Archive for March, 2014

Like post-punk has done since the 1980s, Jazz has gradually eschewed and expunged the Blues from its vernacular.

Yes, there are still lipstick traces left from the grand old dame, but many contemporary Jazz artists seem intent on (consciously or sub-consciously) avoiding her patois, perfumes and punch-drunkenness in any overt sense.

Sydney’s Dubious Blues Trio have no such qualms. In fact the Trio drink deep not only of the blues but – horrors! – the blues’ boozy trailer-trash cousin, blues-rock.

Made up of guitarist Cameron Henderson, double-bassist Elsen Price and drummer Tully Ryan, The Trio are one of the current young bands that make me jump for joy. Genre-hopping is admirably rife in the modern jazz world, but done as it is here on their debut – Dubious Blues Trio – so unselfconsciously and with a real blues wildness, is a buzz.

Dubious Blues2

After a short ‘Intro’ (a bit of cod-blues piano quickly devoured by an electronic belch), Henderson’s ‘Shoemound’ snaps our attention – the unmistakeable tang of Stevie Ray Vaughan salting his Stratocaster. Yet the line he plays winds into some snaky shapes – hhmmmm, dubious blues indeed.

‘Mousterious Moustache’ takes their tough sound into 6/8 and ‘Bigger Than The Mammoth’ has some Zappaesque riffing slding into a very SRV boogie.

Bassist Price’s ‘Fixy and Your Haircut’ flies along in a bluegrass handbasket-to-hell – Price has recently been seen around town playing with bluegrass mavericks The Morrisons. Price’s choppy triple-time bowing opens it up for Henderson’s banjo-like guitar. It’s all over in 1:36 but we are sweating.Dubious Blues1

The funky ‘King Hustle’ goes back past SRV to Jimi Hendrix, who seems to be as much a touchstone for Henderson as Bill Frisell or, maybe even moreso, Wayne Krantz. After a languid, gospel-throated bowed solo from Price the whole piece dissolves beneath a (not-so-)hilarious montage of phone recordings of the guys hustling for gigs – and accepting having to “play for tips”.

Dubious Blues Trio leaves us with Price’s ‘Miscellaneous Whale’ – a 14:15 monolithic jam featuring trumpeter Will Gilbert. Gilbert’s breathy tone, together with the black-hole ambience of the piece, dimly recalls Miles Davis’s electric anti-jazz psychedelia of the 70’s. Whatever their influences, this is entirely original music made by fresh-thinking players – Gilbert’s longing horn, Henderson’s whale-song guitar, Price’s leaden bass moans. Special mention here goes to drummer Ryan – a piece as stretched out as ‘Miscellaneous Whale’ is a true challenge for any drummer and he is always in the right space with the right colour at the right time.

Dubious Blues Trio was recorded live in the studio, which adds a layer of danger and shows the Trio to their best advantage. Henderson, Price and Ryan have a wonderful thing here – a three-way joy of noise and a questing group-mind. There is no leader, and no followers – as it should be, but too rarely is.

Dubious Blues Trio brings the blues back into jazz – not the clichés and the tired down-home trappings (we’ll leave that to the official Blues® scene), but the innovation, the openness and, above all the humanity that the best blues always had. And it is about time.


Published February 2104 on


Ah, the fleeting nature of Beauty – one wink and she’s gone. A shame, that.

Melbourne pianist/composer Dan Sheehan’s Infinite Ape project with altoist John Crompton and drummer Samuel Hall is gone almost before they started, with Crompton decamped to NYC and Sheehan and Hall already moving on down other roads. Yes, a shame, that.

Or it would be had they not left us with this startling CD – Infinite Ape – seven tracks of sleight-of-hand, sonic dreams, righteous hymnals and shooting sparks. Maybe it is even more beautiful than it sounds precisely because it is a fleeting glimpse of what might have been.

Infinite ape2

Whatever. The three move so well in their bass-less three-way dance, it is a revelation. Opener ‘Prelude’ grows from sparse drum beats which soon gather piano notes around them, attracting alto shimmer like static electricity. All against a kind of suggested open grid that refuses to hold them.

The bass-less thing can be a challenge – often it can be a downright mistake, leaving the music to slip its moorings and founder in the shallows – but Sheehan and Hall move the music forward with a loose-limbed authority, its momentum never questioned. The almost rubato freer passages move as convincingly as the 10/8 ostinato of NYC altoist Tim Berne’s ‘Hard Cell’ or the sudden sinewy montuno of Sheehans’ ‘St Marks Avenue’. Here, the lack of a moving bass voice allows other surprising insinuations, grooves and meaningful silences to rise up.

The players also rise up. Jon Crompton first made me prick up my ears as part of Tim Willis’ tough guitar band, The End. There he was half of a sax section (with tenor John Felstead) that did battle with Willis’ scything rock guitar. Here he is something else entirely. Working around the outer limits of the horn, Crompton moans, mumbled, talks, spits, conjectures and preaches. I have rarely heard a player eke so much from a brass tube with some holes in it – it is not done for effect but for, yes, expression and a reach for a new colour, a new star. The sort of shit that renews my faith in jazz, you know? It’s hard to conceive the round, burnished tone on ‘St Marks Avenue’ comes out of the same pipe as the Pharoanic howls on the second Tim Berne tune here, ‘Brokelyn’.

Drummer Sam Hall too plays above and beyond the call of duty – his playing can be melodic, or pushy, or brutal, or whispered. He makes his kit talk the talk: the solo on ‘Holding Pattern’ comes out of the gate with such unblinking authority, it is almost the reason for the tune’s being; it exists as if only to wrap other notes and other sounds around this four-square force.Infinite ape1

Dan Sheehan, whose conception and compositions (largely) are the reason for Infinite Ape, moves like the ocean behind all this – his playing, whether acoustic or Rhodes, is as big as the room, whether it be a sprinkling of notes or a killer riff or – yeah!­ – big, big chords. His compositions seem the product of a free mind and a restless urge, an artist – nothing is obvious, twists and turns come at quirky angles, new words are spoke, yet it all makes its own sense, a beautiful sense.

Crompton’s  composition ‘Dazed and Confused’ is one that stands out here –  as a testament to Sheehan, Hall and Crompton’s ability to leap into such a challenging piece, to learn a new language on-the-spot and speak it like a native. The winding melody, with its leaping intervals, creates its own logic as it goes, moving through mad shadows. Hall’s gnashing percussion bites as the band transmutes the groove under Crompton’s alto, which mutters to itself like a crazy person.

It’s a hell of a thing. You don’t get a band like that every day – and now it’s gone. A shame, that.


Published February 2104 on 

Andy Gordon‘s follow up to 2013’s The Reverent Jorfy (see ‘Breelong Black’ here)  is a dark and calmly stormy affair. Whereas Jorfy dealt with dark historical themes but in a life affirming way – ebullient and country sweet, with the humanity of Gordon’s  voice and story-telling delivery pulling you into each song – Black Sea is deeper,  a glistening swirl of indigo waters that reflects another side of humanity: that of disillusionment, existential questions and the encroaching night…

The five originals here (Black Sea also contains a tightly wound cover of Dire Straits‘ ‘Six Blade Knife’) grew from the ethos of “write the song in the morning and have it completely recorded by dinner time.”


This work-around adds a fresh simplicity to the songs – plus it helps to have the remarkable enabler Syd Green writing and recording with Andy. Anything Green touches has a ‘finished’ aura to it – it is entirely satisfying on all levels: especially the emotive and the spiritual. Gordon and Green make Black Sea look (sound) easy, but it is a distillation of two effortless talents casting their fates to the wind and seeing what blows back.

What has blown back on this album has cold sea salt on its breath – Black Sea has an overarching feeling of the deep dark ocean about it. Not the friendly ocean off Manly but that other ocean, the ocean deeps of our souls – “how many times can i watch the sea roll in? all of the suns, all of the moons, until one of us dies”.

On ‘Rollin’ Sea’ Gordon asks “How many times can I go to Heaven…?” and you just know the next line will conjure Hell. A song from Paris, ‘Amandaline’ is written about a vision Gordon had of a 19th century poet’s muse drifting beneath the surface of the Seine. Cold water, night reflections, loss, detachment.gordon2

The closer, ‘New York’, is pummelled along by Green’s nagging shuffle – a tom-tom shuffle as insistent as that über-city’s pugnacious pressure. It is Gordon’s love song to NYC’s details, architecture and grit, but like all else here, it has a shade of doubt dappling the sunlight of childlike wonder (vis a vis Tanya Bowra‘s repeated background whisper “Save yourself, save yourself”).

Black Sea is a gem – in fact six dark little gems in a row, with teeth that sparkle dark in the watery night. Gordon mentions money (the eternal and rasping yoke of the truly indie artist) maybe once too often in the Press Release that accompanied my copy, but as hard as it may be for you, Andy, you have given us a gift.


Published March 2014 on


Outside it was a gray, hostile, traffic snarled, drizzly Sydney evening – but here in the City Recital Centre it was warm, golden and all at peace. I felt all my angst, peak hour jitters and parking station traumas drop away like moldy prison fatigues as this glorious, swelling music radiated through me – radiated more like light, rather than just sound, warming and glowing.

The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra had chosen to open their 2014 Season – their 25th! – with the Bach Magnificat. Bolstered by the Brandenburg Choir and select guest soloists, this truly grand piece of music was a sharp choice for a number of reasons.

Brandenburg Magnificat3

Firstly, the Magnificat is Bach – the composer who gives the Orchestra its name and much of its inspiration. Like all of Bach, it satisfies on many levels – intellectual, artistical and most importantly emotive. Written in 1723 to impress Bach’s new employers, the Liepzig Town Council, the Magnificat is twelve short movements (with an additional four linking movements) that utilise a stunning variety of orchestral and voice combinations.

Leader Paul Dyer chose a rarely performed revised version of the work for tonight – as ever, going for authenticity and period veracity.

All of this combined to make the Magnificat the perfect vehicle for The Brandenburg – one that showed the Orchestra’s (and Choir’s) formidable strengths in the brightest possible light. In short, there couldn’t have been a better choice to open The Brandenburg’s 25th anniversary celebrations.

Paul Dyer, as ever, drew sparkling and full-blooded performances from the Orchestra, his expansive and quite obvious joy in the music inspiring both players and audience. The heightened mood drew exceptional performances from all, especially soprano Jane Sheldon – soaring both in intimate settings and over the full force of the Orchestra and Choir.Brandenburg Magnificat2 - Jane Sheldon

Counter-tenor Maximilian Riebl also impressed – his remarkable voice was entirely transporting, whether in duet with tenor Richard Butler or in solo. Against the more human-scale period sound of the Brandenburg, Riebl’s voice was other-worldly, haloed with a luminous quality.

The Orchestra returned after interval, minus Choir, with another Bach – the Orchestral Suite No.4 in D major. This showed the lighter nature of The Brandenburg’s sound – one that, in contrast to modern, more super-charged ensembles, is a true delight. The instruments speak in a more human tongue, their Baroque period voices and timbres a gentler call from across the ages. The passages for woodwinds (flute, recorder, oboe, bassoon) and period brass filled the Hall with the woody air of a long-gone European court dance.

To mark this landmark year, The Brandenburg commissioned international composer Elena Kats-Chernin to write a unique work for them. Kats-Chernin is a garlanded composer of renown, having written for the Sydney Olympics Opening Ceremony as well as a wide and prolific range of international commissions.

Her piece tonight for The Brandenburg, the wittily titled Prelude and Cube yanked the audience, orchestra (and choir) into the 21st century. Using the Bach Magnificat as a ‘trigger’ for her work, Kats-Chernin overlaid combinations of instruments and styles in a fast-moving, dazzling and challenging thrill-ride. Over the work’s two movements, all aspects of the players and vocalists were touched upon in an array of combinations: traditional, modern-adaptation and strikingly original.

With the almost electric voice of Christina Leonard’s soprano saxophone flying high over it all, and touches of jazz (and even blues) rising out of the music, Prelude and Cube played to the great strengths of The Brandenburg in a way almost too big for the Hall. I might have enjoyed it even more if her writing had played to their humbler side as well.

Prelude and Cube was the perfect mirror-image and foil to the Bach Magificat – though divided by almost three centuries they are both sides of the same shimmering coin, both expansive, inventive and joyous pieces.

Expansive. Inventive. Joyous. These words describe The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra under Paul Dyer perfectly. To think that Dyer’s passion has kept the Orchestra moving from strength to strength over 25 years is an inspiration for all of us – not only for any of us in the Arts, but to all of us in our daily lives.

And that is something worth celebrating.

Brandenburg Magnificat1

Published February 2014 on

The 1979 novel If on a winter’s night a traveller (non-title case intended) by post-modern writer Italo Calvino has been described as a ‘playful, post-modern puzzle’. It is a many-storeyed funhouse of thematic mirror-mazes, prismatic lenses, dead-ends, genre-mashups and multi-person narrative

In short, it is surprising that it has taken this long for it to be used as inspiration for a musical suite.

Melbourne based composer, trombonist and arranger – his bio suggests ‘sound artist’, which is, yes, closer to the truth – Tilman Robinson, has taken the Calvino novel and put it through his own prismatic lens, creating the suite Network of Lines.

tilman robinson2

Given that the original is kaleidoscopic, Robinson’s confident repurposing of Calvino’s narrative material could have been a dog’s breakfast (a slightly tripped-out, pretentious dog at that).

It says much for the composer’s taste, style and wit that it isn’t. In fact Network of Lines is a work of ethereal and pure loveliness – albeit one with a red-blooded heart. No wonder ABC Jazz’s Jessica Nicholas listed its 2012 live premier as one of her top five musical highlights of that year.

Originally composed for the 2012 APRA Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival, Network of Lines has now been released through Perth’s ever-(pleasantly)-surprising Listen/Hear Collective. It is Robinson’s debut recording and is performed here by a nine-piece electro-acoustic ensemble.

Opener ‘Winter’s Night’ sets up an accent of cool drama with an almost ‘Maiden Voyage’ ensemble passage rising out of a low, low laptop drone, and scratched at by ambient noises as it develops.

What is also set up is a chill European atmosphere that pervades the entire work. Whether the becalmed, funereal ‘In Search of An Anchor’ (with a lovely translucent piano solo from Berish Bilander), or the drunken 7/8 Balkan wedding reel of ‘Malbork, Cimmeria’ (named for the novel’s fictional setting), this music breathes the woody smoke of the Old World. And the smoke is pungent and heady. Breathe deep. tilman robinson1

Robinson’s sharp writing – and the sympatico skill of this bright, young ensemble in speaking it – is most evident on the quite amazing ‘The Void and The Iron Bridge/Shadow’s Gather’. The opening trombone theme (whispered to us, it seems, from Bartok’s Hungarian lakes) is taken up by the ensemble but staggered and slightly wonky. Soon the ensemble is marching around the lip of the void, fearlessly drunk, laughing into it’s maw. Drummer Hugh Harvey balances and holds this danse macabre beautifully, playing perfectly (imperfectly?) in and out of time with a bright empathy (and a slight grin).

Robinson’s writing throughout is exceptional – just as he avoids the obvious tone-poem trip in his reading of If on a winter’s night a traveller, he equally puts aside cliche or overt stylistic bindings in his compositions and sound-organisation. What we end up with is a truly beautiful balance of evocation and surprise, all spoken with a very human voice. You can’t help but feel each of these pieces deep within; sometimes with a small cut of pang, sometimes with the sweet kiss of caress.

His writing can be muscular too as on the twin piece ‘Lines: Enlacing’ and ‘Lines: Intersecting’. But it is the deeper, more mist-obscured pieces here that took me away to Cimmeria. The hymn-like quality of the suite’s closer ‘What Story Down There Awaits Its End?’ almost suggests a spirituality glowing through its milky haze.

Spirituality? In a work inspired by post-modern writing? Maybe not, nihilism is the religion there. But If on a winter’s night a traveller is Calvino’s work, not Robinson’s – Network of Lines is all Tilman Robinson’s work and it is quite something.

Published February 2104 on 

Saxophonist and composer Rick Robertson’s Mutiny Music suite has been ten years in the making. But in another sense it has been almost 225 years in the making – as the events which led to its story were set in motion by the famous Mutiny on the Bounty of 1789.

Robertson, born on Norfolk Island and a descendant of the Pitcairn islanders, has composed this wonderfully evocative 12-part suite around this story. He recently presented it with his band, the wonderful Baecastuff, on a sticky, sultry – yes, very Pacific – evening at Sydney’s 505.

Baecastuff – the band’s name a Norfolk word – has long been one of our musical treasures. What has always set them apart is their ability to play and breathe together as one entity;  combine that with a line-up of astonishing soloists and you have magic. Formed in 1996 they have carried the torch for tough hard-bop flavoured jazz like no other.

baecastuff live1

Which is why much of Mutiny Music came as a (warmly pleasant) surprise – the sensitivity and openness of much of the suite demanded an almost chamber-jazz touch, revealing a side to the ensemble I had not heard.

After a short history lesson from Robertson, Matt McMahon’s gentle piano octaves magically created a calm sea before our very ears with the band, a wave at a time. This was the “Mutiny” section of the suite, which built into the band blowing over ‘Big Swell’, the driving Afro-shuffle from their 1997 album of the same name.

baecastuff live3“Search for Sanctuary” featured drummer Simon Barker on the Polynesian log drum, or pate, in duet with percussionist Aykho Akhrif, creating probably the only Polynesian-Afro-Cuban mash-up you would have heard in Sydney that night. To add to the cultural gumbo, Robertson and trumpeter Phil Slater coolly intoned a traditional tune over the top of the edgy, feverish drums. The effect was hallucinogenic; your mind being pulled in a number of directions at the same time.

This cross-cultural mash-up worked beautifully across the entire suite – a testimony to Robertson’s smart writing, deep research and even deeper emotional connection to the music. Glorious old hymns such as “Come Ye Blessed” played solo by Robertson (sounding as sanctified and grizzled as an island preacher) at the start of the “Pitcairn Found” section pulled you back in time, a McMahon Rhodes solo put you in back in this humid Sydney night; the traditional “Gethsemane” (and it’s ethereal deconstruction) coming up against the almost electric-Miles skronk of “Arrival at Norfolk”.

An additional level of space-time dislocation came through the startling use of snatches of field recordings (snaps, crackles and scratchy sound intact) of the distinctive Pitcairn language. Phrases, recorded in the mid-50s and triggered from Robertson’s Apple laptop, were woven into the loping grooves (driven by that peerless driver, bassist Alex Hewetson) of “Conflict and Murder (HueHue)” and the later “Discovered (Dem Da Mus Gwen It Et)”. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t understand what was being said, the dynamic curves and rhythms of this language was music in itself.

The soloists were astounding as is expected of a Baecastuff set, and yet the suite was the greater entity – a true sum of its parts, as the band is. Mutiny Music took us all away, to the Pitcairn and Norfolk islands, to a time far in the past, to an event that had such wide historical ripples. And yet Rick Robertson and the band held us tight in the present, as all great musicians do.

After a short break, Baecastuff came back for three tunes, which was a bonus. However, as rivetting and fiery as these performances were, I couldn’t help noticing the Pacific Ocean seeping in beneath the 505 door, soughing waves all the way from Norfolk and Pitcairn, salt on its breath.

Mutiny Music will be recorded late February with a projected release date sometime late 2014.


Prior to the performance of Mutiny Music at 505, I asked Rick Robertson a handful of questions about the project. Here are his answers:

1. Rick, you are a descendant of the Pitcairn islanders, so this suite is close to your soul. What was the spark that lead to you writing ‘Mutiny Music’?

I’d heard about a recording made on Norfolk Island in 1954 of a group of islanders singing a few Hymns in the traditional way. There was only a few copies pressed by the ABC and it took months to find one. I can remember listening to it for the first time and the tears were rolling down my cheeks. A few years later I was asked to do a soundscape for a Cyclorama on Norfolk which depicted the Voyage of the Bounty and the history of the Pitcairn people. At that point I thought that I could write a piece that could be performed live that drew upon the history, music and culture of the Pitcairn and Norfolk Islanders.

2. What is it particularly about the Pitcairn culture that stands out as unique to you?

The circumstances under which the culture developed are fascinating.

A few British sailors, led by Fletcher Christian, put their Captain in a longboat and sail back to Tahiti where they pick up a dozen Women and a few Tahitian men and head back to sea to find somewhere to hide. After nearly 12 months at sea they find the wrongly charted and uninhabited Pitcairn Island. Two very different cultures living very closely together with no outside influences led to some very interesting outcomes. 10 years later when they were finally discovered there was only one surviving Englishman, a dozen polynesian women and a bunch of kids. They were pretty much left alone for the next 70 years in which time they developed a very distinctive language and a unique culture.

3. You use samples of the spoken Pitcairn language in the suite. Why did you decide to incorporate these?

Language is a very important part of any culture and the Pitcairn/Norfolk language is a very musical one. Apart from the Hymns very little of the musical culture was recorded. I found some recordings made in 1956 of spoken word and realised that the lyrical way in which the Islanders spoke could be transcribed and used as themes. So I guess it serves two purposes. It highlights and exposes the language and it provides thematic musical ideas.

4. You play with many ensembles, all of them exceptional musicians. What made you choose Baecastuff to present the suite?

Baecastuff is a Norfolk word and I’ve been working with this band for 16 years. I guess we’ve really developed something of our own over a long period of time and I really admire and trust all the guys. They are also the most creative musicians I’ve ever worked with so it wasn’t really a hard decision. I have thought about doing the show with strings and vocalists but that may be for the future.

5. Do we have a recording of ‘Mutiny Music’ to look forward to in future?

I’ve just received an Arts Council Grant to record the music. We’ll be in the studio at the end of February. Very much looking forward to it. I guess we’ll have a CD out in a few months. It will definitely help us get the show onto the international stage.

6. What are your thoughts on current music: jazz in particular and music in general?

There is so much music around these days it’s hard to keep up. I make a conscious effort to listen to new music and keep my ears open but I’ve still got a lot of music that I’ve downloaded that I haven’t listened to more than once. I have teenage kids who love music with a passion so I hear what they are listening to. Some of it I like, most of it I don’t but there’s always something to listen to within the track, whether its the vocal production or the massive bottom end. As far as current Jazz goes there’s a bunch of artists who continue to push the barriers and it’s about going to the venue and hearing them live. That’s as current as it gets.

Photos by F. Farrell

Baecastuff’s website is

Published February 2104 on