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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.

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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.

 

 

In an age of half-chewed soundbites and the relentless chatter of tiny tweets – of ever-decreasing attention and even shorter digestion – it is always gratifying, on a number of levels, to see art made that demands as much of your time as it needs.

Trumpeter Lee McIver‘s Polymorphic Orkestra makes music that demands that time – and rewards one for it, in spades. Together with vibraphone player Ed Goyer and drummer Ed Rodrigues, this three-man orchestra expands on the sounds of their instruments by adding digital elements to the acoustic, often combining the two into remarkable alloys.

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Both McIver and Rodrigues use laptop samples and FX to grow the possibilities of their own instruments, as well as adding external colours to the music – an intriguing use of the murmur of indistinct human voices, like a dream radio, or the sudden startling sting and snap of a plucked string.

Their latest album, Confluence, is made up of two long improvisations – the 40-minute ‘Stream’ and the 24- minute ‘Flow’. The titles are fitting, as this music has much in common with the nature of both water and of electricity: rushing between banks, bubbling over rapids, coming to rest calm and lake-serene, sparking, ever moving to a point of resolution or rest.f2494745717d52ed65af8ca9919e03d0df5380cc

‘Stream’ is the more free-form of the two – moments of purely acoustic playing, then moments of digital crackle and sheen, with often beautifully balanced hybrids of the two. The empathy is almost telepathic between McIver and the two Eds – rarely does one soloist rise above the others, and if so only fleetingly as if to point the way to a new path. ‘Stream’s 40 minutes goes by like seconds.

‘Flow’ appears more structured, yet retains the same ecstatic feeling of discovery that guides its longer twin. Beginning with a melody that is almost like a lost jazz standard, it moves into an ostinato bass pattern, and then off into points unknown (to us and to the players, both).

This is unique and rewarding music. The trumpet colours call to mind obviously Miles Davis‘ more expansive fusion sides, as well as the electric watercolours of Jon Hassell, yet the Polymorphic Orkestra has its own voice and vision, and it is perfectly realised here.

Give them an hour and they will give you a world.

 

The Polymorphic Orkestra’s website is here.

The cover illustration of Queensland guitarist/composer Toby Wren’s new trio album Black Mountain at first seems an incongruous choice. An epic 1760 painting (de Louthenbourg’s ‘A Shipwreck off a Rocky Coast’)­, its mannered classicism seems at odds with the angular modernism of the music within.

But it is not the subject, nor the treatment, of this painting that fits; it is the colour palette. Wren’s compositions are rendered in these olives, aubergines and purple-blacks, with shots of mustard and saffron – and even a window of lilac/sky-blue here and there.

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His trio ­– Wren together with bassist Andrew Shaw and Chris Vale on ‘drum set’ ­– render all the complex colours of these unique compositions beautifully, considering the limited instrumental palette at hand.

Equally, Wren uses little on his guitar bar some mild dirt and amp colours. The tough ‘Bedroom for Improvement’ reminds of Larry Coryell’s musclular trio albums from a few years back, with their distortion and backbeat.

But in the main, Black Mountain brings up fond recollections of the great Abercrombie/Holland/DeJohnnette 1975 album Gateway. Which is not to say it is not its own animal; the good vibes between the players, the sense of adventure, and the push/pull between soloist and ground are what brought the comparison to mind. Toby Wren 1

Wren’s collection, though, has the added dimension of post-rock ­– something unthought of in ’75. ‘An Unbearable Weight’s recipe of flowing/floating arpeggios (with flashes of silvery harmonics), bowed bass and skittering drums takes Black Mountain out of the jazz ballpark. Just as with ‘Sevens’ and its sister piece ‘Sixes’ – both creating shimmering rhythmic lattices of the titular time-signatures which, as the pieces evolve, work against and within that rhythm.

Wren’s guitar approach – as with his compositions – draws on jazz, rock (pre- and post-), blues and anything else that his mill needs to grist (he is a student of the Carnatic music of India; check the multituplet clusters in ‘Guitargam’). There is the rolling blues of opener ‘An Epic Rock’; the pleasingly plump be-bop of ‘Black Mountain Resolve’ (and the minimal 34 second solo guitar haiku of its sister, the title track ‘Black Mountain’); the unhinged guitar solo of ‘Sirens’; and the lovely lullaby of album closer ‘Sentimental Old Thing’.

Black Mountain is a unique and rewarding listen; all the more for its sparseness of means: the invention demanded by, and apt interpretation of these pieces would test any group, but Wren and his men seem never to be anything but entirely at ease here.

Take a listen. It is great music – whatever its colour.

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of having lunch with Melbourne pianist, ade ishs. He was in Dad mode and we were surrounded by his family – his charming wife and three boisterous children.

During the meal we chatted about music, of course, and I discovered he was equally a fan of Pat Metheny and Irish pop sensations, The Corrs. This made sense to me as his music contains, in varying measure, both the cinematic artistry of Metheny as well as the Corrs’ accessibility, and – dare I say it – pop smarts.

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His second album co-led with drummer Chelsea Allen, under the ishs/Allen Project banner, is Stories Under the Sky. In some ways it is a departure from – or evolution of – the sound of their impressive 2015 self-titled debut, and further back, 2013’s ade ish’s Trio, which also had ish’s longtime percussive foil, Chelsea Allen on drums.

This time, as well as bassist Paul Bonnington and trumpeter Ee Shan Pang, they are joined by reeds player Lachlan Davidson. The new colours this affords, as well as the use of various members’ vocals, adds a greater dimension across all these impressionistic pieces.cover_512x512

And impressionistic they are ­– ishs, the family man and all-round happy human, delights in life’s simple, unalloyed pleasures. The titles here express this daily joy: ‘Autumn Walk’, ‘Summer Morning’, ‘Blue Sky’, ‘Moving Forward’. As ishs never shies away from a ‘pretty’ melodic line or an accessible directness in composition and improvisation (“I’m not a big fan of chop-fests” he says), he equally titles these pieces with a simplicity that is disarming.

Which not for a minute suggest this is simple-minded music. As with previous releases, ishs and Allen consistently surprise with invention and verve. The 7/8 montuno of ‘Summer Morning’ (with a sharp Allen solo that chats with a short unison band riff); the indigo harmonies and almost 12-tone melody of ‘Shades’ (with its Miles Davis flavoured echo-trumpet intro from Shan Pang); the jumping latin-rock ‘Fragments of Truth’. This is not all only sunshine and orange juice.

The piano and voice duet ‘I’ll Wait Till You Arrive’ is a meditation on grief, inspired by the loss of a friend, and oddly for such a richly orchestrated album, its starting point for Allen and ishs.

Joy and grief and all in between: that is life. Again, I am charmed by the work of The ishs/Allen Project. With its direct emotional connection, even with the newly added colours and complexity in arrangements, it is what I dig about this group.

As Chelsea Allen says: “Most important to me, in this stage of music making and music writing, is strength and simplicity in the message and in the execution. Simple themes are so important and so relatable, and never cliché.”

What a pleasure it is to say, without any irony, “Amen to that.”

 

Stories Under the Sky is launched 17 August at The Paris Cat, Melbourne.

Album is available from http://www.tiap.band/stories-under-the-sky

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.

 

 

At a recent semi-impromptu opening set at Foundry, Emma Stephenson included one of her own songs among the well-picked standards, such as ‘Days of Wine and Roses’. The song was ‘Song for My Piano’ and, as if a window had been opened, letting in sudden sunshine, it stopped the room.

The song is the second track on Where the Rest of the World Begins, the new album from Stephenson’s Hieronymus Trio. The six-track album is a collaboration with singer Gian Slater, the Trio’s second album and the debut co-release for David Theak’s new label, 54 Records.

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The Trio’s NYC-recorded first album was mostly instrumental – brilliant, sparkling piano trio conversations between Stephenson, drummer Oli Nelson and bassist Nick Henderson – but did close with the vocal tune ‘Crows Might Fly’. Gian Slater’s interpretation of that song opens Where the Rest of the World Begins – the band developing out of the songs short suite-like movements into a simmering scat section and shimmering piano solo.

Slater’s voice is a perfect choice for the Trio and Stephenson’s songs. Bell-clear, it is a fluid thing, like smoke or drifting water, avoiding any grating blues edges or forced earthiness. It is this ‘instrumental’ quality – a hallmark of all valid jazz singing – that fits so neatly with the modern angles and curves of Stephenson’s compositions. cd5401-web-cover-hi-res

‘Song for My Piano’ is here equally room-stopping; an intimate love-letter to Stephenson’s instrument, the lyric nakedly expressing the surprises the piano can still, like a lover, give the composer.

‘If the Sun Made a Choice’ is a lovely song of hope, with stabs of Gospel funk creeping onto Stephenson’s piano solo. ‘Love is Patient’ takes that one line from Corinthians and unpacks it into a remarkable composition – the melody rises and falls, undulating over a rubato ground from the Trio; it is on a performance such as this where Nelson and Henderson shine: without strict rhythm, they need to be able to breathe as the music breathes, and they do, effortlessly.

‘Going in Circles’ adds some satiny Rhodes flavours to its polyrhythmic maze of melody and ground, where the two encircle each other as the lyric speaks of two people doing the same.

The title tune closes the album. A mini-epic of unpredictability, smart writing and startling originality, the song’s lyric ruminates on identity, universal oneness and where you and I fit in to it all. Nelson’s colourful mallet work behind the melody morphs into a succinct solo, which in turn morphs into the melody restated; this time over a jagged broken chord riff. The entire effect is mesmerising, the eleven minutes passing like seconds.

At the above Foundry gig, Emma Stephenson told me she was moving to New York to take on the jazz world there. I made a lame joke about it being perhaps less dangerous if she climbed into the tiger enclosure at Taronga Park. But based on her work here and elsewhere, as well as her triple-threat of piano, composition and vocal, I have a strong feeling she will have those NYC tigers eating out of her hand.

Album available at https://www.54records.com.au/where-the-rest-of-the-world-begins