Posts Tagged ‘Andrea Keller’

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.

 

 

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In an age of globe-straddling events many smaller explosions go off unnoticed.

One such little ‘Boom!’ is the recent release of the Andrea Keller Quartet’s Greatest Hits, the release of which signals another significant (and just a little sad) event – that of the coming to an end of the much-loved AKQ after seventeen years.

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Pic by Jim Rodon

The album contains twelve tracks drawn from the Quartet’s five albums released from 2001 onwards, the albums winning various ARIA and Bell Awards and a sack of sundry nominations. The personnel across all five is a joy in itself, the morphing Quartet at times having Phil Slater, Shannon Barnett, Steve Magnusson and Gian Slater along for the wave ride of Keller’s startling compositions, as well as the AKQ constants, trumpeter Eugene Ball and tenor Ian Whitehurst.

Bookended by compositions from 2001’s Thirteen Sketches (the impressionistic ‘That Day’) and 2013’s Wave Rider (‘Illuminate’, a string-driven nature hymn), Greatest Hits spans a breathtaking stylistic range, yet never blurs Keller’s singularly focussed vision.

The same gentle humour that named this collection Greatest Hits also lights up the T. Monk-ish lopsided rush of ‘Blue-Arsed Fly’ (Whitehurst absolutely understanding where Keller’s mind is coming from here, his solo a delight) and beams upon the Gian Slater led ‘Twenty Ten’ (twists and turns in the rhythm here, like crossing winter currents just below the surface of a summer river).Andrea Keller Hits 1

Keller’s harmonic sense throughout seems to have its own logic, following its path to places, once arrived at, are just where we want to be. Like all valid jazz writing, her compositional language seems to suit the soloists just fine, too – Ball’s trumpet follows and plays around the smoothly unpredictable chord shifts of ‘Under The Birch Tree’ (and, next, Keller’s own solo makes sense of it all, as of course it should). Phil Slater’s playing across the astonishing harmonic backdrop of ‘The Rain Outside’ is Pollock-like, all strings and knots.

There is blues (2007’s ‘Broken’) and Balkan Dixeland from 2009 (‘Soup Tin Baby’) and lush Shoalhaven dreaming (‘From Nature’s Fabric’). There is Latin, tastes of Europe and of Uluru, underwater sunlight and there are smiles and some deep hurt.

Greatest Hits stands on its own, despite the span of time it holds. Yet it should be seen as a door to the five superb, highly individualistic AKQ albums it samples – Thirteen Sketches (2001), Angels & Rascals (2004)m, Little Claps (2007), Galumphing ‘Round the Nation (2010) and Wave Rider (2013).

 

The AKQ legacy is a rich one. Australian jazz is blessed to have it.

 

 

Published July 2016 on australianjazz.net

 

When Willis Conover announces Thelonious Monk’s set at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival (as preserved in the film Jazz On a Summer’s Day) he observes that “we can’t describe him exactly as ‘daring’, because I think he is unconcerned with any opposition to his music…”.

Which is as good a descriptor of Monk’s view as any (and that of Miles, Shorter et al) and one which fits Australian pianist and composer Andrea Keller to a ‘t’.

The phrase popped into my mind as I checked out Keller’s new Quartet (with Strings) album, Wave Rider – directly after my mind shaped the phrase “Man, Keller takes some chances, daring stuff…”

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Wave Rider is the fifth Keller Quartet album and is made with a string quartet. As ever, I won’t list the accolades and awards Keller and her Quartet have attracted. Suffice to say, they are many and they are deserved. I will instead immerse myself in the wonderful world that is Wave Rider.

Which is easy to do; as easy as plunging into a temperate ocean or allowing oneself to be swallowed by the green cathedrals of the bush. Nature and Her life-force seem to pervade so much of this album.

Opener ‘From Nature’s Fabric’ and the title track are drawn from a 2010 work ‘Place’ – a work inspired by the Arcadian beauty of NSW’s Bermagui region. The dense waves of ‘From Nature’s Fabric’ put you right inside nature’s humid, fecund soul. It is remarkably Australian in its evocations, as is all of the music here.

Many of the other pieces on Wave Rider come from larger works – ‘Ingress’ and ‘Egress’, both featuring hair-raising whistling silvery harmonics from the strings, and ‘Waves I & II’ which put Keller’s splintered and invoking piano to the fore, come from the 2102 work ‘Meditations on Light’.

The pulsing and fading march that is ‘Mister Music’ as well as ‘Patience’ – 10:12 of temporal displacement and rich long spaces (yes, Keller’s writing can make silence feel as rich as the sounded notes are) – come from a 2010 collaboration with the ANU’s Jazz faculty.

Of course it is not even slightly surprising that so many pieces taken from so many sources hold together in perfect cohesion, as they all spring from the mind and sound-world of Andrea Keller, a place that is one of the most original – if not the most original – in Australian jazz.

In his liner notes (notes worth the price of admission in themselves), NYC based pianist Barney McAll – no slouch in the ‘daring’ department himself – says “(Keller) has been blending memories, sonic pictures, Bartok, Shorter and an immaculate classical technique to ensure her trajectory could never disappoint. Andrea is a serious inventor.”

Yes, invention. In a music such as jazz, why shoiuld a true inventor stand out in as sharp relief as this? Isn’t jazz the music of invention, discovery, voyages to the edge of the known world; isn’t jazz the music of ‘daring’? Often one forgets, or takes what hears as questing, experimenting or in some way original – when it is simply not.

It is only when one hears music this brave and fantastically new that one is hit – yes: an intake of breath, a stab of joy and a little shiver of fear – with the realisation that there are still new languages to be heard, new seas to cross. And it just reaffirms one’s faith in jazz, art and human courage that little sweet bit more.keller2

But of course, no space traveler flies alone – Keller’s Quartet has long (since 1999!) been one of our best. Trumpeter Eugene Ball and saxophonist Ian Whitehurst are remarkable, together with drummer Joe Talia they beautifully blur the line between the composition and improvisation allowed in Keller’s pieces.

The strings here: Erkii Veltheim and Helen Ayres on violins with violist Matt Laing and Zoe Knighton on cello, meld with the Quartet, breathing in and out as the music breathes, entirely integral yet free voices.

The result is stunning – Wave Rider is as monumental as nature yet as fleetingly lovely as nature. It takes the art of jazz to its very edge, not in an anarchic or revolutionary way, but in an organic and evolutionary – and thus more ultimately real and grounded – way. Keep your awards – we should simply thank Andrea Keller for that.

McAll, in his notes, also states that Keller’s work has, in some quarters, been ‘violently opposed’. My bet is that she is ‘unconcerned with any opposition to (her) music.’ Like nature, like the core inspirations for Wave Rider, it just is.

And it just is… beautiful.

 

Published December 2103 on australianjazz.net 

 

It has often been said that all composition is improvisation (at some stage) and obversely, that all improvisation is composition (or should be). Nowhere in music is this yin-yang dichotomy more naked – or more essential – than in Jazz.

Melbourne trumpeter Paul Williamson’s new album Four Connect blurs that improvisation-composition line particularly deliciously over nine tracks – nine duets with four fabulous pianists: Tony Gould, Paul Grabowsky, Andrea Keller and Marc Hannaford (yes, I know – wow! What a lineup).

This is Williamson’s eighth album since 2001’s wonderfully-named Non-Consensual Head Compression and, as well as being an obvious evolutionary step, it is a beautiful thing.

four connect2The four were chosen by Williamson as musicians he has had an ‘ongoing musical and personal connection with’, so the person-to-person rapport is already there. The musical rapport, though is somethin’ else.

Williamson says of Tony Gould, pianist for the opening track ‘Piece for Peace’: “Whilst Gould’s mentorship and musical inspiration has been ongoing, this recording is the first time we have recorded together. The rapport is evident in the flowing, expressive, and evocative musical dialogue…”

The mood of ‘Piece for Peace’ is reflective, meditative – and it is this contemplative vibe that is spread across the whole album. Even when things get rhythmic – like the pecked syncopations with Marc Hannaford which open ‘Buzzby’ or the vapid curtains of 4’s from Grabowsky later in ‘Good Morning Melancholy’ – it all has a flowing rubato feeling to it: untethered to rhythm just as the pieces are untethered to melody or untethered to harmony. Not free –untethered, or at most loosely tethered, as we are to a lover.

The lover – or, cooler, the good deep friend – metaphor fits here as well, in the sound of that precious intimacy, across all tracks, of two voices conversing. ‘Flow’ with intense young pianist Andrea Keller just wraps around itself and then around the intertwined trumpet and piano lines in a winding arc that seems to create its own language as it goes.

‘Flow’ is a unique piece among nine unique pieces. All nine are entirely self-contained sound-worlds – remarkable considering that all are made with only unadorned trumpet and piano. No, not unadorned – they are adorned with the impeccable chops, taste and musicality of these musicians.

Paul Williamson alone seems to have a limitless library of ideas, effects and colours at his fingertips (literally) and on the tip of his tongue (literally). His instrument’s breathy burrs, sprays of notes, bends, whimpers and wounded howls add an almost visual dimension to the material – whether Miles-limpid or Hubbard-harsh. There is never an effect for effect’s sake because it is all done with technique-beyond-technique (a phrase I am wearing thin through overuse in these reviews, but one which I keep coming back to as a quality that will save Jazz – and all of us – from the hollow ‘sounding brass’ of virtuosity).four connect1

To hear what I mean, listen quietly and deep deeply to the last two pieces on Four Connect – ‘Helix’ and ‘Time Munched’ – both played with that Zen master, Paul Grabowsky, both telepathically conjoined trumpet-to-piano, both almost meteorologically free yet both as logical as nature; Mandelbrot sets of curlicues and fern-clefs form before your very ears. Improvisation as composition.

Or is it composition as improvisation? Or is is just words after all – black and white reviewers’ ‘music’, dull as a ledger, waiting to be saved by people like Paul Williamson. Listen to Four Connect and let yourself be saved by Williamson and his four wonderful pianists.

Published November 2103 on australianjazz.net