Posts Tagged ‘Coltrane’

Now. The place where the best improvised music lives.

‘Now’ is the reason we go to check live music, especially in those small venues, up close so we can live in this small slice of super-heated or multi-coloured or deep-blue Now.

The recording of jazz has long been an anomaly – once the performance is frozen in the frozen time of a recording, it loses its Now. We have, of course, all of our favourite live albums that we listen to over and again, but it is a rare thing for a live jazz album to match that Now, simply because it was Then. (Doesn’t make Live at The Village Vanguard any less headfucking though).

Julien Wilson is a player who can always bring a strong sense of the Now into his recordings. His is such an immediate take on the music that the freshness of his playing binds itself to the music. Like all of the best in jazz his recordings always retain their power and energy.

Julien Isthmus2

Wilson’s new album, This Narrow Isthmus, has the Now all over it. From the title, taken from Thomas Moore’s quote “This narrow isthmus ‘twixt two boundless seas/The past, the future – two eternities” to drummer Allan Browne’s inspirational mantra “Hold onto the now, through which all future plunges to the past”.

Wilson elected to record this set of compositions live at Sydney’s Sound Lounge, to keep the Now factor to the fore. The almost telepathic empathy of his Quartet helps – Barney McAll piano, Jon Zwartz bass and dear and departed Allan Browne on drums (Browne left us mid-2015, This Narrow Isthmus was recorded mid-2014); the same lineup which recorded Wilson’s dreamy and luscious This Is Always in 2013.

Yet whereas This Is Always leaned deep into the moodier indigos of jazz, touching on standards and their fine romance, This Narrow Isthmus is all-original Julien works and pulls from every compass point stylistically.

Opener ‘Rainman’ establishes the deeply romantic strain in Wilson’s music – too many modern badasses are afraid to show some sweetness and beauty, and this tune is one of the sweetest Wilson has dreamed up.

The Monk-ish blues ‘McGod’ has an intoxicated and intoxicating abandon to it that Wilson and McAll both dig deep into, blue to the elbows. The hard thrust that Browne pushes the tune with belies the fact that he was badly ailing – in fact, his doctor had told him he couldn’t fly to Sydney for the gig, so he hopped in this car and drove the 900k’s – ha!

One of the aspects I have always enjoy in Wilson’s music is his impressionistic side – even though a player who resonates with the deep history of the artform, he never baulks at going where the music takes him, whether an un-jazz place or not (see Swailing, the album that came out in tandem with This Is Always). ‘Barney & Claude’ here came out of two Debussy-flavoured chords and grew into a gorgeous ballad ­– you can hear those two chords rolling around each other like pale suns at the end fade of the track. You can also hear, even though it is a live album, no applause at the end of this fade; any applause was snipped off during mixing (as with ‘Aberdeen’) so as not to break the spell.Julien Isthmus1

This Narrow Isthmus casts many spells – ‘Weeping Willow’, a retooled ‘Willow Weep for Me’ begins with a beautifully conversational bass solo from Zwartz; ‘Bernie’ is a hello-up-there to McGann; ‘Cautiously Optimistic’ throws caution to the wind and grins bebop optimism right in your face.

‘Aberdeen’ has that lovely dark-cocoa sermonising that Coltrane’s McCoy-quartet preached so deep and meaningful. This tone-poem was composed with the Scottish town of Wilson’s childhood in mind, but I swear this Quartet makes jungle vines grown up Brooklyn brownstones before my very ears.

‘Farewell’ is Wilson’s farewell to us and to those who have left us to ‘continue on to the next adventure’ – absent friends, such as Dave Ades. He plays clarinet here, and the deeply human voice of this sadly neglected woodwind blows through veils of nostalgia in a deeply affecting way.

Once again I find myself saying I have found the album of the year and it is barely half-past February.

This Narrow Isthmus will be hard to beat – it is everything I always expect from Julien Wilson, but this time it holds even more of that precious and beautiful thing, the Now.

Published February 2016 on australianjazz.net

 

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Recently I took one one of those Facebook ‘challenges’ where one posts various pet picks every day. This one was ‘7 Songs in 7 Days’ – selecting songs or pieces of music which are significant to you.

Of course this could be interpreted in almost infinite ways, so I thought I would keep it simple and post seven songs that shaped me over the early part of my life as a fan and musician. I also included a song which shows that I continue to be shaped, maybe a little less cataclysmically, by music I hear up to the present day.

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#1: ‘Spirit in the Sky’ by Norman Greenbaum

1970. I was 13, very geeky and more interested in model hot rods and Marvel comics than music.

Then this thing came on the radio.

To this day I wonder what possessed the producer to underpin this sappy hippie-happy-clapper song with such a malevolent, heavy, fuzzed out boogie. Spirit of the times I guess.

Whatever… I was hooked. Something about the sound of the guitar on this song – beyond the lyric (daft) or melody (perfunctory) – just got inside me and made 13 year old me feel strange, a little scared and yet, good. (By the time I took drugs a couple of years later, I had already felt their delicious disconnect through musical and visual art experience).

I dreamed about this song and waited and waited for it to reappear on 2SM and when it did, I stood before the radio in a trance for 3:47. There was nothing else like it on the radio, there was nothing else like it in the world.

Of course, as with most drugs, you need more, and more, and stronger. So the search was now on for The Sound. I didn’t have to wait too long…

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#2: ‘Whole Lotta Love’ by Led Zeppelin

Through a strange quirk of misread marketing, disc jockey taste and the wrath of Odin, Led Zeppelin’s five and a half minute ‘Whole Lotta Love’ also came out of our radios in 1970.

Intended to be the B-side of the one vaguely ‘pop’ single on Led Zeppelin II, ‘Livin’ Lovin’ Maid’, ‘Whole Lotta Love’ was (strangely) preferred by radio station programmers. Once again, spirit of the times. Soon there was a trimmed down version being played but not before the full heavyweight opus had done irreversible damage to my child’s fragile eggshell mind.

A toughened up reading of Muddy Waters’ ‘You Need Love’ (or callous racist rip-off, your call), ‘Whole Lotta Love’ remains to this day, the template of hard rock for me. A full, phat and badass bottom end of bass drums guitar, with sky scraping vocal and nothing much in between (which is why I prefer Maiden to Metallica any day, and love working with women vocalists in my current bands).

Too much wonder in this mini-symphony: the scraping slide guitar figure in the chorus, the kick in the balls when JPJ’s bass enters, Jimmy Page’s scratching and spitting guitar break, Robert Plant’s animalistic howls and choir-girl sighs and John Bonham, just John Bonham.

And the middle bit. You know, the bit where your mind splits in two and sonic magma runs out.

The whole thing roars like a machine: dead on in purpose, yet frightening in potential. Chills me to this day.

Did its European-ness awaken some Germanic race-memory in me? Did it clad a scared schoolboy in Asgardian armour to do battle with Trinity Grammar School? Maybe – all I know is it knocked my fucking socks off.

After ‘Whole Lotta Love’ I was gone. What would the wond’rous radio ensnare me with next? It was about to get strange…

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#3: ‘All Along The Watchtower’ by Jimi Hendrix

Still too young for a record player, I depended on the radio for my moments of musical satori. And there, among the Mary Hopkin and Brotherhood of Man pop fluff would come some dark jewels that made me shiver in my boots.

Jeff Beck’s ‘Hi Ho Silver Lining’ (if mainly for the grinning sarcasm of his overloaded guitar break), Melanie Safka’s ‘Candles in the Rain’, The Move’s ‘Blackberry Way’ and The Four Top’s ‘Reach Out’ made life worth living, but it was ‘All Along The Watchtower’ that really made my hair (short, back and sides that it was) stand up.

Jimi Hendrix came to me fully formed, godlike and alien. His name alone was future-primitive and his music was something I had strangely always known, down in my bones. Ancient, flamboyantly filigreed and above all, fucking trippppppy. When I finally saw a picture of him, I loved him even more.

Producer Chas Chandler’s vision for this nightmarish Dylan tune was widescreen with sets by Dali and lighting by Cocteau. And Hendrix does it to perfection – his Dylanesque droop at the end of every line, his stoned but wise delivery, his space-ace blues lines throughout.

His guitar break seems to be a show-reel: whammy bar dips, wah-wah retorts and Curtis Mayfield-style lead-rhythm chops. Like the best late-period Beatles, Hendrix and Chandler fit almost too much in and it all works, every note.

A couple of years later, my mother threatened to jump out the window if I played ‘Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)’ again, that loud. It made me renew my vows to Hendrix, as I have done regularly my whole life.

Oh, and it also made me want to get a guitar. But first, I would have to own a small Dansette-size record player. And a David Bowie LP…

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#4: ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’ by David Bowie

Bowie was our Beatles.

I was born a little too late for the first flush of Beatlemania and only came upon them after they had gone ‘serious’ and split up. The void was filled by Bowie.

Bowie, like the Beatles, was such a perfect Pop creation, and so utterly of his time that he became an iconic object of adoration for an entire generation, equal in fame and influence to the Fab Four.

Importantly, as with the Beatles, his art not only was blindingly brilliant and challenging, but also consistently led the pack, effortlessly breaking new ground with each new quantum release.

It has been said that Bowie was not more than a clever bower-bird, picking through the Twentieth Century and modelling the scraps and bits into new and shiny shapes. Even if that is true, which it may well be, those shapes blinded us to all else and gave us an almost religious hope.

I finally had a tiny, mono record player and my second album was The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars, for Christmas. ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’, from the Ziggy Stardust album, has that disconnected, collage feeling. Bowie sings from a Ballardian dead-night dystopiascape, yet, as the song rises, the feeling of hope rises.

Even though I was a straight little schoolboy and he was something from another planet, I felt – as i lay in the dark, playing this over and over – that he was speaking directly to me, and me alone. It is what I have in common with One Direction fans and indeed anyone who has become besotted with a Pop artist. Musical worth really comes a distant second to such ecstasy.

But soon I would have a Guitar. And my days as a shining-eyed fan would be numbered, as I would become a Musician. Sadly, after that, I could never really listen to music again the same, simple and sweet way.

Of course, it was all Frank Zappa’s fault…

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#5: ‘It Must be a Camel’ by Frank Zappa

Studying jazz and jazz-fusion guitar with Australian guitar shaman, John Robinson opened me up to music that buzzes me to this day.

All I wanted to do was play like the guy in Steely Dan but Robbo put me through the ringer – Boulez, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Berg. Heavy shit, Jim. And I greedily gobbled the lot and begged for more.

He also got me listening deeply into Frank Zappa – not the ‘comedy group’ stuff that had us in stitches as we loaded the next bong, but Zappa as a composer and musical mind.

‘It Must be a Camel’ is from the Hot Rats album and when I first ‘got’ it, it moved me deeply and fundamentally, as it does to this day. It is extraordinarily beautiful, yet of a beauty that only exists in its own world. If the mark of genius is to envision and create something that has not existed before, then ‘It Must be a Camel’ is that.

Rhythm, harmony and melody are pure Zappa and the band play it as if they jam this shit every day (gold star to drummer John Guerin, Joni Mitchell’s beau at the time – dig his drum break: tuned tom deeeeelite).

Zappa’s personal quirks and curdled world-view seemed to make him shy away from writing more swooningly beautiful music like ‘Camel’ in favour of jarring or shocking his listeners – but when he did (‘Watermelon In Easter Hay’) he could bring you to tears.

Through listening to this stuff, I became infected with that malady called Jazz. It took me a long time to fully recover…

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#6: ‘Funky Tonk’ by Miles Davis

I really took to jazz while I was studying with Robbo – I loved the harmonies, scales, rhythmic mathematics of it all. The stars of jazz blew my mind – Coltrane, Monk, Bud Powell, Wayne Shorter – and turned me into a kind of jazz zealot who would sniff dismissively at rock music and berate people for not knowing who the drummer was on ‘Milestones’. Yep, a royal pain in the jazz ass.

I had fallen in love with the Miles Davis Quintet’s albums Working, Steaming, Cookin’ and Relaxing and for Christmas asked my Dad for anything by Miles Davis – thinking that it would be more of the same: toughly swinging post-bop, elegant and sharp.

It wouldn’t be the first time Miles would throw me for a loop.

What Dad unwittingly bought me (at our local record shop!) was LIVE-EVIL, a cauldron of wigged-out electric, free rock that could not have been further from ‘Relaxing’. I still remember the jolt it gave me: I was all-at-sea, with this music thrashing and crashing around my ears.

Miles plays his trumpet through a wah-wah, the band leaps across hot coals. He had said to them “If I hear you playing any of that jazz shit, you’re fired…’

The utterly wildness and ‘fuck you’ element in this music shocked something out of my system: after I heard it, I was never the same again, musically, or personally – it seemed to express a permission to truly do your own actual thing. In spades.

My jazz nerd self realised I wasn’t in Kansas any more, and for the rest of my life, I have gone wherever Miles has led me…

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#7: ‘Pyramid Song’ by Radiohead

The last band that blew me away with any great force was Radiohead. And mainly the two very inspired albums they made within a few months of each other in 2000-2001, Kid A and Amnesiac.

The sense of adventure I took from these incredibly creative and idiosyncratic albums was the same as I felt from when I first came across Pink Floyd.

Radiohead seem to use every trick in their trick-bag, musically and production-wise on Kid A and Amnesiac: they both crackle with electronica and whim. And it all works exquisitely and elegantly.

‘Pyramid Song’ does not go for any sort of electronic palette, but simply uses piano, bass, drums and orchestral strings. Its stately grandeur rises from the urban space-port of Amnesiac like a cloud-castle.

I finish my seven days with this anthem to sorrow and beauty.

I have come late to the amazing playing of Sydney’s Michael Griffin.

Walking into an Andrew Dickerson Quintet gig off the street I was floored by this pale young man utterly flying on that most nimble of the jazz horns – the alto.

It seems I am just one in a long line of admirers, many notable, of Griffin’s mastery. US jazz legend Jimmy Heath has said “Michael Griffin is a fine saxophonist who loves Charlie Parker’s style as I did when I did,” and none other than Vincent Herring sums it all up well when he says “Michael Griffin has his feet firmly rooted in tradition and his ear leaning towards the future.”

The judges at Washington DC’s 2103 Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition obviously agreed, voting Griffin through to the semifinals.

pic by Aaron Blakely

pic by Aaron Blakely

Griffin’s debut album – Unexpected Greeting – showcases his startling playing. It also expressed so much of what is good and eternal about jazz – swing, verve, colour and that jumping joy that be-bop encapsulated so well.

As well as six Griffin originals – standouts are the hard driving opener “Hotel Hollywood” and the fleet and blazing “Flair” (reminiscent of Art Pepper’s frantic “Surf Ride”) – the Quintet covers four standards, with guest vocalist Briana Cowlishaw giving a lovely rendering of “Almost Like Being In Love” and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” getting deep inside the wit and the urbane poetry of the lyric on each.

In march, for AustralianJazz.net I asked Michael Griffin six questions about his art and his album. Here are his responses:

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 AustralianJazz.net: Are you happy with the way your debut album, Unexpected Greeting turned out?

Michael Griffin: Yes I am very happy with the way my album has turned out. I feel there is something in it for everyone which is really what I want. I want to do what I love and I will never compromise what I love and the way I play but at the same time I always have a desire for everyone to enjoy my music. Hardcore jazz fans and also someone who doesn’t know much about jazz. I always hope that I can somehow appeal to everyone.

AJ: Your playing and compositions obviously reflect the influence of Charlie Parker and the hard bop players like Cannonball Adderley. Who is of particularly influence in shaping your conception?

MG: As mentioned I clearly am greatly influenced by Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley, I also really love Sonny Rollins so much and of course Coltrane. So many, but those four are huge. I never get tired of learning from all of them. In more recent times I have also really enjoyed studying the work of Kenny Garrett and Vincent Herring. For me I love so much the modern bop players, especially Kenny and Vincent. One group I love is Vincent and Eric Alexander together, now those guys really cook. Hard swinging players which are constantly building and taking from previous influences to keep swinging hard and using the bop language as it develops.

AJ: What is it to you about hard-swinging, bop-flavoured jazz that you prefer over other forms of jazz?

MG: For me i enjoy virtually all jazz, however the jazz that speaks to me the most and gets me passionate is the hard swinging bop. So much in it. It’s an amazing language which to me is the absolute best part of jazz. Full of the blues, soul, the entire jazz language . When you have a band that’s cooking and really swinging and someone that is just locking in with that groove and burning full of ideas, to me nothing better. It’s the music I hear in my head all the time. To me I also I think there are so many great things in jazz however the best thing of all is that addictive swing feel. People lose sight of that and it’s the worst thing to lose. Out of all the things in jazz that is the most powerful thing in jazz which can hook in anybody. It’s never uncool to swing. But it has to be done well, When it’s done properly with energy and intensity and tight and full of passion it’s the most incredible ride that I always envisage myself being a part of.

AJ: Why did you choose to add the vocal tracks to the recording?

MG: Adding vocal tracks to the album was a decision I made, number one, because I thought it sounded good, it’s fun to mix things up. However also because people like vocals, they connect with them and I always want to give everyone something they can grab onto and get something out of what I’m doing. If I can give them something they can hold on to then they can stick with me for the rest of the journey, and are open to hearing other adventures i may introduce them to. I want to take everyone with me, not just the purists.

AJ: What are your thoughts on music in general and jazz in particular today?

MG: There is always good music being made, jazz will never die. Too many passionate people which always fall in love with this music and dedicate their lives to it. It’s not something which you just listen to every now and then. When you get bitten by the jazz bug it takes over your life. The only thing I will say is for people to try and make the same effort presenting jazz to audiences that other artists do presenting rock or pop etc. I love bands that make the effort to get people’s attention and keep them interested in jazz, There are a few out there, but I especially liked the Brassholes, Showing people that horn sections don’t just belong at band camp but could make today’s pop tunes sound awesome. It also makes jazz seem less foreign. A great idea and people loved what they were doing. We’re playing somewhat challenging music but let’s do all we can to invite people in and take them with us.

AJ: What is next for Michael Griffin?

MG: Next install for me is I’m looking to hopefully move to New York soon. I had an amazing time last time I was there and I want to live there, develop myself and get as good as I can and see how far up the world Jazz ladder I can climb.

 

 

Tenor man, Anton Delecca – and his Quartet – has delivered a muscular and deeply felt album with their third, The Healer.

Checking US sax icon Ernie Watts earlier this year I was reminded of the lithe power of the tenor quartet, a power I have rarely heard as fully flowered locally, until The Healer.

The obvious comparisons with the daddy of all modern tenor quartets – the Coltrane group of the 60s – are straight-up realised on opener ‘The Ark’: a 7/4 winding desert path of Middle Eastern-flavoured melody. The band flexes and contracts around Delecca’s questing, searching solo. Luke Howard’s piano solo is a small masterpiece of texture – dig how he ends it with a murky slither into the deeper indigos of the lower piano register.

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Howard’s playing across the album is dazzling. His Tyneresque intro to the sinewy ‘Icarus’ is wonderful: all ripples and questions and darkened windows. ‘Icarus’ also has a scratching, spitting duet between Delecca and drummer Daniel Farrugia; its energy is reminiscent of those Coltrane-Elvin Jones codas that made us all jump for joy.

But the Quartet is not all muscle, knuckle and sinew. ‘Hokusai Says’ is a lovely, translucent ballad that brings to mind the muted colours and perfect vignettes of the eponymous Japanese woodcut master. ‘Cycling’, though brisker, also shows the easy balance the four attain with each other – bassist Jonathan Zion’s playing here is superb, notably for what he doesn’t play; a skill that takes true sensibility to attain.anton_delecca2

‘Hectic’ is hectic. Its melody a fevered montuno, ‘Hectic’s Latin momentum is headlong and headstrong with the band pushing Delecca’s solo into some snapping and biting areas. Across The Healer, Anton Delecca gives nothing less than his whole soul to the material – his tone a nice hard Hard Bop shout and/or moan. His compositions, also, are great jazz pieces – whether beds for blowing or reasons for reflection.

With material this strong, I wonder at the inclusion of the two standards, ‘Love for Sale’ and ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered’. Both beautiful tunes (if a little obvious) and the band does have fun with them. But The Healer sags slightly here, if only because Delecca’s (and Jon Zion’s dreamlike ‘Sahadi’s’) original material is so strong.

The strongest piece for me is the title track, ‘The Healer’ which closes the album. Zen-like, its strength comes from its resigned simplicity – inevitable and calm as nature, its crescent structure arcs slowly over 6:36 from Luke Howard’s whispered chords to when the band enters (Delecca only enters at 4:00 and then only to firm up the same minimal chords) only to die off again to silence on that handful of churchy chords. It is lovely, transporting, spiritual –and has exactly nothing to do with the way much of jazz is played today. Which makes it a truly unique musical experience, beyond genre – as much great music is.

Delecca, Howard, Zion and Farrugia have made one of the finest tenor quartet albums I have heard this year – animal strong and caress soft, fiery yellow and cool blue. It is a jazz format that is one of the most satisfying of all within the canon, and they do it so well. So well, in fact, that they deserve your ears. They already have mine.

 

Published November 2103 on australianjazz.net 

 

 

I love this album. I unequivocally stone motherless love it. It is the best jazz album I have heard this year. I could end this review right there, but I will expand.

Free Jazz has long divided even the most pearl-eared listeners. And with good reason – since its development in the early-1960s, its searching nature and fearless deep-end leaping has come up with mixed results. In the hands of magicians such as Pharoah Sanders and Cecil Taylor, Free Jazz can take you out to interstellar space and back; in the hands of band-wagon jumpers who shall remain nameless, the form is a turgid meander in the mire, never really getting anywhere, despite all the steam, noise and sounding brass.

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Negative critics often cite the ‘fact’ that Free Jazz has abandoned all melody, harmony and rhythm – the holy trinity of western music. But none of these have been abandoned at all; the best players are just working way out on the outer rim of these elements – sure, melody, harmony and rhythm are stretched to cracking point but they are most definitely there. And the music that the Free Jazz astronauts bring back from the edge is arguably the most ‘jazz’ Jazz you will ever hear – precisely because a big part of the Jazz mission statement has always been to stretch the music into new and wonderful shapes.

Melbourne saxophonist Andy Sugg’s latest album The Berlin Session was recorded in, inspired by and used musos based in the German arts-Mecca, but the music here takes you to many places. Places of the heart, places of the mind, place of the soul.

US sax giant Dave Liebman called Sugg “a dedicated warrior” and throughout the album his tone and lines (restricted here to only soprano sax) are heroic as he leads his band through the music. Fearless, sensitive, strong.

‘Vignette’ is a cool piece of Coltrane-spiritual worship before the rock and roil of ‘Freedom 2’ – this piece riding on the dense intensity of Berliner drummer Jan Leipnitz and bassist Sean Pentland. It is an intensity that never cloys or clogs – their playing truly swings, despite the elasticity of the pulse.

Both bass and drums shine on the pair of duets, ‘Berlin’ and ‘Teddie’s Blues’ – Pentland on the late night urban ‘Berlin’ rolls like a city subway beneath saxophonist Sugg’s sketch-etched skyline lines. On ‘Teddie’s Blues’, Suggs and drummer Leipnitz converse parti-coloured and party-hearty, full of energy but never overloading into Coltrane-Elvin Jones drumkit-demolition territory. Again, it swings.

A special mention needs to go to pianist Kate Kelsey-Sugg (Andy’s daughter) who makes this already astounding album a truly landmark one. Her comping (is there actually such a thing as prosaic as comping in this music?) is coolly considered when it needs to be – as on ‘Freedom 2’ where, towards the end, she sets up a tessellated repeat pattern that turns the whole performance into something else – and spiky and spitting where fireworks are called for, as on the Cecil Taylor hat-tip ‘Cecil T’. Kelsey-Sugg’s chord textures across the lovely ‘Pastoral’ seem to call from another age (past? future?) and give the piece a new beauty, a beauty we have never felt before.sugg

Andy Sugg’s soprano cannot help but conjure Coltrane, and the last piece ‘For Leib’ (a hi to Dave) is full of the trills and howls that made Coltrane’s last work so rivetting. In the love and joy of the band’s interplay I am reminded of Sunship, one of the first Coltrane Quartet’s last albums, before Elvin and McCoy left John to his star sailing. Sunship is free yet flowing, unfettered yet grooving, dense yet swinging. The Berlin Session is like that.

But The Berlin Session is entirely of its own wonder-full world, influences aside. Did I already say I love this album? Did I mention that I unequivocally stone motherless love it? I recommend you take a listen and get to love it too.

For more information visit: andysugg.com

 

Published December 2102 on jazz-planet.com

Creativity transcends material. The truly creative artist can work with material that appears to have reached its final expression, reworking and reshaping the existing into new forms, drawing out detail and design that might be hidden from the rest of us. Look at the junk-art collages of Robert Rauschenberg or the Eastern European folk-song themes in Bartók or Stravinsky – or, closer to our line here, the recasting of the blues in the hands of Duke Ellington.

Sydney tenor giant James Ryan – as well as being a startling instrumentalist – is a truly gifted and, in a world where the word has been buffed clean of all its edge, a truly creative composer and arranger. He recently arranged a selection of Ray Charles tunes for his powerhouse big band, The Sonic Mayhem Orchestra, a collection of Sydney’s best and brightest and that rare bird: a large ensemble bristling with astonishing soloists that play as an ensemble, as one.

For their September 20 show at Blue Beat – a chic and funky nite spot on possibly Sydney’s most unfunky strip, Double Bay’s Cross St – The Sonic Mayhem Orchestra took on George Gershwin’s 1935 “American folk opera” ‘Porgy and Bess’.

Or rather, James Ryan’s 2012 take on Gil Evans’ 1958 take on George Gershwin’s 1935 ‘Porgy and Bess’. Creativity transcends material.

In 1958, Gil Evans and Miles Davis – after the critical and artistic success of the previous year’s ‘Miles Ahead’ – re-imagined ‘Porgy and Bess’ in a challenging and truly modern way. Evans’ idea of harmony and timbre took much from 20th century European classical music and stretched jazz writing out of shape, paving the way for the almost entirely impressionistic ‘Sketches of Spain’ two years later.

I was very excited to see how James Ryan, as uncompromising an arranger as Gil Evans himself, would cast Evans’ arrangements and harmonies.

The opening set began with a soulful chart from the pen of trombonist Dave Panichi and the power and cohesion of the band was evident – they ‘felt’ the colours and textures of that chart and those that followed almost preternaturally. As I say, a rare bird. The street-tough reading of Charles Mingus’s thrilling ‘Boogie Stop Shuffle’ – with a bluesy solo-bass intro from Karl Dunnicliff and a rousing series of chase-choruses from alto players Kim Lawson and Aaron Michael – and the Eastern flavoured arrangement of ‘You Go To My Head’ – with bass clarinet musings from the almost-mystic Paul Cutlan – took my breath away.

The ‘Porgy and Bess’ set began with ‘Summertime’ – a smart choice as it is the most emblematic tune from the opera, but smart also because the arrangement showed how far Ryan had taken the music from its source. All that was left it seemed was Gil Evans’ rhythmic (and rhythmically displaced) horn section vamps behind the solos and a suggestion of melody here and there. It laid out the mission statement for what was to come.

The set was hung on a series of monologues from singer Trish Delaney-Brown, bridging the pieces with snatches of lyrics, spoken rather than sung. Delaney-Brown’s voice was also written into much of the music as a wordless vocalese ‘instrument’ which worked beautiful, adding ‘air’ to some of the phrases and brass block chords.

There were snatches of the Evans arrangements throughout but Ryan had taken what he wanted and re-built the music for his Band. And he had mixed up the earth with the ether – sure, there were gorgeously voiced, impressionistic pieces such as the lovely ‘I Loves You, Porgy’ and the street-joyous ‘There’s a Boat Leaving’ (with a burnished brass-choir intro; great writing!) – but, like Charles Mingus, he never shied away from a groove.

The Kim Lawson showcase, ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ swung with real soul and flow. Ryan’s own tenor feature, ‘A Red Headed Woman’ was as raw and intense as I have heard. Delaney-Brown’s fragment of lyric which introduced the piece mentioned one of the opera’s characters answering a devout chorus with ‘vulgar’ speech – and, yes, Ryan answered the Band’s ‘devout’ chorus with many Pharoah Sanders ‘vulgarisms’ but also sheets and sheets of Coltrane joy.

The set wound up with ‘Gone’, featuring drummer Nic Cecire who worked his way through the twisted mirror-maze of accents and grace-beats. (Even the drummer on the 1958 recording stumbles and trips on a few of these; it’s true – have a listen). His ease and passion was typical of the whole thing – Ryan and the band had really delivered a brilliant take on an already iconic work in Jazz. That James Ryan had not just charted the Gil Evans/Miles Davis arrangements note for note reinforced to me what Jazz should be about –moving ever forward, on the wings of the past.

 

Published September 2102 on jazz-planet.com

 

Sydney tenor saxophonist and composer Richard Maegraith is a deep human being. A committed Christian and free-thinking artist, his work has always resonated with a sophisticated spirituality while maintaining a heartfelt directness. Whether it be blowing tenor with the Australian Jazz A-list – James Morrison, Sean Wayland etc – or whether leading his own ensembles, his voice and soul are unmistakable.

For their new album, The Richard Maegraith Band has become the intriguingly titled Galaxstare. The album title is equally thought provoking – A Time, Times and Half a Time. For this album – recorded live at Sydney’s Sound Lounge – the personnel remains the same as 2007’s buoyant Free Running but you can hear the development from Track One.

And what a Track One it is! ‘Romans VII’ snips along in a clipped Latin groove before relaxing down into a languorous swoon of jazz vocal; the track moves back and forth from one tempo to the other throughout – this band really breathes. Throughout the album, the spicy doubling and great interplay of Maegraith’s horn and Kristin Berardi’s vocal again reminded me of Chick Corea’s early 70s band with Flora Purim, before the synths moved in and Purim moved out.

And like Chick Corea, Maegraith is not afraid to move beyond of the bounds of whatever constitutes jazz in his time, (he refers to Galaxstare’s music as “Jazz-ish sort of music; call it what you will”). His pairing of voice and tenor with Gary Daley’s accordian and/or Rhodes makes for some otherworldly results.

For the title track, ‘A Time, Times and Half a Time’, this otherworldliness goes beyond anything I have yet heard. The track is dedicated to Japanese friends of Maegraith’s, survivors of the 2011 tsunami that wrought such indescribable havoc across Japan. Switching to bass clarinet and using only the live resources of his band, Maegraith creates a vision of universal pain, wonder and depth. It is one of the most startlingly spiritual creations I have ever heard, Ligeti-like in its suspension of time and space.

We are snapped out of it with the propulsive snap groove of ‘Waiting’ – drummer Tim Firth putting the pots on and cooking all the way. Firth whips Maegraith along during his solo, recalling some of those mighty Coltrane/Elvin Jones codas that seemed ready to split reality right down the middle at any time. Intensity!

The final track ‘The Journey’ – all Maegraith’s track titles have a telling positive/seeking/spiritual resonance to them – is 10:36 of jazz funk reminiscent of Stevie Wonder’s spacier moments (special mention to bassist Jonathan Zwartz who lays down the deep river that this tune floats on). ‘The Journey’ takes its time to rise to the sharp peak of Maegraith’s tenor solo. You couldn’t get a performance this juicy in a dulled studio – the decision to record ‘A Time, Times and Half a Time’ live in front of a more-than-appreciative audience was a wise one.

Published March 2012 on http://www.jazzandbeyond.com.au/