Archive for December, 2017

We love Andrew Dickeson.

The Sydney jazz drummer has long been the epitome of elegance, both in his playing and in his style. Always dressed to the nines and with that secret smile as he plays (what does he know that we don’t?), Dickeson is a direct link to everything that is good about jazz and the fine art of jazz drumming. A modern classicist, it is always a delight to hear him play.

His new album – Is That So? – is a delight too. Recorded with US tenor player, Eric Alexander, its nine tracks cover wide and fertile ground, from streamlined bop to bossa nova and Afro-Cuban grooves, all serving to showcase Dickeson’s versatility and impeccable taste. Andrew Dickeson2

Eric Alexander is an excellent partner for this project as are Wayne Kelly on piano and bassist Ashley Turner. All four are coming from the same good place – that of 50’s and early 60’s jazz where the modernism of hard bop and ‘cool’ had formed into an alloy that was one of the perfect expressions of the art form.

From the opener – title track ‘Is That So?’ a rarely-played Duke Pearson tune – you can hear the quartet’s perfect dynamic balance. A sublimely swinging piece, its high point is Dickeson’s melodic drum break that, typically, says all it needs to say with taste, precision and economy.

Alexander’s nimble solo on the classic ‘For all We Know’ shows him also to be a master of restrained swing – though he can produce flashes of fire out of the smoulder.

The Ahmad Jamal-inspired ‘On The Trail’ shows pianist Kelly’s cool empathy: chiming comping giving way to a sparkling solo. Ahmad would approve.

The Rogers and Hammerstein chestnut ‘Surry With The Fringe On Top’ is here a totally different vehicle to the horse-drawn original. Dickeson mentions in his notes that he wanted to take a more modern look at the tune, so the band has stripped it down and built it back up into an exhilarating mix of jagged, almost Monk-like riffing juxtaposed against streamlined swing sections. And it works – beautifully.

Andrew Dickeson1Ballads are often where even the best swingers come unstuck, but the reading of ‘To Love and Be Loved’ here is perfect – the balance of all elements, the emotional rise and fall, are like faceted crystal, coolly dazzling.

Moving into more rarified feels, Dickeson leads the band into Afro-Cuban territory with an almost Horace Silver feel to ‘Invitation’ and a smooth, yet parrot-bright bossa nova on ‘O Barquinho (The Little Boat)’. The edgy syncopations and complex rhythm patterns are ‘swung’ by the band as easily as anything else on the album – a tribute to the fluid rapport of the rhythm section.

Closing cut ‘Iron Man’, an Eric Alexander original, allows the band let off some steam on a bright ‘blues with a bridge’. They cook, but the heat rarely rises above a simmer, Alexander flaring out some occasional Coltranesque lines and Dickeson striking matches in the shadows. The restraint keeps it tight and exciting.

Dickeson writes of recording the title tune – ‘Is That So?’ – “(it was) so simple and catchy that you can’t help swinging and smiling”. And it is that spirit that pervades this nine-track set. Is That So? might just help us to figure what Andrew’s secret smile is all about. Do listen.


The music of Thelonious Sphere Monk is a world of its own. So unique in jazz is Monk’s conception – both in composition and in improvisation  – that it has pretty much carved out a sub-genre of its own.

Because of its unique language, it has proven down the years a notoriously difficult book to play. Some of the greats have struggled with its quirks and almost Zen-like mind-games: the staggered rhythms, the displaced phrases, the lines that seemingly go nowhere, only to bob up from rabbit-hole a few bars later. John Coltrane and Monk’s long-time foil, Charlie Rouse come to mind, but not too many others.

To improvise over Monk’s compositions – even a deceptively traditional blues such as ‘Blue Monk’ – demands an understanding of his highly personal logic. To move within that successfully, while not losing your own voice, is the grail.


Sydney altoist, Michael Griffin has put together a tribute to Monk’s music based around an octet Monk toured in 1968. Griffin’s octet (a very Monk word I think; as ‘quintet’ is a very Miles word) is made up of some of our best and brightest. I was fortunate to catch them at Sydney’s swish Foundry 616.

After the opener, the sweetly melancholic ‘Ruby, My Dear’ played by the quartet of Griffin, Aaron Blakey on piano and the rhythm section of Tim Geldens (drums) and Tom Botting (bass), Griffin brought out the horns. With ‘Epistrophy’ I knew Griffin has done his homework. He explained, mid-set, that he had voiced the horns based on transcriptions of Monk’s piano voicings. So all the harmonic quirks were there – the clashed seconds and flat-seconds, the clusters, the more open intervals such as sixths and ninths (Monk seemed to favour either very close or very open harmony) – and the effect was, like Monk himself, akin to nothing else in jazz.

The band swung through a nice mix of faves and obscurities – the gonzoid mis-steps of ‘Evidence’, the fractured bop of ‘We See’, a wonderfully driving ‘Off Minor’, the horns – Griffin plus Michael Gordon and Louis Gordon (2 tenors), with Paul Weber on trombone and Tom Avenicos on trumpet – sounding huge on ‘Oska T’ and almost Stravinsky-like on closer ‘Crepuscule with Nellie’.

The soloists all dug into the material with zest. Griffin’s smart selection of players afforded a range of approaches – Michael Gordon’s reflective tone and ideas, Louis (no relation) Gordon’s more biting attack, the sharp tone of Avenicos (a beautiful solo in ‘I Mean You’ where the piano laid out and the trumpet notes played contrapuntal tag with the rhythm section), Paul Weber’s blues-inflected voice-like lines.

Griffin’s Parker-classic alto flurries at times could seem at odds with the more open Monk ideas – serving as an illustration as to the immense differences between these two ‘architects’ of Bebop, Monk and Charlie Parker (as different as Frank Lloyd Wright and Gaudi, though I couldn’t say who was which). That said, his more lyrical side was the highpoint of ‘Blue Monk’, beautiful long blues lines and lovely phrase endings. But what the hell – he is one of our most exciting players whatever he does.

Someone who seemed to be having too much fun was pianist Aaron Blakey. And what jazz pianist wouldn’t with the Monk book? Resplendent in a wide Sonny Rollins hat, Blakely placed perfect ‘Monk bombs’ under the soloists and laid out for great gaps, shoring up the tension as Monk used to (though, I noted, without Monk’s sweet, abandoned dance movements around the piano). Blakey’s solos had an equal measure of his own sparkling ideas and some Zen-lunatic Monk humour. His solo-piano take on ‘Pannonica’ which opened the second set was another high-point in a night of highs.

If only to experience the wonderful, eternally-modern music of T S Monk you need to see this band. The fact that Michael Griffin has rendered such perfect arrangements, kept close and respectful to the spirit of Monk, and engaged such a killer ensemble makes it  an essential to any fan of Jazz.