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.
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.
“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 www.baecastuff.com.au
Published February 2104 on australianjazz.net