Archive for the ‘Music gig review: jazz’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.

On Saturday, 5th August I checked out the Sirens Big Band performance of Ellen Kirkwood’s new suite [A]part. The show I heard (and saw) was the second of the evening in the intriguingly named Io Myers Theatre at UNSW. Io was, in Greek Mythology, the daughter of Zeus and is, in astronomy, the innermost Galilean moon of Jupiter.

It was fitting, as Kirkwood has previously drawn on Greek mythology in her Theseus and the Minotaur suite and also because [A]part took my head, at times, into the outer galaxy and beyond.

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pic: Catherine McElhone

The themes of this multi-part, hour-long suite are however quite down to Earth. Composer Kirkwood takes on the big issues of this strange and cruel age: climate change, the refugee crisis and the myth of connectedness that is the broken promise of the internet. The title is a pictogram of the feeling of being at once connected and yet separate – a truly modern condition.

Whereas Theseus and the Minotaur combined music with spoken narration, [A]part works with visuals – Cleo Mees’ intriguing video projections: sometimes mysterious, sometimes sardonic and humourous, always startling, as is the music.

The ecological theme opens the piece with guest artist Gian Slater setting up, via loop-pedal, vocal drones onto which she adds layers of swishes, chattering and mouth percussion. By the time the horns enter with a fugue-like figure, you feel as if you are surrounded by nature: wind, animals, insects, rustling grasses.

Pianist Andrea Keller, also a guest of the Sirens, creates a typically unique solo against the rhytm of Alex Masso’s drums and Sirens leader Jess Dunn’s bass. Keller’s work throughout this performance is as imaginative, precise and exciting as one would expect from one of Australia’s finest. In a later unaccompanied solo her raw attack had a few of us sitting up straight in our seats.

The third [A]part guest artist is saxophonist Sandy Evans, a mentor to the Sirens from their beginnings in 2010. She seemed to take great inspiration from Kirkwood’s music on the night – a soprano solo beginning with a scream that was a little too human for comfort; yet later accompanying a faintly demented and disintegrating Balkan waltz with a barrage of kazoos, razzers and squeaking rubber duckies.

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pic: Catherine McElhone

And that ­– from anguish to giddy silliness, and everything in between – is the scope of [A]part. It is a massive piece in every way: challenging to the ear and the mind, highly original (as we know Kirkwood to always be), often cerebral and abstract, all the time threatening to be too much to take in in one sitting. But what saves it from possible overwhelm is that Kirkwood never loses the emotional thread in the music; it is human music and it consistently makes you feel. Sometimes, as with all valid contemporary art, those feelings can be baffling or even plain uncomfortable, but you do feel them deeply.

Kirkwood’s writing here, as in everything I have heard from her, is smart (without ever being clever-clever), dynamic and imaginative. The task she has taken on with [A]part tests her formidable skills as a composer/arranger, yet she never seems to run out of ideas, always finding new sound possibilities and textures to be gleaned from the big band.

She uses hand-claps in polyrhythm from the various sections. She has Jess Dunn rattle her bow around on the wood of her bass, making harsh knocking sounds (which she then contrasts with airy flute textures answering the knocking). She has sections play against each other. She has sections slip out of synch within their ranks. She writes starkly dissonant brass sections which unfolds into satiny 40’s dance orchestra textures (albeit a dance orchestra which slowly dissolves and decays).

Yes, [A]part is massive in every way (it took almost a year of writing and rehearsing and the mentorship of stellar pianist Barney McAll to, as Kirkwood says “Get this music out of my brain”). It is ultimately a massive experience – massive in immersion, like rolling in the currents of an ocean, and massive in response: the music, together with the power of the visuals leave you feeling wrung out and a little wired.

I cannot imagine how Ellen Kirkwood will ever top a work such as [A]part. I know of course that, given what we have seen and heard of her up to this point, she undoubtedly will.

 

 

Watching Gary Daley’s astounding Bungarribee quartet you realise it is actually the classic jazz saxophone quartet lineup – but a number of times removed: the sax is Paul Cutlan’s bass clarinet, the piano now Daley’s accordian, the bass replaced by the cello of Oliver Miller and the drum kit by hand-drums, talking drums, bells and anything else Tunji Beier can lay his amazing hands on.

The music, equally, is located somewhere to the north-east of jazz but definitely south-south-west of European art music. The quartet grew out of Daley’s larger ‘Sanctuary’ project, yet retains that ensemble’s unique breadth of vision, and intricate interweaving of composed and improv elements.

M’ville’s cosy and velvet draped Django Bar was treated to Bungarribee last Thursday. Maybe it was the coziness, maybe it was the large pinot shouted me by good friend Dave Delilah, but for their all-too-short set I was there, miles away, north-east of jazz, south-south-west of Europe, basking in that colourful tropic that Bungarribee make their own.

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As well as the unique instrumentation, subtle electronic loops weave in and out of the music, adding yet another layer of exoticism. Such a loop opened Daley’s ‘Bungarribee Road’, unannounced and slowly quieting the room conversation as it grew into melody and some funky Cutlan and Daley solos.

Ligeti was next. The master’s ‘Musica Ricercata No 7’ opened with a bass clarinet loop from Paul Cutlan. Cutlan was in his patented mystic zone; the music had the room levitating. We found ourselves also in Fats’ ‘Jitterbug Waltz’ – Daley’s accordion duetting the ecstatic jaunt of that melody and playing around with every syllable of it in their improvs.

Oliver Miller’s ‘Somewhere’ was based on a fragment of ‘Over The Rainbow’; maybe a more indigo part of the spectrum, shot through with the startling yellows and reds of shrieks and moans of Miller’s cello and Cutlan’s alto (then down to almost silence of the padding clacking of the alto’s keys).

An untitled African tune inspired by Daley’s viewing of a YouTube clip featured Beier on talking drum – big 6/8 fun (and all it’s variations, and huge effervescence from the band).

Daley announced there was “so much more music to play” but only time for one more – we were as sad as he was. Gladly he picked his own piece ‘Hunger’ which, he explained, is about the drive, the hunger, to make Art. A driving and sinous 7/8 groove and melody, ‘Hunger’ left us and the band giddy and a little spent.

I, and I am sure the rest of the lucky Django audience, floated home. Bungarribee – Daley, Cutlan, Miller and Beier – had taken us somewhere over their own rainbow. I, for one, cannot wait to go back.

It seemed fitting that on the week that David Bowie left us to become a star in the night sky, the 2016 Jazzgroove Festival should open with the spacey starman-scapes of Alon Islar’s ensemble, The Sticks.

Kicking off Friday night’s Foundry 616 triple bill, The Sticks – drummer Islar with keyboardist Daniel Pliner and bassist Josh Ahearn – followed Alon’s mission statement, “We’re going to improvise for 45 minutes…” with a ton of imagination and a galaxy of verve. Built around Islar’s curious but astonishing invention, the AirSticks (in its simplest form: two hand controllers linked to laptop samples) the group made music – as all good jazz should be – literally out of the air.

Special guest, guitarist and polymath Ben Hauptmann sat right inside the Sticks’ orbit, blending with their space-scapes, moving with their funk, clicking and clacking with the more motorik beatz, talking their talk and walking their walk. Beautiful stuff; the 45 minutes passed in a wink, leaving us (me) wanting more.

This year’s Festival program was put together smartly by Jazzgroove to get all the flavours of jazz rubbing up against each other and to pleasantly jolt by contrast.

And so, the electro-funk of The Sticks was followed by The Cooking Club – tenor player Michael Gordon’s tough acoustic jazz quartet. The contrast could not have been more thrilling – and yet something was missing. The last time I saw The Cooking Club was after they launched their pretty fantastic CD High Energy Jazz from the Sydney Underground. The format was the piano-less quartet of Gordon on tenor, Finn Ryan on drums and Tom Wade on bass, with Ken Allars’ trumpet putting the Cherry on Gordon’s compositions.

Tonight the trumpet of Allars was replaced by Andrew Bruce on piano and its chords, sharp as they were, led to the music losing part of it’s Ornettey orneryness, it’s skinny rawness – at least to my ear. They still grabbed me though – the opener (also the CD’s opener) ‘Big Job’ bristled with energy – which is what this band does so well.

Closer ’Comedown’ had Gospel handclaps and Gordon summoning the ghosts of Albert Ayler’s ‘Ghosts’ in his throaty sermon.

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Lekker, pic- Ellen Kirkwood

Closing the night – and contrasting equally vividly with what had come before – was the much-anticipated performance of Lekker, Guitarist/composer Ben Hauptmann’s jazz-rock-reggae-bluegrass-funk-jazz septet. Built over the pulse and groove of James Hauptmann and Evan Mannell’s drums and percussion and James Haselwood’s bass, the group had Hauptmann shared guitar duties with Arne Hanna. Harry Sutherland and Dan Junor on piano and alto completed this astounding ensemble.

Hauptmann’s musical vision has always confounded any expectations (what is it about guitarist/composers?); tonight it put a grin on my face that he opened with a fleet bluegrass breakdown. Moving through compositions from both his Benjamin Hauptmann and Lekker albums, the band ate up all grooves – reggae, funk, West African 6/8, rock. Hauptmann’s solos, all held fire and cool chromatic sparks, contrasted beautifully with Arne Hanna’s more greasy, blues-accented touch. Hanna’s solos throughout were each a mini-masterclass on shaping and pacing a solo (young hotheads take note!).

A highlight for me was hearing the tunes such as ‘Shuffle Over’ – which gets a heavy electro treatment on the Lekker album – played by this ensemble: not better, just different flavoured, seasoned with human breath and sweat. (Also grin-making to hear Hauptmann’s ‘Third Stone From the Sun’ and ‘Eat That Question’ quotes in the coda fades. All guitarists are rockers at heart.)

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Sunday, Foundry 616 again and the sunny Ollie McGill trio. James Hauptmann (drums) and Jon Zwartz (bass) making McGill’s Tunes – vocal and instrumental – really spark and catch. After a rockin’ opener they were into the intriguing ‘Fishy’, alternating between a Latin groove and heavy funk, the trio at ease with the two different tempos and grooves.

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Jon Zwartz, pic- Hardaker

Vocal piece ‘Constancy’ was a good-hearted Dr John funk groove. McGill’s vocal, while not the most arresting, proved to me (again) that composers often do their own tunes the best justice, on an emotive level. Closer ‘Let The Wind Blow’ reminded us, yes, this was Sunday: spreading sweet Gospel tones and a hushed hallelujah over Foundry 616.

I had really looked forward to seeing bassist/composer David Groves and his ensemble – a new voice is always a reason to be cheerful. Groves himself thanked Jazzgroove for giving young composers such as himself a platform and an audience for his compositions. And his compositions were worth it – unique, nicely conceived, all intriguing and testing vehicles for blowing.

And yet his set was, to me, in part let down by a lack of cohesion in the group. Groves and Sydney’s tallest drummer, Cameron Reid often got the groove flying, and pianist Steve Barry did his usual elegant and harmonically shrewd thing. But the horns of tenor Scott Kelly and Simon Ferenci on trumpet rarely gelled and a general lack of forward motion seemed to hamper the band.

The classic hard bop quintet format – rhythm plus two horn front line – can be the most thrilling in all of jazz, but tonight Groves’ ensemble never seemed to give themselves the chance to blaze and thunder. I hope – no, I know – next time they will knock my socks off.

The twin crown of the 2016 Festival was the David Ades tribute performance by Zac Hurren and Julien Wilson. As part of a national tour to perform and celebrate the music of Melbourne’s brilliant and influential alto player and composer, David Ades, the two tenor colossi took the stage with Cameron Undy (bass) and Simon Barker (Drums). After a few words from Hurren, welcoming us to the festival and their performance, they proceeded to incinerate our minds with the sort of white heat that only jazz can cook up.

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Zac Hurren and Julien Wilson, pic- Hardaker

In the car on the way home later, the phrase ‘music made in the moment; music made for the moment’ swam into my mind. This was a performance that stopped time or rather, pulled and twisted and melted time into new and phantastic shapes. The two tenors faced each other across the stage and blew each others minds whilst blowing ours. No juvenile ‘cutting’ contest, this was as Trane and Pharoah spoke: heading up and out for joy.

Opening with Ades’ ‘La Ripaille’ the joy flared up like lust: Barker and Undy began pouring on the energy which never let up the entire set. The rest of the set was drawn from Ades’ lovely posthumous release A Day in A Life.

Hurren’s tone was rounder and more full-bellied, with fat dollops of the blues in his lower register and a woman’s loved cry at the top. Wilson’s voice was bright and sweet and riven through with lightning and other storms. Both players swooned as the other played, digging each other, meshed in mind and soul-spirit.

It was not all fire, brimstone and lava: Hurren and Undy’s measured and relaxed take on Ades’ ‘Arco and Alto’ had a suspended loveliness, reminiscent of Charles Mingus’ ‘Eclipse’ – a breeze from another planet. The set closer, ‘Removab’ built and built until we were all spent. Spent and blasted into joy.

Zac Hurren walked around the venue afterwards, personally thanking everyone for coming. As I shook his hand, I told him he had to be the happiest man in Australia. “Yeah! I am happy!” he beamed.

After that set – indeed, after what may be the last ever Jazzgroove festival – we were all pretty happy. As happy as Zac Hurren. And that’s happy.

 

Published February 2015 on australianjazz.net

 

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.

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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

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.

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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