Posts Tagged ‘Chick Corea’

The only place on Earth where jazz exists is The United States.

It sometimes feels like that. Especially if you check the (North) American and international jazz press. How many U.S. jazz fans are aware of our great artists such as David Ades, Julien Wilson, Mike Nock or Bernie McGann?

And how many are aware of Japanese, Swedish or French jazz? There is some great stuff to be heard from all over the world; a friend recently put me onto an organ trio from Greece that was knockout!

Ingrid james1Australian jazz singer Ingrid James’ recent release – Trajectoire – just might convince a few more that there is some good music to be had beyond West 44th Street (or 505 or Bennett’s Lane). Made with a mix of Australian, French, Danish and U.S. players, it is a revelation.

James is here paired with the Alexis Tcholakian Trio from France. In fact the album grew out of pianist Tcholakian’s request that she pen lyrics for a number of his compositions. Direct, and with just the right mix of experience, urbanity and poetry, her lyrics work so well it is hard to believe often that they didn’t come first, before the melodies.

Another nice balance across Trajectoire is that James has found the right point between the hip and the sweet. Too many recent jazz vocal albums seem to take the tame path, assumedly in the hope of wider audience – maybe on the fringe of Pop. This collection of songs retains some true grit and jazz light and shade, yet steers clear of the miasmic mists that afflict the jazz vocal recordings at the other end of the spectrum. There is a strong feeling of tradition – but respect for that tradition rather than either a dry clinging to it, or a sickly sugaring of it.

This balance is exemplified by the opening mission statement, a reading of Jimmy Rowles’ ‘A Timeless Place (The Peacocks)’ (lyric by Norma Winstone). James navigates this tricky winding melody with superbly simpatico paino from Tcholakian and his trio.Ingrid james2

The arrangement is smartly considered, with the piano mirroring in unison some sections of the vocal. This device is used to great effect on many tracks, marketely on the two vocal solos written by Louise Denson – the first, a duet with Danish tenor sax player Simon Spang-Hanssen on the Hammond-driven ‘Blue Confluence’; the second on the Bill Evans-ish waltz of ‘Night Reflection’.

The latter duet is with Australia’s Miroslav Bukovsky whose flugelhorn’s round golden tone sounds uncannily like a human voice itself.

The snaky melody, latin groove and Marian Bitran’s flute of the title track, ‘Trajectoire’ recalls Chick Corea’s 70s work with Flora Purim. The album pulls from many styles of jazz – ‘Midsummer Flower’s samba, the Rhodes-driven fusion of ‘Circle of Love’, the languid ballad of album closer ‘It’s Not Over’ – but there is a unity that holds it all together, a major factor being James’ warm and honeyed voice – like Dianne Reeves, a voice born for jazz.

Trajectoire is satisfying on all levels. I look forward to more from Ingrid James and Alexis Tcholakian.

Published March 2016 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.

chick and herbie

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

Fusion of genres truly only work when each colliding style has enough in common to make the fusing seamless. Whether technique, timbre or just plain spirit, some common tongue needs to be spoken.

Bossa Nova of the 1950s had US jazz and Brazilian tang fitting together like a hand in a parrot-plumed glove. The whirling syncopations of Spanish music also dances beautifully with jazz ­– check our own wonderful Translators – and the flailing marriage of Irish jigs and reels with Punk Rock can be hugely exciting.

Travelled drummer, Daniel Susnjar has combined jazz with Peruvian rhythms, melodies and inspirations for his debut album, Su Su Nje.

Daniel Susnjar1Opener ‘Enciendete Candela’ sets up a rolling yet spiky 6/8. As the melody is passed around the lead instruments, you can hear the distinctly jazz elements and the equally distinct Peruvian elements working together – not in parallel, but twined like a two coloured braid.

What you can also hear is Daniel Susnjar’s easy dexterity and his knack of playing right inside the music. As well as keeping this tricky groove up he plays with the soloists, kicking along Laura Leguia’s soprano solo and adding some sparkle around Gabriel Alegria‘s trumpet, all without dropping a stitch.

His own drum solo on ‘Enciendete Candela’ – interestingly answering a short melodic fragment – is smartly constructed and ‘sings’ beautifully.

‘Enciendete Candela’ is one of several rearranged classic Peruvian pieces Susjar has included in homage to the country’s master composers and musicians.

His own pieces fit the mix neatly – ‘Land O Sus’ a lazier 6/8 with a sun-baked Spanish patina (check the fleet guitar solo of Daniel’s father, Danny Susnjar), ‘One Four Five’ a rock-fusion suite with some real arrangement smarts, ‘Fearless Feel’ a piece of percussion momentum that rolls like a wheel into tomorrow.Daniel Susnjar2

Perth-native Susnjar recently returned from the United States, where he earned his Masters and Doctor of Musical Arts degrees. He has performed and recorded with artists including Chick Corea, Pharrell Williams, Bobby McFerrin, Terence Blanchard, Steve Miller, Danilo Perez, Dave Douglas, Chris Potter, Victor Wooten, Joshua Redman and Dave Grusin.

For Su Su Nje, Susnjar selected just the right players based in New York, Miami and Peru – from New York, trumpeter Alex Pope Norris, tenor Troy Roberts, bassist Sam Anning and Paul Bollenback; from Miami, trombonist (and conch shell man) Chad Bernstein; and Peruvian musicians Gabriel Alegria, acoustic guitarist Yuri Juarez, Laura Andrea Leguia, and cajon player Freddy Huevito Lobaton. Daniel was proud to have his father Danny Susnjar co-produce and co-mix the album, as well contribute as a special musical guest.

With Su Su Nje, Susnjar has created a fresh and bright thing. The Peruvian/Jazz collision is a soft one, like lovers coming together ­– and, unlike both the hush cool of Bossa, or the giddy muscle of Afro-Cuban and much other South Am music, the jazz-Peruvian thing is a unique vibe. I do hope we hear more of it.

And I certainly do hope we hear more of Daniel Susnjar.

 

For more info, visit http://www.danielsusnjar.com

The CD is available from Daniel Susnjar‘s website www.danielsusnjar.com and from iTunes.

 

 

Published April 2104 on australianjazz.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I once heard John Coltrane’s playing described as the sound of a ‘very large man crammed into a tiny room, shooting notes at the corners of that room.’ I have often though of that neat phrase when experiencing the playing of Sydney tenor colossus James Ryan. Lyrical as it is, in a jazz setting  – even in his big, bad Sonic Mayhem Big Band – his playing can so strong that it sometimes threatens to immolate the horn with that same sort of phosphorescent energy Coltrane could put out.

So it makes sense that jazz-fusion is a good fit for James Ryan. Jazz-rock fusion (theoretically) takes the best of both musics – the unbridled energy of Rock and the freedom and imagination of Jazz – and combines them to make something (theoretically) greater than the sum of its parts. Unfortunately, too much fusion seems to take, instead, the bombast of Rock and the noodling of Jazz and can be excruciatingly awful.

That said, outfits such as Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter’s Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Chick Corea’s various Return to Forevers have made music that hits some stratospheric and ecstatic highs – that wouldn’t be possible in either Jazz or Rock individually.

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Ryan’s fusion super-group, The Subterraneans, are the best of the best. Comprising a core of Ryan, electric bassist Steve Hunter, drummer James Hauptmann and hyperkinetic guitarist James Muller, they are a force of nature, balancing ferocious energy with focused and sharp musical ideas. John Shand has said of The Subs “This is what the fusion of Jazz and Rock always promised but rarely delivered: sophisticated improvising harnessed to raw power.

Their recent album Live at The Townie is drawn from shows The Suberraneans performed at Newtown’s Town Hall Hotel every Sunday in February, March, April and May 2012 and Feb 2013. Every performance was recorded and eight tracks (out of over 100) were selected. Guests Rai Thistlethwayte on keys (lovely gritty Rhodes on the very Miles-ish ‘So To Speak’) and guitarist Ben Hauptmann add to the proceedings. subterraneans1

All this talk of Rock and power, howver, belies the scope of The Subterraneans’ dynamic. Opener ‘Constant Change’ is a demonstration of the freedom the band can spin music from – trippy and ambient, it is the sound of band that can truly breathe together (something surprisingly rare in ‘super-groups’). ‘So To Speak’ begins with bass-harmonic atmospheres from Steve Hunter, reminiscent of Jaco Pastorius’ ‘Continuum’, before moving through 11:09 of beautiful soloing from Ryan and the previously mentioned Thistlethwayte.

But all subtle grooving aside, it is the excitingly hair-raising pieces here that really get the band’s blood flowing – their take on ‘The Subterraneans’ makes the studio version, already a barnstorming performance, pale by comparison. Ryan’s soloing threatens to split his tenor at the seams, but it is James Muller’s shredding explorations that push the band into hyperdrive. Muller’s playing throughout is a reminder of the power in his playing, but power – as it is with every member of The Subs – that is subservient to the music and the collective momentum.

It is a rare treat to have a band bristling with soloists such as Ryan, Muller and Hunter. It is an even rarer treat when they subsume their egos to combine into such a remarkable band. And it is a yet even rarer treat when the performances of such a collective can be recorded (nice work Dave Bourke!) in a live setting with all its attendant fire and brimstone and in-the-moment immediacy. As I said, the best of the best.

The Subterraneans – Live at The Townie is released through Rippa Recordings and available from www.ripparecordings.com and Birdland.

Published May 2103 on australianjazz.net 

 

Sometimes I think it is Europe that will save Jazz – not that Jazz really needs saving, just as Rock doesn’t need saving, but both could do with the occasional cracker up the wazoo.

Whenever Jazz seems threatened by the over-zealous or paralysingly-respectful American approach, I am heartened by Northern sounds such as Esbjörn Svensson’s  E.S.T. (R.I.P. the band and the man) from Sweden or more recently Norway’s crushingly heavy Elephant9. I also think back to the enormous popularity among the hashish-and-Escher set of the arty ECM label from Germany, who gave us Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett (Americans ignored initially by their homeland) and continues to break new and intriguing artists to this day.

Phronesis-58 long

The recent release of Walking Dark by Scandinavian-British trio, Phronesis, as well as reminding me of that particularly European approach to improvised music, is a delight. I say ‘improvised music,’ instead of Jazz, as their approach seems – like so many Euro Improv artists – to have leached any trace of the Blues out of it, finally cutting off that already shrivelled branch to Mother America.

The Euro approach seems to take as much from Northern European classical music as anything else, and (surprisingly) Latin music – especially the rhythmic quirks of Cuban music, which in itself was a beautiful mongrel of Spanish, African and anything else that happened to sail into port. Blues out, Latin in – ‘Chega De Saudade’ indeed.

Just check out Walking Dark’s ‘Upside Down’ which starts with a single, repeated syncopated piano note from Ivo Neame (UK). This simple-yet-complex motif is soon joined by the bass of Jasper Hoiby (Denmark) and the drums of Anton Eger (Sweden) to create a very Latin lattice of cross-rhythms and cross-currents that works so perfectly. Maybe it is because the piano cannot bend a note that the Blues is banished but I don’t see that as the full story. Phronesis seem to work best when creating this mesh of sound and pulling and pushing it into different texture and shapes.

Phronesis – the word means ‘wisdom’ or ‘intelligence’ or, more specifically ‘the wisdom to change our lives for the better’ – is the brainchild of London-based bassist Hoiby and was formed in 2005. The group has been described by Jazzwise Magazine as “the most exciting and imaginative piano trio since E.S.T.” and I think they are right.PhronesisLP

Much of this excitement, to my ear, comes from the democratic approach of Phronesis, each player given entirely free rein to move their strand of the music forward as they see fit, or feel at the time. In this sense, ‘democratic’ is not an accurate term, as it suggests a lowest common denominator. Phronesis are all leaders – they just lead simultaneously (is this the essence of true democracy?). Check out some of the improvising – or ‘blowing’ sections – on Walking Dark, such as the middle of ‘Lipwash Part II’ or the drum solo over a groovy montuno (there’s that Latin vibe again) in ‘Zeiding’.

Walking Dark is a revelation. Any Radiohead or Brian Eno fan out there will dig it – once again, the European-ness of it all brings it together.

Thinking of checking Jazz out? Now’s the time, Phronesis is the band, Walking Dark is the album.

Pics by Katja Liebing. Check out Katja Liebing’s gallery of photos from Phronesis’s recent Blue Beat show here.

Phronesis’s website is here.

Published March 2013 on theorangepress.net

One of the true delights of any music festival is that, for a few days – or even just a few precious hours – you are in a strange and beautiful new world, away from the tangle and hum of city life. The 4th Jazzgroove  Summer Festival reigned over Sydney’s Redfern-Surry Hills Delta for four days in January, staking out the territory in the name of modern composition, improvised music and the jazz life.

And what a strange and beautiful world they conjured for us among the bricks and grime, the litter and the 7-11 Stores.

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I was fortunate to start at the very beginning, with Tom O’Halloran’s solo piano opener on Thursday at Surry Hills’ Tom Mann Theatre. A smart choice to open the Festival, O’Halloran’s sure touch made the piano sigh and glitter. His closer, a sparkling ‘No More Blues’ served as a teasing appetiser for a weekend of stellar music.

jazzgroove mothership orc

And stellar was the word (a TV sports cliché yes, but too apt to not use here) for Jonathan Zwartz’s band, up next. A Dream Team of players – Slater, Maegraith, Greening, Julien Wilson blowing (his and) our minds, Dewhurst, Matt McMahon, Hamish Stuart and percussionista Fabian Hevia holding it down with the calm river that is Zwartz himself. And from that calm river flowed strong and sure compositions, with melodic lines that were often country-simple but Gospel-true. From the opener ‘Shimmer’ through to ‘Henry’s High Life’, it was transfixing soul-blues that had the soloists reaching within – Phil Slater and Richard Maegraith especially going deep on the latter tune – leaving the audience at Tom Mann visibly affected. Like all true wisdom there was very little flash, but a universe of quiet fire.

The opening night was climaxed by the mighty Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra, paying tribute to genius jazz composer Bob Brookmeyer (who sadly passed from this earthly plane last year). Even though the Orchestra bristles with astounding soloists, it was the Festival’s International Guest Artist (I suppose Aotearoa counts as international) tenor magus Roger Manins that was featured on all charts. The Orchestra is truly a national treasure and for this, their 10th anniversary gig, they played better than I have ever heard them – snapping and roiling on the fiery pieces and painting colour washed mists on the quieter pieces such as the lovely ‘Fireflies’. Manins stood toe-to-toe with the band on the blasting finale, ‘See Saw’, his tenor sassing back and cajoling the Mothership. Big kudos to drummer Jamie Cameron who rode the roaring beast on all pieces with great style and verve.

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Friday was Fusion Day for me as I took in the electro-jazz of the Alcohotlicks at 505 and later, the flamenco-jazz of Steve Hunter’s Translators down the road at the Gaelic. It had been Sydney’s hottest day ever (!) on record and the evening was still dripping from the day.alcohotlicks

At 505, The Alcohotlicks’ Evan Mannell admitted to ‘shitting himself’ at the prospect of working without a drum kit. He then won us all over with a beautiful funky groove, cut-up on his sample box from Jimi Hendrix’s throaty ‘Who Knows’ riff. Joined by Ben Hauptmann on MIDI guitar and laptop, and Aaron Flower (the hoary traditionalist of the group who merely plays a guitar through an amp) the trio – winners of the inaugural Jazzgroove Association Recording Artist Award  – astounded with tracks from their album Danaïdes. ‘Neon’ was neo-NEU! motorik funk; ‘Baader’ was Goldfrapp/Moroder replicant-porn boogie. Did I sense a few members of the 505 audience shifting in their seats during the Alcohotlicks set? Artists such as these are the ones who move any music forward and all kudos to them for working at the edge of the Jazz comfort zone. A little seat shifting is always a good sign.

steve hunter, the translatorsDown the steaming street to the Gaelic. By now slightly drunk on the merlot and the humidity, I was taken away completely by The Translators. Too loud for the room – not a bad thing at all – electric bass toreador Steve Hunter and the quartet blazed through a set of flamenco-flecked originals that had Míro dancing with Manitas de Plata, Chick Corea dancing with de Falla in my swirling head. At times Ben Hauptmann’s electric mandolin solos sounded like a 70’s micro-Moog, the otherworldly tone beautifully offset by Damien Wright’s flamenco gut-string. ‘Turquoise’ was blue in green in orange. ‘The Last Trannie’ was Madrid via Soweto. Always a fiery and sparkling group, tonight – after not playing together for two years – The Translators shone like a Catalonian sun and lit all our faces with broad smiles. Not so long between sangrias next time, please amigos!

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the fantastic terrific munkle

Saturday my hangover needed the peace of Prince Alfred Park and the gentle afternoon humour of The Fantastic Terrific Munkle. Cool breezes blew, people picnicked on the grass, and from between two huge trees, The Munkle – powered by Sam Golding’s tuba and the (snake-)charming clarinet of Jeremy Rose – wove their musical tales of whimsy, recalling ragtime, Dixie, weird old blues and French salon jazz. The song announcements were made through a megaphone, the guitar amp was powered by solar panels and guitarist Julian Curwin wore thongs. It was all so sweetly organic, it made the afternoon time stand beautifully still.

Too much daylight – bah! Back into the night and the Steve Barry Trio with Alex Boneham and the quicksilver Tim Firth at 505. This is the trio that played on Barry’s recent album, Steve Barry – a startling album made (conjured from the elements, rather) by this startling combination of players. All the telepathic play and spiritual-empathic magic that lights up the album was here on stage tonight. Reminding me of Bill Evans’ trios or Keith Jarrett’s ‘standards’ trios, Barry-Boneham-Firth could spat and spar – as on opener ‘B.W.’ – or dissipate like evening mist across an introspective ballad such as the lovely ‘Epiphany’. Some of the most fluidly intelligent music in jazz has been made within the piano trio format and groups such as Steve Barry’s trio remind me why.

After the rollicking fun of altoist Ross Harrington’s vibey, young and fun Midnight Tea Party – Dixie, klemzer, ska flavours; a huge hit with the 505 crowd – we were treated to the Andrew Gander Band.

richard maegraithIn a Festival line-up luminescent with musical wonders, I can unreservedly say the Andrew Gander Band was the highlight for me – and I am sure many there would agree. His five-piece group hit their jaw-dropping stride from the first note and ascended from there. I had already seen each of Gander’s sidemen in other Festival groups but playing with Gander seemed to push each of them into the deeper reaches of their own musical universe. Tenor player Richard Maegraith seemed particularly inspired, blowing hard into the white-hot areas of his horn’s capabilties. (My friend, CC – who knows about such things – said after one of Maegraith’s solos “I could see his aura and light flashing off him!”) Bassist Brett Hirst twinned with Gander through all of the music’s twists and turns almost preternaturally. Steve Barry would smartly sit out during guitarist Carl Morgan’s solos, allowing the drum-bass-guitar trio to stretch the harmonies and rhythms into new fluid shapes. The Gander originals such as ‘Retrograde’ (with one of those sizzling rock feels that Billy Cobham does so well) and the 5/4 roller coaster ride of ‘Prism’ were just eaten alive by the band, who also managed great takes on radically reshaped standards such as ‘Star Eyes’ and Dizzy’s ‘Con Alma’.

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ben hauptmann, zoe and the buttercups

Where to go from there? Thankfully the Sunday program offered sweet soul relief in the form of Festival Guest Roger Manins and the original lineup of his soul-jazz champions, Hip Flask. To a packed 505, Manins’ testifying tenor led the quintet through ‘Bang’, ‘Big Sis’, ‘John Scon’ and others from their Jazzgroove catalogue. Against the indigo-blue Hammond of Stu Hunter, Adam Ponting’s peppery shards of piano dissonance put Hip Flask in their own category without losing any soul-jazz juice. The intro to ‘Blues for Adam Ponting’ moved in and out of harmonic focus until Manins brought us back to the planet with some real deep earth. (Manins was also one of the drollest bandleaders of the Festival, his tongue popping almost through his cheek at times during his stage announcements…)

By now saturated to the brim with music and fine 505 merlot, I took one last rolling stroll down Chalmers Street, climbing the stairs to the Gaelic to bid the Festival adieu with Zoe Hauptmann and her Buttercups. The six piece snapped my jaded mind awake with their patented country-soul stomp and Tele-blaster Aaron Flower’s always-exhilarating chicken-pickin’. Watching Ms Hauptmann leading her Buttercups up there, a question swam into my mind: Where were all the women musicians at the 4th Summer Festival? Ok, there was Zoe H and new bassist Hannah James (yes, Elana Stone too, but I am not counting vocalists in this equation) – that’s two out of an awful lot of male musicians. This is not a polemic point, nor is the question rhetoric; it is an honest query. The Con and other institutions turn out many many women musicians, musicians who have graduated alongside their male contemporaries, women musicians who are out there any night of the week paying as many gig dues as the guys. So why, when you get to the highest levels of jazz in this country – such as the annual Jazzgroove Festival – are women so insignificantly spoken for?

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In his Sunday night wrap-up speech, Jazzgroove President (and Buttercup trombonist) John Hibbard admitted that this year’s Summer Festival almost didn’t happen. The committee had sat around Matt McMahon’s dining table and voted on going through with it or not. It was that dire. After four days of wonderfully attended gigs by our best and brightest – and some performances that seriously deserve to pass into myth and legend – it is hard to believe that meeting ever took place. But positive energy ruled that day – the vote was to go ahead – and that same positive energy ruled the 4th Jazzgroove  Summer Festival.

And thank God, Miles and Duke that it did.

The Jazzgroove website is here.

Published January 2103 on australianjazz.net 

Guilty pleasures – we all have them (ok, mine are 70s Glam Rock and New Idea). To many ‘serious’ Jazz musicians, that much-derided mongrel, Jazz Fusion (Jazz-Rock Fusion, Jazz-Funk Fusion, Fusion), is one such guilty pleasure, lurking in the aesthetic wardrobe, way up the back.

Seen through the clearer lens of time – unencumbered by the era’s afros, flares and white guys wearing dashikis – 1970s Jazz Fusion can (almost) be forgiven for spawning its idiot bastard, Smooth Jazz. Groups like Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter’s Weather Report, Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and Chick Corea’s Return to Forever (and, later, Elektric Band) – and of course, the electric bands of the genre’s sire, Miles Davis – had some serious jazz mojo going on: brilliant creative arrangements, in-the-pocket ensemble playing and stunning solos. Many jazz fans, used to the timbres of piano, horn and jazz kit were perhaps turned off by the wah-wah’s, clavinets and swooping synths; but there is much of lasting value in this music.

Sean Wayland, in the liner notes to his staggering two volume, 27-track Jazz Fusion-inspired new release, Slave To The Machine Vols 1&2, offers the droll caveat “Some of this music is corny fusion music”. But he obviously loves this synthesizer stuff and doesn’t care who knows it.

From electro-popping whimsy such as ‘Rotovibe’ – a collage of scratch-mixed ideas – to the entirely acoustic pieces such as ‘Special When Lit’ – a beautifully measured sound-river featuring his current band of Matt Penman on bass and Jochen Rueckert on drums – Slave To The Machine Vols 1&2, has a over-arching cohesion that belies the fact this music was recorded over a 5-year period, from 2007 to 2012.

That cohesion is tested by Wayland’s strangely cool take – powered by his Nord Modular and astonishing drummer Mark Guiliana – on John Coltrane’s ‘Giant Steps’ and at the other end of the spectrum, the truly spiritual ‘Devotional’ – a duet with the always-transporting singer Kristen Berardi. But it all hangs together just fine; hardly a surprise as all this dazzling music springs from the mind of one of Australia’s most gifted jazz composers.

Speaking of hearing fusion guitarist Alan Holdsworth’s Flat Tyre, Wayland says, “The sounds of the synths really captured me. That’s when I realised it was possible to do something very interesting and original with synthesizers.”

And like Chick Corea, like Weather Report’s Joe Zawinul, he has transcended the inherent hollowness of timbre and often stilted expressiveness of these keyboards. Whether it be Nord, Oberheim or Yamaha synths and sequencers – check out ‘Neu Neu’ – grooving Hammond B3 or slinky Rhodes (‘I Still Got It’), Wayland’s solos never lack the same rich expressiveness he has always coaxed from the teeth of a Steinway.

His players on Slave To The Machine Vols 1&2 are worth the price of admission. As well as current bandmates such as Penman and Rueckert, Wayland features Oz mates such as drummer Andrew Gander and guitarist James Muller – Muller as ever making the ears prick up with his deft balance of stratospheric chops and earthy blues (his neo-Sco jazz lines on ‘Boxing Day’ make some beautiful arcs and curves).

Heavy friends such as NYC guitarist Wayne Krantz and drummer Keith Carlock add some Mahavishnu-metal to the deceptively-named ‘Marshmallows’ – the heaviest tune here.

But the brightest shining star here is Mark Guiliana. Wayland says of the rapidly rising young drummer, “I think Mark has revolutionised improvised drumming. It’s a real step forward in the language and concepts. He sounds like what has been in my head for years and previously only my computer drum programming could realise…”

To let the music speak what words can’t, have a listen to Wayland and Guiliana on the last track, the 11-minute ‘I’ll Face Ya’. Pianist and drummer play (in the true sense, the child-like sense) over a synth ostinato that drops in and out. Over the length of the piece, as well as some genius playing, there are quotes (Monk’s ‘Rhythm-a-Ning’), terse silences, even snatches of good-natured talk between the two, picked up on the drum mic.

But the musical conversation is the thing – this is jazz in its heart, transcending its machinery as all great jazz has transcended its machinery, from Armstrong onwards, the slave to the machine becoming its master.

For more information visit: www.seanwayland.com

Published October 2102 on jazz-planet.com