Archive for May, 2015

I have seen recently departed blues grandmaster B B King live in concert twice in my life. The experiences were separated by almost forty years in time and by an unmeasurable distance in spirit.

The first time was at Sydney’s 70’s concert-box-du-jour, the Hordern Pavilion. It was 1976 and B B King was riding high on a crest of fame and massive popularity. The Rolling Stones – respectful blues lovers to a man, and riding pretty high in the early 70s themselves – had asked him to open shows for them across a 1969 US tour. Despite having been a working musician since 1949, King found himself suddenly massively popular among young rock music lovers.

And no surprise. He came across as an accessible, enormously charismatic and easily loveable face of the Blues. Unlike the rawness of Muddy Waters or the downright frightening (if tongue in cheek) hoodoo of Howlin’ Wolf – both of whom found new white audiences in King’s wake – BB was regal, proud and calmly righteous.

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Unlike the dangerous sexuality of John Lee Hooker, King’s sexuality was slow, sweet and erotic; not the dominant, subjugating act of many a Blues lyric but a true lovers’ twinning of souls. This was reinforced by the emblematic call-and-response of King’s singing voice and that of his guitar, Lucille.

King would declaim, plead, beg forgiveness, argue, seduce and Lucille would answer – high, sweet, needling in anger or in pleasure. Deep pleasure. The legions of (mostly white) blues guitar heroes that followed King missed this point almost to a man. Their guitar interjections were entirely unrelated to the conversational, dramatic flow of the tune and lyrics. Rather than entwining with their Lucilles they happily and noisily masturbated away into the void, oblivious to her needs. (Not all: Duane Allman got it; so did Mike Bloomfield).

The 1976 concert showed King to be a consummate professional. This was urban blues, not grimy collared country blues. This was bowtie suits, a crack band (Sonny Freeman’s show band, from King’s Live at Cook County Jail album) and chunks of well-rehearsed schtick. Which by no means took anything at all away from the blazing performances and time-stopping atmosphere of the show. It had the stop-watch precision of an Atlantic Records Soul review, but it also had B B King, whose sincerity, big big heart and humility filled the room, your head, the whole night, for that two hours.

It is remembered by 70’s Sydney rock fans as the concert where B B King collapsed. Halfway through the show, he sat down, wiped his brow with a handkerchief and apologised to us all, saying he just could not go on. He had been relentless touring the world and it had taken its toll; he needed to rest. Not a one of us called for our money back; the talk outside afterwards, in the fragrant haze of post concert spliffs, was concerned for his health. We loved him and hoped he would be ok.

I saw B B King again at the 2011 Byron Bay Bluesfest. He was the reason I had gone to Byron that year: to pay my respects to the man who made me want to play the guitar all those years ago. I also had wanted to be like him: a strong man, not brutal and physically powerful, but a man with a gentle yet unbreakable strength of spirit.

At Bluesfest, looking dangerously overweight, and appearing aged even beyond his 85 years, King was helped on after a twenty minute warmup by his band. For a further twenty minutes the King of The Blues struggled to sing and play his guitar. Despite flashes of the old strength and fire, B B was sadly off-game. The enlarged close-ups of his face on the screens both sides of the stage were meant to show his face in contortions of feeling and passion but they showed only frustration and eons of weariness around his eyes.

We are in an age now when any artist who has managed to stay alive for more than fifty years is a legend, an icon and a living treasure. Gleaming Halls of Fame are full of them. The down side of course is that, at an age when most humans are allowed to slow down and rest, these legendary artists are whipped around the world doing show after show. B B King’s recent controversies concerning his manager’s mishandling of his illness cast that meal-ticket circus mentality in a harsh white light.

B B King is at rest now. He has died and the world is hushed with mourning. The level and sincerity of the mourning – across demographics far from the Blues or even music itself – is as befits a Mandela or a Marley or a John Lennon.

What better testimony to the beauty of the man that he has transcended a music birthed in the dirt and pain of slave plantations to focus the world’s love like a lens. That is a beautiful man.

Published May 2015 on megaphoneoz.com and theorangepress.net

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It was the perfect image for what we were hearing tonight. An Apple laptop, all sleek silver skin, and a few feet back on the same stage, Tommie Andersson’s theorbo, that intriguing steam-punk lute-like instrument from the Baroque. Almost three hundred years separate these two music-generating machines, but tonight, aptly, they were both very much in the present, in the service of one of the boldest leaps the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra has yet taken.

The ABO’s performance of Max Richter’s Recomposed – Vivaldi: The Four Seasons came in the second part of the evening’s program. The first half lifted us all with a warm Brandenburg Concerto 3 (I love it when the ABO does the Greatest Hits!) and a spirited Vivaldi Concerto for Two Violins (Ben Dollman and Brendan Joyce’s baroque violins twinning and sparring with real spark).

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The first half of the program finished with Christina Leonard’s soprano saxophone take on Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach’s Concerto for Flute in A Minor. It was a tough call, as the modern instrument’s natural bark and bite has to be consistently reigned in so as not to bruise the woodiness of the Baroque ensemble beneath it. But Leonard held the balance beautifully and her tone remained beautifully pearlescent (a word I must have used in every Brandenburg review I have written so far).

And so to the main event. The very fact that the ABO had included Richter’s Recomposed – Vivaldi: The Four Seasons tonight typified to me what makes them great. Too many period ensembles seem happy to keep their music precious, sealed off airlessly under glass. With Paul Dyer’s guidance and inspiration, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra has always moved forward, finding ways to constantly and consistently invent themselves over and over.

Even if this ABO Recomposed was a flop, I would have applauded the bravery and energy of the decision. Thank goodness it was luminously brilliant.

Max Richter is a minimalist composer, who counts punk rock and electronic music amongst his influences. He has taken one of the most loved pieces in the orchestral repetoire (in fact we have almost loved it to death) – Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons from 1720 – and ‘recomposed it’. He says that 75% of the notes are his, but – and this is its success – 100% of the spirit is Vivaldi’s.

It is fortunate – and a cute, post-modern trick – that because we know the piece so well, we can listen to Richter’s music through what we know.

He has also smartly retained the overarching shape of the piece – the seasons in Vivaldi’s order, four sections of three movements each – and the original instrumentation, apart from the addition of synthesizer, pedal-harp and the above mentioned laptop. The sounds generated from the synth and computer play through speakers, but the ensemble is acoustic (just bliss in the sound space of the City Recital Hall).

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There have been performances of Recomposed in the past where all instruments are mic’d and amplified. The ABO’s mix of acoustic and subtle electronics added to its effect and set the gentle frisson between the old and the new in higher relief.

Luckily Richter is that rare minimalist composer who makes one feel, instead of only count numbers. His drones and heavily moving chords beneath the sprite violin of Brendan Joyce had much emotional heft behind them. The same deep effect came from the gossamer string harmonics he floated above the ensemble. Baroque violinist Joyce gave an astounding performance that reminded us of Vivaldi’s original intent for The Four Seasons, that of a suite of four violin concertos.

Did it work? Yes, on every level. Did Paul Dyer (and Max Richter) alienate a section of the Brandenburg subscribers? Or did he remind us yet again of his energy and boundless vision for the ABO? Who knows? The older gent to my left fell asleep three times, dropping his program book; the young woman to my right had tears in her eyes as the lights went up.

That occasional division of reaction has to be the mark of any truly living musical entity, and Paul Dyer’s Australian Brandenburg Orchestra is perhaps our most alive right now.

 

Published May 2015 on megaphoneoz.com

With any worthwhile art, universality can spark from specifics. ‘Guernica’, though a reaction to Fascist bombing of one village during the Spanish Civil War, says much about us all, forever. Beethoven’s pastoral tone poems flow far from his German rivers, flowing into the sky, into the stream of time.

Saxophonist Sandy Evans’ recent project with tabla player Bobby Singh, Kapture, has come from very specific origins, yet speaks with universality. Conceived in 2011 as a collaboration with dancer/choreographer Liz Lea inspired by the life of South African anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada, the music has a life, and a voice, of its own.

Brought into being by the remarkable group of musicians on Evans and Singh’s recent recording of the piece ­– Toby Hall on drums, Brett Hirst on double bass and singer Sarangan SriranganathanKapture speaks of joy, pain, cold fear, longing and unbroken spirit.

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From the drone fade in to opener ‘Passive Resistance, No Regrets’, one is in a new place: Sriranganathan’s vocal and Evan’s soprano moving over a 14 beat Hindustan taal rhythm.

‘One Planet’ leaps into a frenetic 7/8 dance then, exhausted, we are adrift on the drone sea of ‘Explosion of Memory’ – Evans’ soprano sax swooping and gliding overhead like a gull while Toby Hall’s percussion ripples the surface or swells waves from beneath.

A number of tunes here have rhythms derived from Kathrada’s Robben Island prison number – 46864 – but, far from being a cold mathematical exercise these beats and grooves jump and leap with that assymetrical joy which is at the heart of much Indian music. Indo-Jazz fusions seems work with greater success than many other jazz fusions because they are bound by the art of improvisation. Also, because Indian music has a horizontal linearity – melody and rhythm, without vertical harmony – it makes for a sinuous union that works with a natural propulsion.kapture1

Brett Hirst’s bass solo ‘Deprivation’ was improvised to Liz Lea’s dancing in the studio and it conjures the blue darkness of Ahmed Kathrada’s prison loneliness perfectly – this flows into Evan’s melancholy ‘No Children Here’, its longing lines mirroring Kathrada’s longing for his own children. A universal pain.

Sandy Evans’ playing across the album is unique and spiritedly human, which is what we have come to expect from her. Her questing nature and driven desire to consistently move out of the confines of Jazz has shown her to be an artist going for a universal sound. That universality is present in all of her more recent music and, as I have mentioned above, is all over Kapture.

The final piece on the CD is a Bobby Singh solo performance called ‘Some See Stars’. It is inspired by a remark of Ahmed Kathrada’s concerning two Robben Island prisoners: looking out of the cell window one only saw the bars, the other saw the stars.

Sandy Evans, despite being all too aware of the bars, has always made music that only sees the stars.

 

Published April 2015 on australianjazz.net

Like Casey Golden’s music, the new album Live at Bennett’s Lane is built on an internal logic that is almost, but not quite, elegantly symmetrical.

The companion piece to his Trio’s recent studio album – Outliers – Live at Bennett’s Lane is made up of three pieces, each with an ‘Intro’ by one member of the band, and a fourth piece on its own, sans ‘Intro’.

Like Outliers, the new album sports a spacey, intergalactic cover by Marvel Comics’ Ron Frenz. In my review for australianjazz.net of Outliers I said of Golden’s music that, like Frenz’ graphic vision, it appears to come from another world. There is the coolness and openness of outer space in this music. There is also an alienness about his compositions and his approach to improvisation that is at once intriguing and endlessly surprising.

golden4As cool and spaced-out as Outliers was, this new live album is noticeably more earthbound and funky (though it is looking up at the stars). The Outlier track ‘Paralysed’ (after a lovely darkling solo piano intro from Golden) is tougher here than the studio version with the Trio conversing heatedly during the piano solo.

‘When The Talking Stops’ (Golden’s titles are mostly these fragmented opacities which rarely colour or inform the actual tune – very cool) is bright, built from light and shade; the flow of intricacies across the solos is dazzling. Equally with opener ‘The 16th Hour’, the Trio works across the top of a compositional mesh, letting the music drop through or bounce above.

Drummer Ed Rodrigues’ ‘Intro’ to ‘The 16th Hour’ builds smartly and richly from hinting brushes to full kit colours. His playing, together with bassist, Bill Williams (whose beautifully textured ‘Intro’ to closer ‘Clouded’ is a high point), is a big part of the Trio’s appeal.

This is the band which, after his first album, 2010’s Clarity, Golden decided to let gestate for over five years. All too rarely do Australian jazz groups hold the same personnel, but when they do – like the Necks – they are a treasure.golden3a

The millions (probably billions by now) who read my jazz reviews are probably quite sick of my mantra regarding recorded jazz: it makes sense that all jazz should be recorded – if recorded at all – live. It is music of the moment by its nature, after all.

This album bears out my view – the depth of playing is richer, the highs are higher, the lows are lower. It has that delicious and delirious quality that makes us come back to jazz for more of the same good stuff. The presence of an appreciative and deeply listening audience cannot help but push great players to new heights.

And, like life, there are no second takes.

 

Published April 2015 on australianjazz.net