Archive for June, 2015

The twin pillars of 1970s jazz-fusion keyboards were Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock.

They had both been through the fire of Miles Davis’s greatest bands – Hancock most notably in the envelope-pushing Quintet of the 1960s and Corea in Miles’ envelope-puncturing electric groups of the early 70s. Unlike their contemporary, jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, both had taken to electronic keyboards naturally and immediately.

Yet there was always a side to both of them that loved the big-bellied roar and the percussive stab of the acoustic piano. In 1978 they toured as a duo, facing each other across two huge concert grands like a pair of whale-riding Western duellists. The resulting album An Evening with Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea was a best-selling jazz release.

The pair were out here on a tour that centred around their performance as the openers of the 2015 Melbourne Jazz Festival, but luckily also took in other capitals. Luckily one of them was Sydney.

Their Sydney show transformed the Opera House Concert Hall into a chamber of alchemy and maze-like wonders. Hancock stated that they would start with ‘nothing’ and make… ‘something’. A few short searching chords and lines and they were into it, flying like twin wizards, playing their pianos as a game, sometimes glass bead, sometimes canvas ring sparring, but always with a cosmic grin and wink.

chick and herbie

The music grew to a depth of density very early and retained that mesh of notes and rhythms throughout the concert. Both Hancock and Corea have highly individualised approaches to harmony, and – especially in the case of Corea – rhythmic syncopation. And yet it was a wonder – among the many wonders of the night – that they rarely crowded or pushed the other into a corner. Yes, it was dense and tightly woven, but never too tight, never cloying or knottily constricted.

Their take on Hancock’s lovely 1965 piece ‘Dolphin Dance’ was so impressionistic in parts as to be unrecognisable, as were most pieces they played – but play was the thing here: the two are among a handful of the world’s greatest improvisers, so as soon as they could play with the music, they did!

During some of Corea’s romantic tunes the two stretched the harmony to new areas of dissonance that recalled the 20th Century classical shaman Bela Bartók. Yet, on Hancock’s funky groovy ‘Cantaloupe Island’ they pulled back to the blues, the fruits and the roots.

Sitting next to the two big wooden concert grands were two synth keyboards. Apart from a little ‘colour’ here and there these were reserved for a light-hearted duet of electronic beats and bleeps which Hancock seemed to relish, but which broke the spell.

The closer of the show had the two disassembling Corea’s evergreen, ‘Spain’ with the audience involved in singing a huge E major chord (muso concerts always have great crowd singing) when conducted by Corea. We also got to scat with Herbie – answering his increasingly abstracted lines.

These things gave a little sweet relief from the relentless genius of the piano improvisations. Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock gave us a ride that was uncompromising in its artistry – a few I spoke with afterwards found it too dense, too unrelenting.

I must say I am still processing the experience, and that tells me it is a good thing. Jazz needs to jolt, art needs to jolt.

At an age when many jazz musicians’ faculties have become blunt or stunted – or, worse, touchingly predictable – Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock remain seekers and hungry explorers. One of them alone is a thrill, but taken together – with each pushing, challenging and turning on the other – they are a once-in-a-lifetime experience for anyone who digs the art of the improviser.

Published June 2015 on megaphoneoz.com

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And into my life just at the right time comes Sydney’s On The Stoop.

Saxophonist/accordianist/vocalist Serge Stanley‘s 6-piece (sometimes seven, sometimes nine-piece) superband is my new favourite Zappa-flavoured, Spaghetti Western, gypsy-eyed, banjo powered, 1920’s/2040’s, Newtown,  Balkan wedding band. They are wild and silly, drunk and serious. They leave roomfuls of people with huge grins across their faces – people who really couldn’t give a shit about the jazz luminaries who people On The Stoop, people who should (and do) give a shit about Serge’s choicely barbed lyrics – sticking it to the bankers and wankers and wowsers and posers (while making your whole legs tap and jig).

On The Stoop 2

From Eastern European skirls to corduroy banjo songs, from truck-sized Big Leg Emma (Google her!) funky rockers to Da Blooz par excellence, I think I really do love it all. Their self-titled debut album is all this and more. Go buy it.

I asked Serge Stanley a few questions about the where, why and how of On The Stoop. And this is what he said.

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1. Where does On The Stoop come from; how did the band start?
A stoop is an American word for the stairs in front of a tenement building. I used to live in New York City from 2003 – 2007. Living the dream in the big apple made me write a lot of very dark songs, some of them while standing out front on the stoop. When I came home, Dirk our guitarist and a musician I have been playing music with for many years, suggested we call the band On The Stoop. The initial material we played was quite dark and brooding, reflecting my time in NYC. Gradually however the sound of the band however has gone through a kind of phoenix-like cathartic revolution. Our music has evolved to become uncompromising and ultimately optimistic. I’d like to make music that flies in the face of the madness and adversity that life can throw at us.
2. You have some heavy-hitters on board from the world of jazz and experimental music. How did you pick your players?
It’s true we are very fortunate to have musicians in the band who are as accomplished as they are. I’ve admired the playing of everybody in On The Stoop by seeing them play in other bands. The rhythm section is composed of the most versatile musicians I’ve played with. Many of my tunes have these massive atonal horn lines so it was fun getting people to play who wanted to play kind of semi-unusual stuff. As a saxophone player myself I’m influenced by jazz, even though I wouldn’t consider myself a jazz musician. So most of the people in the band inevitably have jazz and experimental music backgrounds. I’ve made squeaky noises previously in other experimental music bands so it wasn’t hard to incorporate that into On The Stoop as well.
On the Stoop33. I hear Balkan music, country, Zappa, 20’s jazz and raw blues in there. Where does your music come from?
I always wanted to be in a punk rock band. When I was a teenager I went to private school in the inner city. I remember cruising down Yurong St Darlinghurst in my school blazer in the 80’s and seeing all the dodgy looking rocker people. Skinny black jeans, lank black hair, lanky pale arms and legs. I wanted to grow up to be just like them. The obstacle was I was 13, living in the Eastern suburbs, was healthy and played clarinet. Since then I’ve always been perennially uncool. But I love punk rock. A lot of the music I like has a nihilistic, I don’t care energy in it. For that reason I’m influenced by musicians like Mark Simmonds, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy. Bands like The Buzzcocks, Wire, The Fall, The Beasts of Bourbon, Tom Waits, Howling Wolf, John Hurt, Captain Beefheart, Taraf de Haidouks and many more from all sorts of genres.

4. You seem to wrap your satirical and fight-the-power lyrics in rollicking good time music – is it more important to get the message across or to get people boogying?
These days I like to have a rollicking good time when I’m playing gigs so that’s the kind of music I’ve been doing lately. I’m not interested in whether people agree with my views, my ideas aren’t that unusual and we live in a free country. As long as I play well and have a good time and the audience likes it then that’s what I call a satisfying gig. Social justice is in this country is definitely on my mind as well. I guess it’s made it’s way into the tunes. I’ve always had a healthy distrust of preachers, and I think wiser people tend not to hang on to their opinions too tightly. However if you’ve got something to say and manage to say it respectfully and keep people listening and having a good time then you’ve probably done a good show.

5. What is next for On The Stoop?
I’d like to do some more touring. Our last few trips have gone really well. Lots of fun, the band had a good time and was well received. I’m writing a bunch of new tunes, got a lot of material for a new album. The new music is going to be pretty angular I think. Hopefully a little more dangerous. A lot rockier. The band is in a good creative position at the moment to stretch the paradigm to try some interesting things. Lately I’ve been listening to a band called James Chance and The Contortions and a Japanese 80’s group called The Plastics. I’m hoping my next recording will be inspired by a bit of that stuff.

6. What are you thoughts on music today: jazz in particular and the wider range of music in general?
I love the state of the music industry at the moment. In Sydney there are some wonderful musicians doing some very cool things. We’re lucky in this town to have such a great pool of talent. There is the tendency for us to think that there are better or more inspiring musicians overseas however that’s not necessarily true. I’ve certainly been massively inspired by the musicians in the local scene here. I’ve been getting into listening to random music on Spotify and have found some fantastic music I’ve never heard before. They say it’s hard to make a living as a musician, but it’s always been hard. So what’s changed? And that has never stopped me writing or playing.

Published May 2015 on theorangepress.net