Archive for June, 2018

I recently had the sinful pleasure of hearing traditional jazzer Geoff Bull in full flight with his energetic band, The Finer Cuts. The ribald energy of the band, especially when the horns went tutti, had that anarchic joy shout that is one of the great charms of early jazz.

Even though the aesthetic is markedly different, I hear that same anarchic shout on the second release by Melbourne trombonist/composer James MacaulayToday Will Be Another Day. That said, maybe the shout comes from a similar place to Bull’s, as Macaulay also performs with his own traditional jazz group, The Lagerphones.

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Today Will Be Another Day was recorded in Tokyo with a dream team of Melbourne and Japanese musicians. The band rumbles out of the gate on opener ‘Mashigo Jukja’ with stabbed piano from long-time Macaulay cohort Aaron Choulai leading the charge into a dense thicket of horns. The texture thins into sinewy Ornette Coleman freedom, with trumpeter Ben Harrison playing some stunning virtuoso passages. Harrison’s playing across the album is a stand-out – he pulls sounds from the horn that startle in their abrasion, vocal-like textures and imagination.

The warm shadow of dear departed drummer and guru Allan Browne continues to lie across Australian jazz and Macaulay’s beautiful reading of Browne’s ballad ‘Prednisolone’ is a touching tribute to the man. The only cover here, its arrangement is build from the heart up and deeply affecting. James-Macaulay2

The rhythm section of ex-pat drummer Joe Talia and Melbournian Marty Holoubek on bass are a delight throughout – at times they kick it, perfectly interlocked on the groove, as on spicy tango ‘Chicken Liver’ (Scott McConnachie‘s alto a knockout here); on other tracks they play almost entirely free or in complex dislocated rhythmic counterpoint. Holoubek’s extended solo on vehicle ‘Freedom Jazz Girls’ is mesmerising.

‘Freedom Jazz Girls’ also features the bass koto of Miyama McQueen-Tokita. The instrument’s exotically evocative voice gives the polytonal ‘Square Dance’ a feeling of, oddly enough, rural blues guitar – its slides and moans mirrored in Macaulay’s exceptional slipping-and-sliding trombone solo.

The two chorales here both have a pang of nostalgia (that bittersweet sister of homesickness). ‘Tokyo’ is rain-soft and impressionistic, Choulai’s piano perfect in its wistfulness. Album closer ‘Spring Chorale’ – a collaboration with singer Lisa Salvo – has the added emotional lift of three part vocals. It leaves you on a cloud.

The title track, ‘Today Will Be Another Day’ (named not for a Zen Buddhist aphorism but taken from a mysterious T-shirt slogan) encapsulates all that is good about James Macaulay’s playing, writing and musical vision. Over its 12 minutes it moves from Ellingtonian dissonant blues (and aubergine blacks and moody indigos) through various tempos and feels; all built around two duos – one of alto sax and bass koto, the other of trumpet and piano. Its cohesion reflects the intelligent cohesion of its parent album.

And that anarchic joy shout, while not always jumping out, is definitely always grinning in the background.

 

Today Will Be Another Day is available from Earshift Music  https://www.earshift.com

James Macaulay’s website is at http://www.jamesmacaulay.com.au

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The most affecting track on guitarist Julius Schwing‘s 2016 album edge2:isthmus is a piece called ‘Nocturnal at The Neck’. It is little more than a field recording of Schwing playing guitar on the sand of The Neck, an isthmus on Schwing’s home, Bruny Island off Tasmania. What makes it special is the accompaniment of wind and sloughing waves, which Schwing reacts to in his playing.

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This music-as-nature idea appears to be the inspiration behind his new recording with Danish percussionist, Christian Windfield, called Rhubarb. The two got together on Bruny in early 2017, spending time playing music surrounded by the island’s pristine wilderness and unpredictable elements. The collaboration led to peformances at Hobart’s Schmørgåsbaag venue where Rhubarb was recorded.

Over two extended pieces – named ‘Baag 1’ and ‘Baag 2’ – the two move in perfect rapport through varying textures. Using only guitar and drums (and objects) they conjure a remarkable range of sounds, from the gossamer light to the sharply abrasive, a wide dynamic curve from minimal throb to clattering skitter.a3162837903_16

The only constant appears to be the influence of the wilds of Bruny Island. This is music achieving one of the ultimates: to play with the elements, as an element. All truly masterful instrumentalists reach a point where the instrument – the machine, the tool – is transcended and their playing becomes their voice, as a bird sings or a lover moans or the wind howls.

What Schwing and Windfield do here is deeply primal – they play sand and water and whistling winds, dried beach grasses and dawn fogs. It is mesmerising, and time is irrelevant, or at least reduced to the dreamtime clock of nature.

Rhubarb is the latest release on Julius Schwing’s Isthmus label. It is a small, creative music label that keeps coming up with consistently fascinating music. Take the time to have a listen – you may be surprised, as I was, to smell the salt of Bruny Island coming off the music.

This album and others are available from http://www.isthmus-music.com

Bassist/composer Sam Anning brings his wonderfully poetic cast of mind to his third album as bandleader, Across a Field as Vast as One.

Recorded with long time collaborators trumpeter Mat Jodrell, saxophonists Julien Wilson and Carl Mackey, pianist Andrea Keller, and drummer Danny Fischer, the eight-track collection draws inspiration and ideas from lost friends, Balkan women singers, volcanic lakes, taxi conversations and aircraft wreckage gleaming in a field of sunflowers.

Of course, this is not being wilfully quirky, because Anning in his compositions pulls great emotion out of these disparate experiences and satori. Across a Field as Vast as One  is an album of great beauty that avoids the trap of complexity to focus on the emotional.

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Indeed he says that his track “Sweethearts” “…was a sort of rebellion against the dense and complex harmonic and melodic homework of my masters studies at the Manhattan School of Music. … I just wanted two simple chords and a nice melody!” The track jumps with a lovely West African lilt and Andrea Keller’s piano solo reflects that joy in its rising attack.

Sweethearts was the title of Anning’s 2013 album with Julien Wilson and dear departed drummer Allan Browne. Browne is remembered here on the title track which takes it’s title from an Anning poem: “As eyes opening for the first time / On light splattering into a / Flat natural shimmer / Across a field as vast as one / Your name is to be spoken slowly / And carefully… / When I awake I’ll know we shared this dream / And I’ll know that I loved you.”  The pain of this ballad of loss and longing is expressed in the pang of Matt Jodrell’s aching trumpet tone.anning2

Anning’s compositional smarts are to the fore throughout – the ethereal arpeggios on ‘Lake’ conjuring the deep blue waters of the Mt Gambier blue volcanic lake which inspired it; the chattering talk-like melody and human-hips groove of ‘Talking Wall’, about a graffiti wall in Libya; the bittersweet Balkan blues of album closer ‘Telos’ (with a stunning Julien Wilson bass-clarinet solo that wails, literally and figuratively).

Anning says, tellingly, when speaking of his piece here called ‘Hands Reaching’: “(It is) a piece that came out naturally with little intervention from the deprecating voices in my head.”  I think anyone who truly creates spends half their time shouting down those deprecating voices – those voices that say the work is worthless, the effort is pointless, the  world isn’t listening. Hallelujah! that artists like Sam Anning consistently manage to shut that chattering homunculus up, who manage to replace the void with the life-force of their beautiful and meaningful work.

Across a Field as Vast as One is one such work – brave, beautiful and above all, the best of what it is to be human.

 

Across a Field as Vast as One is available at www.earshift.com

Sam Anning’s website is at www.samanningmusic.com

Hurrying through an unpredicted rainstorm I was late for the first masterclass of the day. Well this was jazz, the music of the unpredictable, so it sort of fitted.

The masterclass with New Yorkers Kris Davis and Tony Malaby began the one-day Sydney Con International Jazz Festival for 2018. There was talk of intervals in birdsong, and piano clusters, and saxophonist Malaby spoke of actively moving away from jazz forms. The two played a tantalising duet with Davis’ piano shimmering out Messaien-like clusters and chirps. The lovely wood-walled Recital Hall felt, in this hushed and rarified atmosphere, like church.

Barney McAll mentioned the phrase “Music is church” during his masterclass, quoting his long-time employer, Gary Bartz. McAll was next up and his session was as freewheeling and live-wire as Davis/Malaby’s had been pensive and considered. McAll is a unique Wayne Shorter-like  figure in Australian jazz, original to the point of almost being his own genre, and intuitively Zen in his approach. He spoke of freedom, Skrillex and technology (giving an insight into the surprisingly mechanistic origins of his compositions). When he sat at the piano to demonstrate, his dynamic attack made me jump (as it always does).

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Later in the day I would enjoy McAll in his ASIO (Australian Symbiotic Improvisers Orbit) setting. His band of drummer Hamish Stuart and bass mainstay Jon Zwartz, with “the children” (McAll’s affectionate term) – young guitarist Carl Morgan and Mike Rivett on tenor –  took to all the quirky twists and turns in his compositions, which ranged from roiling gnashes of ensemble interplay to intensely beautiful skeins of arpeggio. Was McAll my highlight? In a day of highlights it was hard to say.

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Out of the cloisters and into the much more easy going Jazz Cafe where there was food and drink and people talking – and the rumbunctious Geoff Bull and his young band The Finer Cuts blasting traditional jazz. This music is always a delight – a ribald reminder of the street (and brothel) origins of what has evolved into high art. The triple horn weavings of Bull’s trumpet with tenor and trombone shouted out that joyous anarchy that is still at the heart of even the most contemporary jazz. Pianist Harry Sutherland had the style down in spades, with a rolling grin to his playing. ‘God bless Geoff Bull’ is all I can say.

The Jazz Cafe also presented Darren Heinrich‘s Trio – the classic organ-guitar-drums sound that is one of jazz’s most sublime mutations. The Trio’s sound immediately transformed the Cafe’s club-like atmosphere, the air heavy with imagined nicotine. Guitarist Sam Rollings‘ biting blues-jazz tone was the perfect foil for Heinrich’s intense Hammond attack – at the top of their dynamic the Trio was verging on rock-band loud.

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For 2018, the Con Festival’s artistic director, David Theak, brought together a truly fascinating program – impressive not only for its quality, but for the breadth of its range. At the other end of the music’s timeline from the original street music represented here by Geoff Bull, we had the Berlin-based duo Spill. This was truly startling stuff. Both Magda Mayas on (extremely) prepared piano and Tony Buck on drums treated their instruments as boxes of possibilities, to be unpacked in real time, as they played. It was all the more remarkable, considering that both instruments are acoustic percussion instruments, traditionally incapable of a non-tremolo sustain. Well, I heard a piano sing like a bird and a bass drum moan like a wounded bull. The inventiveness of Mayas and Buck was jaw-dropping, but also transportingly beautiful.

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Back to the Jazz Cafe to bring myself back down to earth from the ionosphere. Andrew Scott‘s Pocket Trio were playing, and it was just what I needed. Scott has based his group on the driving but inventive trios of Oscar Peterson and Bill Charlap et al. They swing like hell but can turn on a dime. The other Pocketeers, bassist Max Alduca and drummer Tim Geldens seemed to relish the ride as much as Scott – whose driving and unfrilly playing reminded me more of Tommy Flanagan or even Ray Bryant than the sometimes frilly Peterson. (Scott’s droll spoken song intros are worth admission in themselves).

Fortrified with a few glasses of good red I took in the experience of Stu Hunter‘s ‘Migration’ project. A massive work, performed by a percussion heavy ensemble, it really is something to see (and hear). Grooves are set up and move in and out of rhythmic lattices to reform into new grooves. The players he assembled worked the material beautifully in their solos, notably saxophonist/clarinetist Julien Wilson and Phil Slater on trumpet, with Tina Harrod‘s voice lending an ethereal Gospel edge to the atmosphere set up by Hunter’s astounding ensemble writing.

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David Theak had joked with me that if I stayed “dawn till dusk” he would shout me a cold one. By the time it came around for the last concert of the day – the international Festival star artist Gretchen Parlato – I was still fresh as a daisy, buoyed by the energy of all the superlative music I had witnessed. And her music made me feel as it I was floating on air.

As all truly great jazz vocalists before here, Parlato’s voice was an instrument among instruments. The unique makeup of her ensemble – gut-string guitar, cello and percussion – surrounded her airy voice with an ebb-and-flow of an entirely organic nature as she moved thru bossa and Bach, and beyond. The effect was mesmerising. The Verbruggen Hall seemed at times too large for the intimacy Parlato and her group conjured – I would have loved to hear her in a closer, smaller space. But this is a small quibble, too small for so sublime an experience.

So to the train home, high as a kite from such a day. Weaving through the swelling VIVID crowds coming into the sparkling city as I was going out, I knew it would take me a while to process it all.

Finally, thanks to David and the Con for putting their resources behind such a landmark event. Jazz is a living, breathing music and it is gratifying to see audiences for such a program not only exist, but exist in enthusiastic numbers.