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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.

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Australia’s greatest export, AC/DC, have for almost half a century kept the beating heart of rock and roll alive. Despite their sound becoming more buffed and polished as time has gone by, despite the rooms going from humid pubs to the world’s enormo-domes, they have kept true to the basic template laid down on their first album, High Voltage.

And the beating heart within the band has always been Malcolm Young, his rhythm riffs the rock upon which the AC/DC sound is built. So many of their iconic rock and roll songs begin with Malcolm’s throaty Gretsch guitar – not vocal or lead guitar –­ because it is his sound and fury that lets you know it is AC/DC within four bars.

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Pic by LilyLondon9

Fashions and fads have tried to co-opt AC/DC – heavy metal, cartoon rock á la Guns’n’Roses, retro ‘classic’ rock, corporate rock etc – but the band who always refer to themselves simply as a rock’n’roll band have never faltered. They have remained true believers and picked up generation after generation of new fans along the way.

Most know his brother Angus’s schoolboy antics or Bon Scott’s loutish leer (and later, Brian Johnson’s flat-cap swagger) but Malcolm’s tone and attack, like Keith Richards in the Rolling Stones, defines the band and makes it unique in the world of Rock.

In fact, Angus Young was often quoted as saying that Malcolm was the better guitarist, in a technical sense. And you can hear it in the focused energy of his playing – like a White Pointer shark, a perfectly evolved machine – relentless, rock-solid and dynamic.

As a guitarist myself I have always admired Malcolm Young’s playing. People would speak of rhythm guitar as being down a rung from the showy, spot-lit lead guitar. But those with ears and the knowledge of how a band is built always knew Malcolm had a gift for playing just what was needed. The spaces between his slashed chord-riffs, the holes he allowed for the snare to leap out or for the bass to breathe added a funkiness and a swing to AC/DC’s sound that aligned it more with their heroes of 50s rock – like Chuck Berry – than many of the stodgy, leaden hard-rock bands they were usually lumped in with.

As time moves forward, the legacy of Malcolm will be appreciated even more, because it is gone, and it can never be replicated. You can read about the history of AC/DC, their amazing story and Malcolm’s sad decline elsewhere. I can only say what he meant to me, safe in the knowledge that he meant the same to millions the world over.

His rock and roll heart had a huge, thunderous beat for such a little guy and now that it has stopped the world is a little quieter and a lot greyer. Goodbye, Malcolm and thank you.

 

Published November 2017 on megaphoneoz

 

Alto saxophonist Jack Beeche works well with guitarists. I last heard him with Melbourne guitarist Tim Willis where his playing had to work within Willis’ metal-jazz format. On this new recording, Beeche/Magnusson, a duets recording with Stephen Magnusson, he is playing very different horn with a very different guitarist.

Magnusson is, across the album, an entirely atmospheric and sympathetic player in the luminous mold of Pat Metheny (the version here of Metheny’s ‘Katelkin Gray’ is a high point of the album) – which is not to take away from his own, entirely distinctive voice. His use of effects is sparing – often the guitar is unadorned, as the tune demands – but when used, add a lovely shimmer or widescreen reverb under and around Beeche’s pearlescent horn.

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And pearlescent Beeche’s playing is – the notes drop like pearls, not diamond polished, but iridescently haloed. The intimate duet format allows all the nuances in his playing to be heard; the room-sized dynamic allows the horn to breathe, rather than to be pushed into a harsher tone. it is a side of the alto that is all too rarely heard today.

Beeche/Magnusson‘s seventeen (yes, seventeen) tracks work through the spectrum of possibilities of the alto/guitar combination – from the Hot Club joie-swing of ‘The Gift’ and ‘Wings’ through to impressionistic ballads like Beeche’s lovely ‘Golden Blue’ and all points between.Beeche Mag 1

The standards are well chosen and perfectly realised: “I’ll Remember April’ is contrapuntal tentacles wrapping like vines around the melody; ‘Darn That Dream is made more dream than dare by Magnusson’s translucent reverb. The closer, a 6-minute meditation on ‘Softly, As a Morning Sunrise’ seems to construct the piece from the outer edge inwards, from miasma to form, as it goes. Rock and roll too – Soundgarden‘s ‘Black Hole Sun’ is recast as the lost Bossa Nova standard we always knew it was.

Separating the tracks are five bijou miniatures, all titled ‘Image 1’, ‘Image 2’ etc… They are short improvisations barely over 2 minutes long (the shortest is 44 seconds) that are complete little gems, some sparkling and sharp, some smooth and opaque.

Beeche and Magnusson have made one of the better duet albums in Australian Jazz. Maybe, as they are both in demand and busy players, it will be the first and last. If it is, it is a treasure. If it isn’t, it is a gift that we hope keeps on giving.

 

Beeche/Magnusson is available from http://newmarketmusic.com

The best of jazz vocal – and its perfect expression – is where the voice becomes an instrument, on par with frontline instruments such as the sax or trumpet. The finest jazz vocalists know this and go for it: Mark Murphy, Anita O’Day, Chet Baker, our own Vince Jones. Sinatra too – you can hear his delight when he worked with a small band.

One of our finest is Trish Delaney-Brown. A founding member of knockout vocal group The Idea of North, she comes alive in looser settings where the pure jazz singer in her can really come out.

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Her new album The Game places her voice in the perfect setting – a dream-team ensemble also made up of the finest: Pianist Greg Coffin, Jeremy Sawkins on guitar and the rhythm section of Brendan Clarke and Nic Cecire. All the compositions are hers, bar the opener (the Bricusse-Newley gem ‘Pure imagination’) and a co-write with Dave Panichi, the lovely ballad ‘Ruby’.

The ballad can sometimes seem the domain of the jazz vocalist more than any other instrument (apologies to Johnny Hodges) and ‘Ruby’ is as good as they come – a gorgeous example of the form with Coffin’s telepathically simpatico piano painting notes behind Delaney-Brown’s vocal, then rising to a beautiful considered solo.

‘Birds’ is a wordless evocation of the murmuration of starlings. Sawkins’ gut-string solo here has that lovely balance of the classic and the modern that pervades the playing across the whole album, grounding it, yet giving it the wings this music needs. Screen+Shot+2017-10-10+at+1.19.08+pm

‘Face of The Bass’ is a strutting blues that features Clarke’s tough bass, breaking into a startling bass/vocal scat duet that leaps out before chilling back down to that bad (good) groove. Across The Game the vocal scat (in duet and solo) is exquisite, always intriguing, never empty histrionics.

The second ballad on The Game is the lovely ‘Simple Feast’. Here, as on the Bacharach-David flavoured title track ‘The Game’, Delaney-Brown’s sense of pop classicism is apparent – lyrics that write short stories, bittersweet, over a musical ground that is sophistication without empty virtuosity.

We go out on the almost-too-hip groove of ‘Wachagot’. A rolling piece of funk propelled by a jagged vocal riff, this one really shows drummer Cecire in his element – flawless touch, earthy sense of groove.

But it is Trish Delaney-Brown that shines over The Game. The album allows her perfect grasp of jazz singing a challenging range of expression through its multiplicity of textures – from blues to latin-funk to urbane pop and back home to the jazz and the jazz ballad. if you want to hear how good it gets, take a listen.

 

Trish Delaney-Brown’s website is https://www.tdbmusic.com.au

Too many guitar and piano albums suffer from imbalance – the imbalance of a great big 88-key concert grand bullying a little 6-string guitar into submission. Tony Barnard‘s remarkable 21-string harp guitar (together with pianist Casey Golden‘s sensitivity to register) return a rare and unique balance to their their current collaboration, Inventions.

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Across 16 tracks (nine from Barnard, seven from Golden) the duo mesh beautifully – often it is hard to tell where the Steinway ends and the Sedgwick (or Emerald Synergy) guitar begins. Which is as is should be.

Except of course when they excitingly play against or across each other: Barnard’s steel strings biting into the piano chords or Golden soloing brightly and lightly over the guitar rhythms, like rain falling across hills (Golden’s solo on “First Place” is a special case in point: its fleeting dissonances nipping and tugging against the driving guitar). Inventions2

The range of tunes here allows full invention from both – the rustic country ramble of opener ‘Erin’s Song’, the Bach-like ‘Invisible’ (a range of approaches across four versions I,II, II and IV), the impressionistic ‘Where the Clouds Go’ (which shows the depth of the harp guitar).

The mood indigo minor ‘Erika’s Song’ is a gorgeous theme that draws a measured and considered solo from Golden. ‘Rhapsodic’ brings to mind Keith Jarrett’s more meditative pieces, painting watercolour pictures on the wind.

Inventions grows in enjoyment on each listen – as anything of this sophistication and creativity does. I have long enjoyed each of these artists – uncle and nephew from Australian jazz royalty, the Barnard clan – separately, so it is an event to hear them together. I truly hope there is more to come.

 

Inventions is available from November 17.

Tony Barnard’s website is https://barnardmusic.com

Casey Golden’s website is http://www.caseygolden.com.au

Trombonist and composer Shannon Barnett has been away from our shores for a while now, quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) conquering the world.

Her latest CD –  Hype – was recorded in Bonn late last year with her quartet of Stefan Karl Schmid on tenor, David Helm on double bass and drummer Fabian Arends. And it is a unique and lovely thing.

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The idiosyncratic flavour of a piano-less trombone-and-tenor led quartet is evident from the opener, the title track, ‘Hype’, which grows from staggered counterpoint between Barnett and Schmid into a sinewy and Ornette-y beast. The rhythm breathes in and out, and the absence of any cloying chord allows the harmony to be stretched every which way in the solos. Schmid’s multi-lingual tenor solo here is peppered with some sharp snarls and hoarse overblowing; he is a wonderful foil for Barnett’s cool and considered solos.

‘Lembing’ is a good example of the Quartet’s use of rhythmically shifting gears. Over a supple swing they switch and clutch-shuffle the gearbox to suit the melody, then the various solos – this really shows the great ears of the rhythm section of Helm and Arends.

‘People Don’t Listen to Music Anymore’ (Barnett’s titles would be worth the price of admission, even if the music wasn’t this good…) moves from mournful to an Ornette Coleman-like Texas-country melody. Barnett’s solo is particularly playful yet composed, in both senses of the word, here.barnett_hype

Barnett writes brilliantly for jazz – there is challenge, rhythmically and melodically, but there is also space enough to move around in. ‘Speaking In Tongues’ is a good example of how her writing flows and coheres; syncopated passages play against each other, all in a world of it own logic.

Since being awarded Australian Young Jazz Artist of the Year in 2007, Barnett has gone from creative strength to strength. Unlike the majority of prodigy artists, she is a player lucky to have found her voice so young, and still continued to develop it consistently, in an elegant upward curve. Hype – her third album with her Quartet – is evidence of that upward developmental curve, both as a composer and as a unique instrumental voice. I look forward to watching it continue to rise.

 

Shannon Barnett’s website is here.

It’s an irresistable sound and one that we 20th Century boys and girls took in with our mother’s milk.

The Morricone Tex-Mex Western sound that Sydney band The Dusty Ravens so beautifully make, immediately conjures visions of parched badlands, squinting lawmen and torrid tales of the good, the bad and the ugly. As previous generations had thrilled to the legends of the Roman and Greek gods, us post-1950s TV kids had our own myths of redemption, revenge and regret – all highly immoral morality tales full of larger-than-life figures who could shoot a man just to watch him die.

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The Dusty Ravens’ new album, Low Down Jimmy, is peopled with such mythic anti-heroes. Co-leader Andy Meehan‘s songs are all exquisitely bijou short-stories about Low Down Jimmys, Suzie Lees and ‘Cavalier cowgirl’s – there is a feeling that the song’s vignette is part of a much greater story, going on out of screen shot. And of course it is – the great tussle between Good and Evil, boiled down for now to one man tracking another across a sun-blasted dust bowl, a lone vulture keeping a glassy eye on them both.

The brass section of co-leader Maggie Raven, Kim Griffin and Jane Grimley works perfectly to evoke these American desert visions, over the top of Meehan’s steel-string acoustic, the double-bass of Catherine Golden and Mark Hetherington‘s drums. The sound is unique and is perfect for everything here – be it driving Mexicali wedding dance, Western ballad or freight-train boogie.dusty-ravens

The packaging and presentation of Low Down Jimmy is also unique – instead of opting for the usual CD or download, The Dusty Ravens have presented the album as a 16-page art book with download card. Drummer Hetherington’s artwork is the perfect compliment to the music: scratchy illustrations over parched earth-tone grounds, evoking the dryness and dusty sun blasts of the band’s musical landscape.

A special treat is the lone cover version here – ‘Red Pony’ by David McComb, no stranger to the evoking of high and lonesome wide open spaces himself. It is a beautiful song, saying so much with the barest of means, and as such is in good company on Low Down Jimmy.