Archive for April, 2015

Watching tenor colossus Dale Barlow tonight at Foundry 616 blowing alongside young altoist Michael Griffin, my mind went back to when I first saw Barlow play, way way back in the hazy day.

At an age not much older than Griffin is now, Barlow used to – in the words of my friend Greg L – “decapitate everyone in the room”. Of course, he continues to astound and his story, Jazz Messengers and all, is well know.

Griffin’s trajectory may not be as well documented yet, though for a younger player it is impressive. A semi-finalist at Washington DC’s 2103 Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition, Griffin is rising rapidly and capable of more than a little decapitation of his own.

griffin cannon3To see the two men working together, obviously digging each other’s playing was a thrill that pointed to this being one of the jazz gigs of the year for me. Griffin was overjoyed to be locking horns, literally, with the great Dale; Barlow, for his part, equally seemed to enjoy having the younger player’s sparkling alto nipping at his heels, pushing him into some hair-raising tenor work.

The night was sold as a Tribute to Cannonball and Coltrane, yet – rather than trot out the obvious – Griffin smartly used the first set to recreate the fire and brimstone of Cannonball Adderley Quintet in Chicago, the 1959 album which featured John Coltrane, as well as the Miles Davis Quintet at the time (sans Miles).

The tunes are exceptional hard-bop blowing vehicles and Griffin and Barlow rode straight through them. The band, The Jon Harkins Trio – Harkins on piano, Noel Mason bass and Tim Geldens drums – were high on the ride as well. Harkins’ piano was sometimes muscle, sometimes sinew; the tough physicality of his playing matching the attack of the horns.

Opener ‘Limehouse Blues’ was a burner with Griffin leaping into his solo and turning the heat up early. Barlow answered with equal fahrenheit. Pins dropped. Mouths gaped.

Griffin, after a short spoken welcome – he is a personable and easily funny host ­– took us through the ballad ‘Stars Fell on Alabama’. Like Charlie Parker, Griffin is not only an eighth-note blazer, his ballad playing is lyrical and considered, his lines leaning into the beauty of the melody.

John Coltrane’s fractured and tricksy ‘Grand Central’ had Barlow blowing at his most electrifying. During his solo something clicked and his scything runs and leaps of melody lit us all up. Throughout the performance, the Harkins trio kept all of Coltrane’s little rhythmic shots in place under the solos without losing their collective minds.

The second set was given over to a selection of Adderley and Coltrane pieces – once again, not going for the obvious. All soloists navigated the cycling changes of Trane’s brilliant ‘Just Like Sonny’, Harkins in particular (to my ear) taking them out to their harmonic edges, just as Trane would have meant it to be.

‘Naima’, the only truly obvious choice of the night (how could you not?), was rendered un-obvious by its reading on the alto, rather than the tenor. Once again, Griffin took to the melody like a lover, teasing great beauty out of Naima’s dusky head.

griffin cannon1

Half-jokingly apologising to the Trio for the speed of the tune they were about to play, Griffin lit into ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ in triple-time, summoning Parker’s fire and Cannon’s joy. His solo left more than a few of us decapitated, but in the sweetest way. Barlow’s solo reinforced his rep as one of our most thrilling and consistent tenors; his unmistakeable voice on the instrument, his ability to create at the highest level is something else.

The idea of the “perfect expression” of an artform – one where, like a shark or a Gibson Les Paul guitar, no further evolution is needed, or indeed, wanted – is a contentious one. Does the Blues need to go anywhere else?

Jazz, especially in its hard-bop, post-bop or, simply, acoustic form (I avoid the term ‘mainstream’ because it is meaningless) seems to have everything it needs.

Especially when one encounters players such as Griffin and Barlow and Harkins, the words ‘perfect expression’ seem to express its wild and sleek perfection just fine.

 

 
Published April 2105 on australianjazz.net 

 

 

 

Prior to reviewing any new music, I make a point of strictly avoiding reading any other reviews of it. I mean, objectivity is all, brother. Ob-ject-iv-ity.

But by the time I was accidentally halfway though a (bad) review of Luke Escombe‘s new CD, Creeper Vine – in a hip web publication mind you – it was too late. No matter, the reviewer just did not ‘get’ Escombe’s music and blew it off in a few short paras (using a few short words).

His loss. The scribe had obviously not really listened in. He also was, just as obviously, oblivious to the work of Warren Zevon, Kinky Friedman, Dr John, Donald Fagen (or maybe Walter Becker, who is the more ‘rock’ of the Steely Dan duo), let alone the masterworks of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and the great blues dramatists.

For this is where Escombe’s music sits: in the tradition of satirical rock’n’roll, urbane jazz boogaloo, sardonic rockabilly and sharp post-modern blues.

escombe 1In my OrangePress review of Escombe’s 2012 album, Mantown, I wrote “At the very end of the liner-note thank-yous… Northern Beaches singer Luke Escombe adds the names of Keith Richards and the Rev. Gary Davis. If he hadn’t thanked them, I would have – the music here takes so much snake-hipped groove from the former and more than a little pulpit-shakin’ drama from the latter.”

Creeper Vine takes this fire-and-brim-Stones vibe up a notch. It is almost as if he and his rip-roarin’ band, The Corporation, is trying to jam an LP’s worth of energy into this six-track EP. Opener ‘Drink More Coffee’ is hyper-ventilating rock’n’roll with guitarist Aaron Flower‘s solo popping all the buttons. Title track ‘Creeper Vine’ name checks both Westfields and The Taliban in a modern parable of quiet desperation. ’30 Year old Woman’ is a very funny tale of a man who don’t dig the bimbos and wants an older woman even though “she might have a coupla kids/Might be married to a cop”.

Julia Gillard is the object of Escombe’s red-blooded yet Left-leaning desires in “Julia” (“Come back, Julia”) and “Axe in the House” tells the tale – in a bone-chilling Dr John whisper – of potential mariticide by lopping tool. Scary but funny. Very funny.escombe 2

Closing track is the expletive-spattered ‘Industrial Action’ which combines the Australian tradition of boss-hating with the equally Australian tradition of swearing like fuck. Drummer Jamie Cameron and Harry Brus on bass blast the track – and indeed the whole album – along with glee and heft. Michael McGlynn‘s production throughout goes for a roaring, very alive and living, sound – a sound rooted in the wildness of early 50’s rock and rockabilly.

Creeper Vine is not only great fat rock’n’boogie but smart, funny and – virtually alone in the roots genre – original and literate. I mention Zevon, Kinky et al earlier only to place Luke Escombe in their ‘outsider’ company. Like them he is his own nifty little genre of one. And long may he run.

Luke Escombe and the Corporation launch Creeper Vine at Lazybones Lounge on Saturday April 4.

Published April 2015 on theorangepress.net

 

I have come late to the amazing playing of Sydney’s Michael Griffin.

Walking into an Andrew Dickerson Quintet gig off the street I was floored by this pale young man utterly flying on that most nimble of the jazz horns – the alto.

It seems I am just one in a long line of admirers, many notable, of Griffin’s mastery. US jazz legend Jimmy Heath has said “Michael Griffin is a fine saxophonist who loves Charlie Parker’s style as I did when I did,” and none other than Vincent Herring sums it all up well when he says “Michael Griffin has his feet firmly rooted in tradition and his ear leaning towards the future.”

The judges at Washington DC’s 2103 Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition obviously agreed, voting Griffin through to the semifinals.

pic by Aaron Blakely

pic by Aaron Blakely

Griffin’s debut album – Unexpected Greeting – showcases his startling playing. It also expressed so much of what is good and eternal about jazz – swing, verve, colour and that jumping joy that be-bop encapsulated so well.

As well as six Griffin originals – standouts are the hard driving opener “Hotel Hollywood” and the fleet and blazing “Flair” (reminiscent of Art Pepper’s frantic “Surf Ride”) – the Quintet covers four standards, with guest vocalist Briana Cowlishaw giving a lovely rendering of “Almost Like Being In Love” and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” getting deep inside the wit and the urbane poetry of the lyric on each.

In march, for AustralianJazz.net I asked Michael Griffin six questions about his art and his album. Here are his responses:

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 AustralianJazz.net: Are you happy with the way your debut album, Unexpected Greeting turned out?

Michael Griffin: Yes I am very happy with the way my album has turned out. I feel there is something in it for everyone which is really what I want. I want to do what I love and I will never compromise what I love and the way I play but at the same time I always have a desire for everyone to enjoy my music. Hardcore jazz fans and also someone who doesn’t know much about jazz. I always hope that I can somehow appeal to everyone.

AJ: Your playing and compositions obviously reflect the influence of Charlie Parker and the hard bop players like Cannonball Adderley. Who is of particularly influence in shaping your conception?

MG: As mentioned I clearly am greatly influenced by Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley, I also really love Sonny Rollins so much and of course Coltrane. So many, but those four are huge. I never get tired of learning from all of them. In more recent times I have also really enjoyed studying the work of Kenny Garrett and Vincent Herring. For me I love so much the modern bop players, especially Kenny and Vincent. One group I love is Vincent and Eric Alexander together, now those guys really cook. Hard swinging players which are constantly building and taking from previous influences to keep swinging hard and using the bop language as it develops.

AJ: What is it to you about hard-swinging, bop-flavoured jazz that you prefer over other forms of jazz?

MG: For me i enjoy virtually all jazz, however the jazz that speaks to me the most and gets me passionate is the hard swinging bop. So much in it. It’s an amazing language which to me is the absolute best part of jazz. Full of the blues, soul, the entire jazz language . When you have a band that’s cooking and really swinging and someone that is just locking in with that groove and burning full of ideas, to me nothing better. It’s the music I hear in my head all the time. To me I also I think there are so many great things in jazz however the best thing of all is that addictive swing feel. People lose sight of that and it’s the worst thing to lose. Out of all the things in jazz that is the most powerful thing in jazz which can hook in anybody. It’s never uncool to swing. But it has to be done well, When it’s done properly with energy and intensity and tight and full of passion it’s the most incredible ride that I always envisage myself being a part of.

AJ: Why did you choose to add the vocal tracks to the recording?

MG: Adding vocal tracks to the album was a decision I made, number one, because I thought it sounded good, it’s fun to mix things up. However also because people like vocals, they connect with them and I always want to give everyone something they can grab onto and get something out of what I’m doing. If I can give them something they can hold on to then they can stick with me for the rest of the journey, and are open to hearing other adventures i may introduce them to. I want to take everyone with me, not just the purists.

AJ: What are your thoughts on music in general and jazz in particular today?

MG: There is always good music being made, jazz will never die. Too many passionate people which always fall in love with this music and dedicate their lives to it. It’s not something which you just listen to every now and then. When you get bitten by the jazz bug it takes over your life. The only thing I will say is for people to try and make the same effort presenting jazz to audiences that other artists do presenting rock or pop etc. I love bands that make the effort to get people’s attention and keep them interested in jazz, There are a few out there, but I especially liked the Brassholes, Showing people that horn sections don’t just belong at band camp but could make today’s pop tunes sound awesome. It also makes jazz seem less foreign. A great idea and people loved what they were doing. We’re playing somewhat challenging music but let’s do all we can to invite people in and take them with us.

AJ: What is next for Michael Griffin?

MG: Next install for me is I’m looking to hopefully move to New York soon. I had an amazing time last time I was there and I want to live there, develop myself and get as good as I can and see how far up the world Jazz ladder I can climb.

 

 

When it comes to new music, most times I have to go looking for the good stuff. But sometimes the good stuff comes looking for me.

Lunching with my wife at Hobart’s MONA on the last day of a holiday in early January, I was transfixed by the music wafting like a perfumed breeze up from the stage in the greenspace below.

I made a mental note to discover who made such lovely sounds and which instruments gave it its unique musical tang. But not long after returning to Sydney, John Robinson – oud master ­– sent me out the album of his new project, Horse & Wood. It was he and his musical partner, Bukhchuluun Gangburged who had made the music that I had heard and loved at MONA.

horse & wood 2

Robinson, I knew from various performances in diverse settings – even including jazz collaborations – and have long been aware of his mastery and great soulful flair on al’ Oud (‘the wood’ in Arabic). Gangburged’s instrument is the Morin Khuur, the Mongolian horse-head fiddle, and so the name of their collaboration, and of their debut album is, fittingly and simply, Horse & Wood.

Horse & Wood is the new fruit of Robinson and Gangburged’s coming together at the 2011 Woodford Folk Festival. Working from a traditional folk base, the two spin their music out in many directions – after all, these instruments were not born to play together, so you have Mongolian/Turkish fusions, Mongolian/bluegrass mash-ups and even a Mongolian/Hot Club meld of the Gitane-smoky gypsy jazz standard ‘Dark Eyes’. horse & wood 1

It all works beautifully because at its heart is folk music – that music that is without vanity, that music which tells tales of the everyday, tales of the unchangeables such as birth, weather, pain, wild wedding parties and graves on windswept bare grassy hills.

Gangburged’s fiddle adds a beautiful, mellow colour to the music but his singing is what astounds. As well as a naturally warm voice, he also uses the technique of Mongolian Khoomei or throat singing. My soft, pink Western ears initially found its guttural texture rough and often harsh, but on the next listening I could hear the veins of wood, the rough skin of stone, the weathered leather of saddles in its grain. And when he switches to harmonic singing – a dark-toned whistle that is as unearthly as it is transporting ­– I hear wind through pine needles, shaking off snow.

Whenever I hear music that has deep, deep roots in folk music, there is a small moment when its depth and lack of vain pride makes most other musics – jazz, classical, the more puffed-up forms of rock and roll – seem absurdly pompous and cloying, overworked with messy filigree.

Of course that moment passes, but I am left with a small barb, a little ache for that sweet simplicity. Horse & Wood, the duo and the album, soothes my ache just that little bit. It is already a favourite.

 

Published March 2015 on megaphoneoz.com