Posts Tagged ‘Balkan’

Trumpeter and composer, Ellen Kirkwood is a Sydney jazz artist I always look forward to hearing more of.

She first made me prick up my ears with the all-women Sirens Big Band, whose catholic orbit happily included her Balkan/jazz/blues mashups (check her ‘Balkanator’, the opening track on Siren’s LP Kali and the Time of Change). Her first album under her own name (ok, Captain Kirkwood), was a jazz/spoken word retelling of the ancient Greek legend of Theseus and The Minotaur.

She also bobs up with Mister Ott and Serge Stanley’s On The Stoop as well as others around town, including David Sattout’s grisly Zappa-flavoured Facemeat. The binding quality of her music and her collaborations is that is consistently has one foot firmly in jazz and the other trailing in the waters of a tangy broth of blues, rock, gypsy swing, klezmer, reggae and you-name-it.

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Her new release – under the band-name of Fat Yahoozah – titled I Don’t Care, is no exception to her unique catalogue. Maybe a bit more fun, maybe a little more raucous, but as smart and brightly arranged as anything that has come before.

And she adds the arrow of vocalist to her quiver. The title track, ‘I Don’t Care’ has Kirkwood singing a world-weary lyric over a breezy pop song (Lotte Lenya goes to Bondi?). Simon Ferenci’s trombone solo is light and grinning before a lilting horn/voice ensemble riff.

‘Klezmore’ (get it?) is a drunken wedding waltz with a dark lyric of childhood foreboding. Even though I am reviewing this album in dry July, I look forward to listening to this tune (hopefully live) after maybe one too many shiraz cabs. Once again, beautifully balanced and heartfelt horn arrangements paint the picture.

‘Translation Day’ has Ruth Wells’ soprano intro-ing with some Eastern European blues before the ensemble clips along on a lovely village polka; Jessica Dunn’s bowed bass singing like Grandpapa. The tune accelerates and accelerates until all the winter leaves are blown off the trees. This tune made me realize how vivid the sound pictures are on the album; how much Soul it has.fat yahoozah 1

The band Kirkwood has assembled helps paint the pictures beautifully. She has smartly drawn the players from her previous and current collaborations – Wells from the Sirens and Facement, David Sattout on guitar, Serge Stanley on sax and accordian, Ferenci, The Sirens’ Dunn on bass with Evan McGregor on drums and percussives.

I know the band has been knocking everyone out playing live around town – it’s a killer one-two punch: jazz chops with gypsy party moods that anyone can love. It’s awfully good to drink to, but even better to listen to. I recommend you do.


Published July 2015 on



And into my life just at the right time comes Sydney’s On The Stoop.

Saxophonist/accordianist/vocalist Serge Stanley‘s 6-piece (sometimes seven, sometimes nine-piece) superband is my new favourite Zappa-flavoured, Spaghetti Western, gypsy-eyed, banjo powered, 1920’s/2040’s, Newtown,  Balkan wedding band. They are wild and silly, drunk and serious. They leave roomfuls of people with huge grins across their faces – people who really couldn’t give a shit about the jazz luminaries who people On The Stoop, people who should (and do) give a shit about Serge’s choicely barbed lyrics – sticking it to the bankers and wankers and wowsers and posers (while making your whole legs tap and jig).

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From Eastern European skirls to corduroy banjo songs, from truck-sized Big Leg Emma (Google her!) funky rockers to Da Blooz par excellence, I think I really do love it all. Their self-titled debut album is all this and more. Go buy it.

I asked Serge Stanley a few questions about the where, why and how of On The Stoop. And this is what he said.


1. Where does On The Stoop come from; how did the band start?
A stoop is an American word for the stairs in front of a tenement building. I used to live in New York City from 2003 – 2007. Living the dream in the big apple made me write a lot of very dark songs, some of them while standing out front on the stoop. When I came home, Dirk our guitarist and a musician I have been playing music with for many years, suggested we call the band On The Stoop. The initial material we played was quite dark and brooding, reflecting my time in NYC. Gradually however the sound of the band however has gone through a kind of phoenix-like cathartic revolution. Our music has evolved to become uncompromising and ultimately optimistic. I’d like to make music that flies in the face of the madness and adversity that life can throw at us.
2. You have some heavy-hitters on board from the world of jazz and experimental music. How did you pick your players?
It’s true we are very fortunate to have musicians in the band who are as accomplished as they are. I’ve admired the playing of everybody in On The Stoop by seeing them play in other bands. The rhythm section is composed of the most versatile musicians I’ve played with. Many of my tunes have these massive atonal horn lines so it was fun getting people to play who wanted to play kind of semi-unusual stuff. As a saxophone player myself I’m influenced by jazz, even though I wouldn’t consider myself a jazz musician. So most of the people in the band inevitably have jazz and experimental music backgrounds. I’ve made squeaky noises previously in other experimental music bands so it wasn’t hard to incorporate that into On The Stoop as well.
On the Stoop33. I hear Balkan music, country, Zappa, 20’s jazz and raw blues in there. Where does your music come from?
I always wanted to be in a punk rock band. When I was a teenager I went to private school in the inner city. I remember cruising down Yurong St Darlinghurst in my school blazer in the 80’s and seeing all the dodgy looking rocker people. Skinny black jeans, lank black hair, lanky pale arms and legs. I wanted to grow up to be just like them. The obstacle was I was 13, living in the Eastern suburbs, was healthy and played clarinet. Since then I’ve always been perennially uncool. But I love punk rock. A lot of the music I like has a nihilistic, I don’t care energy in it. For that reason I’m influenced by musicians like Mark Simmonds, Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy. Bands like The Buzzcocks, Wire, The Fall, The Beasts of Bourbon, Tom Waits, Howling Wolf, John Hurt, Captain Beefheart, Taraf de Haidouks and many more from all sorts of genres.

4. You seem to wrap your satirical and fight-the-power lyrics in rollicking good time music – is it more important to get the message across or to get people boogying?
These days I like to have a rollicking good time when I’m playing gigs so that’s the kind of music I’ve been doing lately. I’m not interested in whether people agree with my views, my ideas aren’t that unusual and we live in a free country. As long as I play well and have a good time and the audience likes it then that’s what I call a satisfying gig. Social justice is in this country is definitely on my mind as well. I guess it’s made it’s way into the tunes. I’ve always had a healthy distrust of preachers, and I think wiser people tend not to hang on to their opinions too tightly. However if you’ve got something to say and manage to say it respectfully and keep people listening and having a good time then you’ve probably done a good show.

5. What is next for On The Stoop?
I’d like to do some more touring. Our last few trips have gone really well. Lots of fun, the band had a good time and was well received. I’m writing a bunch of new tunes, got a lot of material for a new album. The new music is going to be pretty angular I think. Hopefully a little more dangerous. A lot rockier. The band is in a good creative position at the moment to stretch the paradigm to try some interesting things. Lately I’ve been listening to a band called James Chance and The Contortions and a Japanese 80’s group called The Plastics. I’m hoping my next recording will be inspired by a bit of that stuff.

6. What are you thoughts on music today: jazz in particular and the wider range of music in general?
I love the state of the music industry at the moment. In Sydney there are some wonderful musicians doing some very cool things. We’re lucky in this town to have such a great pool of talent. There is the tendency for us to think that there are better or more inspiring musicians overseas however that’s not necessarily true. I’ve certainly been massively inspired by the musicians in the local scene here. I’ve been getting into listening to random music on Spotify and have found some fantastic music I’ve never heard before. They say it’s hard to make a living as a musician, but it’s always been hard. So what’s changed? And that has never stopped me writing or playing.

Published May 2015 on

The 1979 novel If on a winter’s night a traveller (non-title case intended) by post-modern writer Italo Calvino has been described as a ‘playful, post-modern puzzle’. It is a many-storeyed funhouse of thematic mirror-mazes, prismatic lenses, dead-ends, genre-mashups and multi-person narrative

In short, it is surprising that it has taken this long for it to be used as inspiration for a musical suite.

Melbourne based composer, trombonist and arranger – his bio suggests ‘sound artist’, which is, yes, closer to the truth – Tilman Robinson, has taken the Calvino novel and put it through his own prismatic lens, creating the suite Network of Lines.

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Given that the original is kaleidoscopic, Robinson’s confident repurposing of Calvino’s narrative material could have been a dog’s breakfast (a slightly tripped-out, pretentious dog at that).

It says much for the composer’s taste, style and wit that it isn’t. In fact Network of Lines is a work of ethereal and pure loveliness – albeit one with a red-blooded heart. No wonder ABC Jazz’s Jessica Nicholas listed its 2012 live premier as one of her top five musical highlights of that year.

Originally composed for the 2012 APRA Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival, Network of Lines has now been released through Perth’s ever-(pleasantly)-surprising Listen/Hear Collective. It is Robinson’s debut recording and is performed here by a nine-piece electro-acoustic ensemble.

Opener ‘Winter’s Night’ sets up an accent of cool drama with an almost ‘Maiden Voyage’ ensemble passage rising out of a low, low laptop drone, and scratched at by ambient noises as it develops.

What is also set up is a chill European atmosphere that pervades the entire work. Whether the becalmed, funereal ‘In Search of An Anchor’ (with a lovely translucent piano solo from Berish Bilander), or the drunken 7/8 Balkan wedding reel of ‘Malbork, Cimmeria’ (named for the novel’s fictional setting), this music breathes the woody smoke of the Old World. And the smoke is pungent and heady. Breathe deep. tilman robinson1

Robinson’s sharp writing – and the sympatico skill of this bright, young ensemble in speaking it – is most evident on the quite amazing ‘The Void and The Iron Bridge/Shadow’s Gather’. The opening trombone theme (whispered to us, it seems, from Bartok’s Hungarian lakes) is taken up by the ensemble but staggered and slightly wonky. Soon the ensemble is marching around the lip of the void, fearlessly drunk, laughing into it’s maw. Drummer Hugh Harvey balances and holds this danse macabre beautifully, playing perfectly (imperfectly?) in and out of time with a bright empathy (and a slight grin).

Robinson’s writing throughout is exceptional – just as he avoids the obvious tone-poem trip in his reading of If on a winter’s night a traveller, he equally puts aside cliche or overt stylistic bindings in his compositions and sound-organisation. What we end up with is a truly beautiful balance of evocation and surprise, all spoken with a very human voice. You can’t help but feel each of these pieces deep within; sometimes with a small cut of pang, sometimes with the sweet kiss of caress.

His writing can be muscular too as on the twin piece ‘Lines: Enlacing’ and ‘Lines: Intersecting’. But it is the deeper, more mist-obscured pieces here that took me away to Cimmeria. The hymn-like quality of the suite’s closer ‘What Story Down There Awaits Its End?’ almost suggests a spirituality glowing through its milky haze.

Spirituality? In a work inspired by post-modern writing? Maybe not, nihilism is the religion there. But If on a winter’s night a traveller is Calvino’s work, not Robinson’s – Network of Lines is all Tilman Robinson’s work and it is quite something.

Published February 2104 on 

Since forming in 2010, the Sirens Big Band have been a blast of Persian-scented fresh air into Sydney’s jazz scene, a scene where the rare female musician (who is not a vocalist) can stand out like a sapphire in the gravel. The Sirens are all-female, all-funky and all-embracing in their influences.

Sirens - pic Quirijn Mees

Band co-leaders Jessica Dunn and Harriet Harding have guided the Sirens from the beginning into a unique style heavy on the world-music grooves – oh, how I hate that word (as John McLaughlin, himself a great cross-pollinator, said “we ALL live in the World, don’t we?”) – there are Ethiopian, African, Latin, Balkan, Indian sounds there as well as New York funk, Chicago swing and Newtown boogie.

The Sirens’ debut album, Kali and The Time of Change reinforces these pan-continental grooves just as it reinforces the good time the band has when making music. Opener ‘Balkanator’ – penned by trumpeter Ellen Kirkwood (definitely a composer to watch) – jumps out like a joyful and slightly tipsy village wedding dance, the players throwing the solos around over drummer Lauren Benson’s grinning groove.

Sirens mentor (“our jazz mamma”) Sandy Evans’ Indian-spiced nine-minute-plus piece, the title track ‘Kali and The Time of Change’ opens with Harding’s sopranino talking back to the Band’s unison riffs. The piece settles down into a floating groove over which Harding raps “something majestic/ something lyrical/ female Aladdin representing future changes yo…” – a bright rap that evokes scenes in the mind and a call for peace in the heart. Quite beautiful.

Harriet Harding and tenor saxophonist Ruth Wells travelled to the Middle East last year and came back with more than they took away. These inspirations fuelled Harding’s ‘Kali’ rap and also Wells’ gorgeous ‘Hawassa to Addis’. This piece has guitarist Milan Ring singing over the entire band singing as a choir. I don’t know why it affects so deeply but it does – is it the lovely pentatonic Ethiopian folk tune the piece is based on? or is it that the choir of female voices sounds like children? or is it the low blues moan of Jessica Dunn’s bass during her solo? Who knows – best not to dwell on these things, best to just dig beauty as she should be dug, unquestioningly.Sirens Kali

The Sirens have, since their inception, played charts by some wonderful local composers and it is gratifying to see they have included several pieces here that they have had in their setlists from Day One. Paul Murchison’s hip-shaking 7/8 (if there can be such a thing, this is it) ‘I Still Remember’ gets the whole band cooking before a coolly soulful piano solo from Monique Lysiak. Nadia Burgess’s evocative, watercolour-washed ‘The Music in My Dreams’ is a masterclass in jazz big band tone-colour and restraint.

Jenna Cave’s sprightly African-limbed 9/8 jaunt ‘Odd Time In Mali’ has long been a Sirens’ favourite – by the time it smoothes out to 4/4 for Emma Riley’s sinuous trombone solo and Milan Ring’s chicken-picked guitar solo, if your foot ain’t tapping you are either made of machine-parts or dead.

Closing track Mulatu Astatke’s ‘Yekatit’ has all the elements that we love about the Siren’s Big Band – Ethio funk that swings, killer solos (Sophie Unsen’s baritone sax burning here) over a blasting band, and a joyful vibe presiding over all. It is a combination you won’t get anywhere else and they are one of Sydney’s – if not Australia’s – treasures.

The Siren’s Big Band – long may they sing us over the edge.

The Siren’s website is

Published February 2103 on