Archive for March, 2015

There is a place called Americana – not to be confused with that all too real country, America – where everything is larger than ordinary life, where feelings run hot and sorrow can make the world come to an end at least once an hour. It is a place where the population is not bothered by parking tickets (unless they lead to a stretch in jail) or taxes (unless the taxman closes down the farm); a place where all women have great strong hearts, which are easily bruised, and every man will gladly destroy his life for a woman with a great big strong bruised heart.

Not to be found on any map, Americana lives in the grooves of records and in guitars, bars and cars – it lies at the intersection of country, blues and rock’n’roll (specifically rock’n’roll of the Sun Studios flavour).

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Central Coast songwriter Lianna Rose proves that you don’t have to be American to make great Americana. She proves it – almost too easily – on her new album Travellers, released this March. Over thirteen sharply penned songs, she covers rockabilly, ballads, pop-country and rock and roll. The rise and fall of the album – its sequencing following an arc from rattling double-time openers ‘Willy Wagtail’ and ‘Big Ass Town’ through to the middle set of ballads such as the title track ‘Travellers’ and ‘Pillar to Post’, heating up again for the last barrage of rockers: ‘Cowboy’ and ‘Take its Toll’ – gives Travellers a strong cohesion and makes it a vivid and cinematic journey through Rose’s own little isthmus of Americana.

Great songs, honestly rendered and beautifully played. Her voice is capable of raising the roof, Wanda Jackson style, on the rockabilly tracks yet can fall away to a blue reverie on the deeply felt ‘Travellers’. The innocently sung ‘Somebody Save Me’ could easily be a pop hit with its lush hook and perfect song craft.

That the small group of crack players on the album can cover all of these grooves and moods so adeptly is no surprise; with players such as Matt Fell and Dai Pritchard on board. Pritchard brings some of his Rose Tattoo mojo to ‘Cowboy’ and ‘Take it Toll’, his slide guitar weaving in an around Rose’s voice, summoning that hair-raising spirit that Duane Allman did so damn well. LIANNA-FRONT-COVER-TRAVELLERS-copy-Small

Unlike much of current Americana, Travellers comes from an honest and deep place. As a genre, Americana can be too often overburdened with fake authenticity and second-hand experience. Rose writes and sings from a place of experience, with all its hurts and joys, and the songs breathe with the salty (and slightly bourbon-sweet) breath of real life.

An American poet once said “I am like a country song; all my sads are real.” That could apply to Travellers but, in Lianna Rose’s case, so are all her happys.

 

Lianna Rose’s website is http://liannarose.net

 

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The cover of the new Strides album The Youth, The Rich & The Fake shows an Indian sadhu (white and red painted face and festooned topknot as befits your local holy man) taking a nice deep drag on a chillum of (i would say) potent bhung. If you want to know how the gentlemen is feeling, all you have to do is step inside and let the Strides be your guide.

Australia’s premier proponents of reggae and dancehall, the 8-piece Strides have released their best yet in The Youth, The Rich & The Fake, their thirdThe band is already bristling with championship musicians, rappers and singers, and for the new one they have added guests to the party such as soul sister Ngaiire and Sierra Leonean ragga man Blacker Conteh.

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Across the twelve tracks they spread their message, their virtuosity and many moods, yet without ever losing the roots(-reggae) of what they do so well. The variety and scope is wide as a Barbados beach, yet all are lit by the same sunshine. The easy reggae of ‘History’ with the sinewy horns of Jeremy Rose and Nick Garbett to the fore; the smooth croon of frontman, reggae master Ras Roni, over ‘Murawina’; the clipped ska of ‘Wizard’, with its suggestion of Horace Silver‘s ‘Song For My Father’ under it all; the mellow yet tough dub of ‘One for One’, the sort of dark groove that Fat Freddy’s Drop do so well; the sunny hymn to Jah’s love, ‘One Heart’; so many moods.

Hip-hop flavours add sweet-and-sour to ‘No Drama’ (shades of Slim Shady) and closer ‘Rude Boys’, rapper Ltl Gzeus’ joy-of-sex rap over a spooky funk reggae chug. Ngaire’s two features, ‘Rasta Live’ and especially ‘One for One’ are warm and smooth as skin.

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Standout track ‘Arnhem Land’ shows alto saxist Rose and piano player Danny Pliner stretch out on their jazz chops: Rose’s solo climbs like a snake or like a vine seeking sunlight at the top of the jungle; Pliner’s piano solo goes some dissonant places that would even make our Indian holy man sit up and take notice.

Worked up at Campbelltown’s Art Centre in gritty Western Sydney and recorded in a Byron Bay rainforest studio (U-Live), The Youth, The Rich & The Fake is a unique and uplifting statement of reggae music by one of our – and one of the World’s – best.

 

Published March 2015 on theorangepress.net

What does the term ‘experimental music’ mean? Forty years after Jon Hassell, sixty years after John Cage and Stockhausen, the term, like ‘indie’, is only a shell of its former, dangerous, meaning.

We lend half an ear without particularly ‘listening’ to its strange bleeps and glassy lunarscapes on video games, behind the action of blockbuster movies and – I could be wrong – I may have even heard some Cluster wafting across Aisle 5 at Coles last Thursday.

If the cultural blizzard/shitstorm of the Twentieth Century taught us anything, it is Music is Music. Sure, many cling to Genre as if it is a raft in a howling sea – Blues for example. But beyond those museum pieces, new music continues to be made. In one sense, anything that looks forward is experimental music.

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Sydney group Forenzics is a four piece improvising collective who make music that is full of heart and beauty – contradicting the charge that experimental music is cold, cerebral and can only be appreciated on a mathematical level. The fact that it is improvised puts it theoretically in the jazz camp, and the four – founding guitarists Matthew Syres and Dirk Kruithof, drummer John Wilton and trumpeter Joe Cummins – play telepathically together like a great be-bop band or, more accurately, like a smoking’ free jazz combo. They listen to and feed off each other, growing the music in intensity and trajectory as they go. But that is as close to jazz as it gets.

Their fourth album together is Malign. It is completely improvised in the studio, with no overdubs, edits or preconceptions. The mission statement of our intrepid auranauts is to “play what you feel without limits and boundaries, only that (the music) must be created there and then with no restrictions on genre, texture, format or structure”.

It could be a bloody mess. But of course it is not – Malign is beautiful.forenzics2

The influence of 70s ‘ambient’ (another scoured-out word) trumpet visionary, Jon Hassell is evident from opener ‘a dusk service/sun checks’. Behind Cummins’ darkly glowing trumpet the guitars roll and pitch. In fact, across Malign the guitars rarely sound like guitars; they are used as sound generators to give the effects something to chew on and spit out as drones, luminous shafts of sound or robotic breathing. The occasional chord or arpeggio breaks the alien surface now and again but it is mainly beautifully controlled textures that the two focus on.

Texture also is the approach of drummer John Wilton. Even though there is the occasional muffled African heartbeat – such is on the Afro-Hassell ‘you’re entitled’ – Wilton brilliantly uses his percussives to scratch, dent and mottle the smooth surface of the guitars. It is a hard call for a drummer to take away the dimension of pulse-rhythm from his playing – very few could do it this well.

The influence of Miles Davis‘ earth-shaking Bitches Brew also stretches across Forenzics’ music. Cummins’ trumpet is the humanising element that gives Malign much of its surprising accessibility. Never FXed into unrecognisability, his pure tone is harmonised on ‘song games’, heavily reverbed on ‘stone cold crazies’ and echoed-up on ‘cubists’ yet remains a bright yet subtle acoustic voice above the strangescapes beneath.

Cummins’ most affecting improvisation is the entirely unadorned elegy he plays over ‘acid nekk’. Beneath him, a distorted drone of dying machines blackens the earth. Electronic twitches and rattles and hums are the death throes of an electronic  junk pile. The slow and sombre trumpet line over this machine graveyard somehow sums up something about the way we live – something indefinable. Experimental music is not supposed to affect one this deeply.

But it does. In fact all of Malign does. Yes, like all good modern art it asks to be listened to on its own terms. Yet it does not push away but creates a place for the listener to go and to explore as it happens. Unlike too much ‘experimental’ music, it includes; it does not exclude.

Published March 2015 on australianjazz.net and theorangepress.net

When I reviewed Melbourne pianist/composer ade ish’s Trio album a little over a year ago I said that his 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.

That joyous Bru-vibe is reinforced on the eponymous debut album of his new project with drummer Chelsea Allen, who also played on the Trio recording. Reinforced, painted in higher relief and expanded upon.

The ishs/Allen Project has moved in a texturally tougher direction, bringing in electric bassist Paul Bonnington and brass player Ee Shan Pang. Yet this toughness gladly doesn’t bruise the music; it largely serves to add energy to the inherent exuberance of ish’s and Allen’s music.

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Drummer Allen’s influence across the ten tracks is marked as The ishs/Allen Project has a heart that beats deep rhythm thoroughout. The pretty “Welcoming Spring” jumps out with a bright Latin groove, moving in and out of odd time signatures with loose-limbed ease. ish’s solo here dextrously moves among the tricky pulses like a strong swimmer mastering changing ocean currents. Allen’s solo against the band’s figures is full-blooded and equally joyous.

“Above the Desert” has Shan Pang’s Miles-ish trumpet over a funky pedal-point groove, and “Little Flower” is a Steely Dan flavoured cousin to Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower”. Rhythm and groove abounds.

“Understanding” was a solo standout on the previous Trio recording, and here the arching melody gets the full band treatment, augmented by ishs’ and Allen’s wordless vocal texture. This device vocal (male and female harmonising in octaves) is also used on the rhapsodic “Handholding” to great effect – it reminds me of Jackie Cain and Roy Kral from the 50s and some of the vocal experiments of the 70s such as McCoy Tyner’s “Inner Voices” – balmy, warm and lush.ishs allen2

The uniqueness of the vocal thing shows the originality of the arrangements here – ishs and Allen use anything at their disposal to realise the tune at hand. “Science” opens with molecular piano notes under Shan Pang’s trumpet intro before moving into a robust diatonic melody (the sort Keith Jarrett used to do when his afro was bigger). “Train” builds its Latin groove a beat at a time until it rolls off under its own humid steam. “Veiled Beauty” takes the jazz ballad to a new place, more colour than shape – very sensitively done.

The closing tune, a nostalgic co-write between the band leaders titled “Guildford Lane” after where they met, has Shan Pang laying out. Piano and drums paint a sepia tone-poem that is emblematic of what is good and right about this group.

Too much current jazz can be wilfully challenging and self-consciously outré. Often this approach leaves emotion and human connection behind, as if in fear that simple and direct expression in some way devalues the art.

The music of ade ishs – and now the music he makes on this album with Chelsea Allen – is far from simple, yet the expression is direct and heartfelt. There are moments when it can become almost too pretty, but that is the risk one takes if making your music inclusive and not exclusive to your fellow human beings.

Dave Brubeck, when studying with French composer Darius Milhaud, was told by the modern master to never be afraid of a good simple melody. And that never did Bru any harm at all, either.

Published March 2015 on australianjazz.net

 

Jazz at its best is a music of conversations. The dialogue between soloists and rhythm section – whether lover’s whispers, sibling bickering or gospel shouting-match – can take the music out to some fantastic and funky places.

Solo jazz performances are, unlike group efforts, conversations with oneself: in the hands of a pretender, touchingly masturbatory; in the hands of a master, deeply meditative.

On his new album – The Voyage of Mary and William – eminent Sydney pianist/composer, Matt McMahon reveals himself even further as a true master of the art we call Jazz. Over twelve solo pieces, McMahon converses with both himself, the history of Jazz and everything in life and music that has brought him to this point.

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He also, unconsciously, converses with past generations of his family, and his Irish heritage, that have physically brought him to this point as well.

For these twelve pieces were recorded (beautifully) with David Nicholas as purely improvised performances, with no thematic or conceptual rope for McMahon to pull himself along. It all came from the magic air.

But not quite. After he had finished he listened back and realised that there were spirits and ghosts from his Irish past, a past that reached back generations, hovering in and around the music. As he puts it, the Irish current was “not necessarily in the foreground, but somewhere underneath or behind the sounds I was hearing”.

So the tracks – and the album – were named, after the fact, for episodes in the voyage of his ancestors, William and Mary Navin, who crossed the oceans from Tipperary to Australia in 1847. The titles fit and turn all of these perfectly realised solo pieces into deep, still meditations that stop time and open pools of wonder below and star-choked skies above.

“Island of Destiny”, which opens the album, sets the spiritual pace with one note following another, and then another and so on like a language building a word at a time. “The Winding Path” surprises, along its winding way, with small dissonances and gently chafing harmonic quirks. Throughout The Voyage of Mary and William McMahon uses overt “jazz” harmony sparingly – and impeccably – giving all the tracks an astringent and faintly austere chamber quality.

The next three pieces seem to descend emotionally by degrees into a place of sadness the colour of Atlantic Ocean deeps –­ the colour of life’s bruise, indigo and blackened. “Embarkation” with its suspended chords which never seem to set foot on the earth; “Lamentation”, sadder still, sagging with sadness; and “The Creaking Night”, a nadir of nihilistic low notes rumbling beneath.

Then the storm that is “Tempest Within” hits and it is a tumble like rolling surf, churning and never letting you up for air. The only wildly rhythmic and propulsive piece on The Voyage of Mary and William, it builds into a kind of insanity that hits a wall of silence at bang on three minutes. And that silence rings like a bell, and we are back down into “The Second Dream”, one of the loveliest things here.

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“The Second Dream” is McMahon inventing a perfect jazz standard as he goes. Nostalgic reverie and half-remembered perfumes drift in and out of his notes as he plays. It is deeply felt and greatly affecting – as is all this music: McMahon connecting emotionally to the music throughout.

The final piece, “The Stranger’s Land” conveys the alienscape that Australia must have seemed to Mary and William after European juniper-green Tipperary. Its dry, ochre notes bring to mind the landscapes of Australian painter Fred Williams – all scraped background earth with flecks of tree-stump, mulga and rust-iron. The title may have been given later but the tone-poetry is there, aptly so.

The Voyage of Mary and William is Matt McMahon’s first recording of solo piano improvisation. In his illuminating liner notes to the CD, he describes the piano – a machine of wood, ivory and wire he remains obviously still smitten by – as “this wondrous invention”. The same descriptor could be applied to The Voyage of Mary and William. It is all invention and, yes, it is pretty bloody wondrous.

Published February 2015 on australianjazz.net