write and attach their dreams and wishes to the tree. Inspired by Shinto temple trees of Ono’s childhood in Japan, these Wish Trees (the first was made in1998) are a simple, heartfelt emblem of positive human aspiration.

And it is this desire for a better world, a better future, that runs through all of this work. Ono lived through the nuclear devastation of Japan during WWII; she has starved and known the dreadful suffering of the vanquished side. So this yearning for peace is not an abstract tissue of lip-service, as it is in too many artists, but her gift to us and her gift to the future.


Published November 2013 on

Tenor man, Anton Delecca – and his Quartet – has delivered a muscular and deeply felt album with their third, The Healer.

Checking US sax icon Ernie Watts earlier this year I was reminded of the lithe power of the tenor quartet, a power I have rarely heard as fully flowered locally, until The Healer.

The obvious comparisons with the daddy of all modern tenor quartets – the Coltrane group of the 60s – are straight-up realised on opener ‘The Ark’: a 7/4 winding desert path of Middle Eastern-flavoured melody. The band flexes and contracts around Delecca’s questing, searching solo. Luke Howard’s piano solo is a small masterpiece of texture – dig how he ends it with a murky slither into the deeper indigos of the lower piano register.


Howard’s playing across the album is dazzling. His Tyneresque intro to the sinewy ‘Icarus’ is wonderful: all ripples and questions and darkened windows. ‘Icarus’ also has a scratching, spitting duet between Delecca and drummer Daniel Farrugia; its energy is reminiscent of those Coltrane-Elvin Jones codas that made us all jump for joy.

But the Quartet is not all muscle, knuckle and sinew. ‘Hokusai Says’ is a lovely, translucent ballad that brings to mind the muted colours and perfect vignettes of the eponymous Japanese woodcut master. ‘Cycling’, though brisker, also shows the easy balance the four attain with each other – bassist Jonathan Zion’s playing here is superb, notably for what he doesn’t play; a skill that takes true sensibility to attain.anton_delecca2

‘Hectic’ is hectic. Its melody a fevered montuno, ‘Hectic’s Latin momentum is headlong and headstrong with the band pushing Delecca’s solo into some snapping and biting areas. Across The Healer, Anton Delecca gives nothing less than his whole soul to the material – his tone a nice hard Hard Bop shout and/or moan. His compositions, also, are great jazz pieces – whether beds for blowing or reasons for reflection.

With material this strong, I wonder at the inclusion of the two standards, ‘Love for Sale’ and ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’. Both beautiful tunes (if a little obvious) and the band does have fun with them. But The Healer sags slightly here, if only because Delecca’s (and Jon Zion’s dreamlike ‘Sahadi’s’) original material is so strong.

The strongest piece for me is the title track, ‘The Healer’ which closes the album. Zen-like, its strength comes from its resigned simplicity – inevitable and calm as nature, its crescent structure arcs slowly over 6:36 from Luke Howard’s whispered chords to when the band enters (Delecca only enters at 4:00 and then only to firm up the same minimal chords) only to die off again to silence on that handful of churchy chords. It is lovely, transporting, spiritual –and has exactly nothing to do with the way much of jazz is played today. Which makes it a truly unique musical experience, beyond genre – as much great music is.

Delecca, Howard, Zion and Farrugia have made one of the finest tenor quartet albums I have heard this year – animal strong and caress soft, fiery yellow and cool blue. It is a jazz format that is one of the most satisfying of all within the canon, and they do it so well. So well, in fact, that they deserve your ears. They already have mine.


Published November 2103 on 



It has often been said that all composition is improvisation (at some stage) and obversely, that all improvisation is composition (or should be). Nowhere in music is this yin-yang dichotomy more naked – or more essential – than in Jazz.

Melbourne trumpeter Paul Williamson’s new album Four Connect blurs that improvisation-composition line particularly deliciously over nine tracks – nine duets with four fabulous pianists: Tony Gould, Paul Grabowsky, Andrea Keller and Marc Hannaford (yes, I know – wow! What a lineup).

This is Williamson’s eighth album since 2001’s wonderfully-named Non-Consensual Head Compression and, as well as being an obvious evolutionary step, it is a beautiful thing.

four connect2The four were chosen by Williamson as musicians he has had an ‘ongoing musical and personal connection with’, so the person-to-person rapport is already there. The musical rapport, though is somethin’ else.

Williamson says of Tony Gould, pianist for the opening track ‘Piece for Peace’: “Whilst Gould’s mentorship and musical inspiration has been ongoing, this recording is the first time we have recorded together. The rapport is evident in the flowing, expressive, and evocative musical dialogue…”

The mood of ‘Piece for Peace’ is reflective, meditative – and it is this contemplative vibe that is spread across the whole album. Even when things get rhythmic – like the pecked syncopations with Marc Hannaford which open ‘Buzzby’ or the vapid curtains of 4’s from Grabowsky later in ‘Good Morning Melancholy’ – it all has a flowing rubato feeling to it: untethered to rhythm just as the pieces are untethered to melody or untethered to harmony. Not free –untethered, or at most loosely tethered, as we are to a lover.

The lover – or, cooler, the good deep friend – metaphor fits here as well, in the sound of that precious intimacy, across all tracks, of two voices conversing. ‘Flow’ with intense young pianist Andrea Keller just wraps around itself and then around the intertwined trumpet and piano lines in a winding arc that seems to create its own language as it goes.

‘Flow’ is a unique piece among nine unique pieces. All nine are entirely self-contained sound-worlds – remarkable considering that all are made with only unadorned trumpet and piano. No, not unadorned – they are adorned with the impeccable chops, taste and musicality of these musicians.

Paul Williamson alone seems to have a limitless library of ideas, effects and colours at his fingertips (literally) and on the tip of his tongue (literally). His instrument’s breathy burrs, sprays of notes, bends, whimpers and wounded howls add an almost visual dimension to the material – whether Miles-limpid or Hubbard-harsh. There is never an effect for effect’s sake because it is all done with technique-beyond-technique (a phrase I am wearing thin through overuse in these reviews, but one which I keep coming back to as a quality that will save Jazz – and all of us – from the hollow ‘sounding brass’ of virtuosity).four connect1

To hear what I mean, listen quietly and deep deeply to the last two pieces on Four Connect – ‘Helix’ and ‘Time Munched’ – both played with that Zen master, Paul Grabowsky, both telepathically conjoined trumpet-to-piano, both almost meteorologically free yet both as logical as nature; Mandelbrot sets of curlicues and fern-clefs form before your very ears. Improvisation as composition.

Or is it composition as improvisation? Or is is just words after all – black and white reviewers’ ‘music’, dull as a ledger, waiting to be saved by people like Paul Williamson. Listen to Four Connect and let yourself be saved by Williamson and his four wonderful pianists.

Published November 2103 on 

Australia and America share many similarities historically. Both are young countries, both are built on a pioneering spirit, both countries were quick to create their own mythologies, royalties and national characters from the very start.

Taking in the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ current blockbuster, America: Painting a Nation, I was struck though, how different the view of their early painters was to ours. And it is a difference, in one form or another, that flows right through to today.

Jackson Pollock No 22, 1950

The early landscape artists of Australia tellingly depicted this new, alien landscape in English tones – our ochres and dun-olives became blacksoil and Sherwood green on canvas. The yearning to create as much of Mother England here in this dry, frightening colony was strong – so strong it meant distorting in the mind that which the artists actually saw with their eye.

Early American landscape artists, on the other hand, also distorted – but the other way: their America was bigger, better, more promising, almost every painting suffused with a golden Arcadian glow of richness and glory. These are visions not of fear but of swelling pride and pioneering thrust.

Henry Inman, No-Tin, a Chippewa Chief, 1832There are academic portraits too, but soon, with revolutionary energy, they too reject the British style and replace pictures of noblemen and women with Indians (Henry Inman’s 1832 portrait of No-Tin, a Chippewa chief, is dazzling) and African-American sailors. Revolutionary leader, John Adams noted in 1775 that the British flavour of ‘taste and politeness’ was being pushed aside by the new republican virtue of ‘fortitude and enterprise’. A lovely anonymous naïve farm scene of 1850 is entitled ‘He that tileth the land shall be satisfied’.

Smartly arranged both chronologically and geographically – from the early Atlantic coast colonies of the early 1800s to the Pacific coast of the mid 20th century  – America: Painting a Nation is part of the 2013-14 Sydney International Art Series. Being in collaboration with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Terra Foundation for American Art allows a wide scope across over 90 works.

Once the initial – and uniquely American – pioneering thrust dominated the land, its energy created cities and, in them, a society that had never known such freedom of individual ambition before. Artists again glorified this energy. Images changed from naïve and homespun images of country and village life – many proto-Norman Rockwell icons of health, harvest and home – to expressions of urban dynamism, the blast of business and cosmopolitan sophistication.

James Whistler, John Singer Sargent and others, in a strange reversal, became the toast of London and Paris. Mary Cassatt’s ‘A Woman and Girl Driving’ shows a proto-feminist view of a capable, strong mother, that reflects this attractive American energy. It was the Gilded Age, an age of new opulence – money was everything, gentility and display threatened to subsume that uniquely American energy.

Europe fed many artists of the early 20th century with new palettes to express their cities – Fauve colours, futurism (the angles, machinery and roar of which fitted America like a race-car driver’s glove), the dizzy 360 degree spin of cubism. But as well as painting the wonders of their vaulting cities, many artists also began reacting to the negative pressures of urban life. Edward Hopper’s ‘House at Dusk’, painted in 1935, is as dislocated as any of the works of this master of dislocation – its odd cropping further deepening its mysteries and shadows.

There was also a sagging sadness for the loss of the Old West – hugely popular frontier artist Frederic Remington set out to capture this dying breed and their images. He is represented here by one of his most transfixing images, ‘The Herd Boy’ of 1905: a windblown Indian boy on a starving horse in a white-out landscape of snowy scrub, an image reminiscent of the cover of The Beach Boys’ 1971 album, Surf’s Up – where it is used to symbolise a similar loss of innocence, albeit several generations later.

The remarkable Georgia O’Keefe went at it at a different, more positive and spiritual level than Remington, creating works that drew on nature and America’s pre-invasion cultures – in a sense, linking her with the nation’s 19th century nature-worshipping painters. Her ‘Horse’s skull with pink rose’ of 1931 is as timeless and deep as it is not of modern America at all.Georgia-O_Keeffe-Horses-Skull-With-Pink-Rose-1931-large-1339813589

By the 1950s, American art had its own, supposedly entirely indigenous Style – Abstract Expressionism. Whether this was truly an important style, or just America once again constructing its own mythology, it made New York the new centre of the world of Art. Lee Krasner’s 1951 ‘Blue and Black’ and Ashile Gorky’s ‘Dark Green Painting’, while introspective and dark, have that hot blade of American manifest destiny in their bold execution.

Pollock and Mark Rothko are represented here by startling, genius works that jump off the walls with the power of their vision – Pollock’s ‘No 22’ from 1950 virtually drags you across the room. By the time you are through to the end America: Painting a Nation has, like American history itself, blown your mind with the energy compressed into less that three centuries.

But is American painting a voice that speaks unequivocably of America and its people? I wish I could say – but I will leave that to perhaps the most American of American painters, Jackson Pollock, who said in 1944:

“The idea of an isolated American painting, so popular in this country during the thirties, seems absurd to me, just as the idea of a purely American mathematics or physics would seem absurd… And in another sense, the problem doesn’t exist at all; or, if it did, would solve itself: An American is an American and his painting would naturally be qualified by the fact, whether he wills or not. But the basic problems of contemporary painting are independent of any one country…”

Published November 2013 on