Posts Tagged ‘Gian Slater’

On Saturday, 5th August I checked out the Sirens Big Band performance of Ellen Kirkwood’s new suite [A]part. The show I heard (and saw) was the second of the evening in the intriguingly named Io Myers Theatre at UNSW. Io was, in Greek Mythology, the daughter of Zeus and is, in astronomy, the innermost Galilean moon of Jupiter.

It was fitting, as Kirkwood has previously drawn on Greek mythology in her Theseus and the Minotaur suite and also because [A]part took my head, at times, into the outer galaxy and beyond.

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pic: Catherine McElhone

The themes of this multi-part, hour-long suite are however quite down to Earth. Composer Kirkwood takes on the big issues of this strange and cruel age: climate change, the refugee crisis and the myth of connectedness that is the broken promise of the internet. The title is a pictogram of the feeling of being at once connected and yet separate – a truly modern condition.

Whereas Theseus and the Minotaur combined music with spoken narration, [A]part works with visuals – Cleo Mees’ intriguing video projections: sometimes mysterious, sometimes sardonic and humourous, always startling, as is the music.

The ecological theme opens the piece with guest artist Gian Slater setting up, via loop-pedal, vocal drones onto which she adds layers of swishes, chattering and mouth percussion. By the time the horns enter with a fugue-like figure, you feel as if you are surrounded by nature: wind, animals, insects, rustling grasses.

Pianist Andrea Keller, also a guest of the Sirens, creates a typically unique solo against the rhytm of Alex Masso’s drums and Sirens leader Jess Dunn’s bass. Keller’s work throughout this performance is as imaginative, precise and exciting as one would expect from one of Australia’s finest. In a later unaccompanied solo her raw attack had a few of us sitting up straight in our seats.

The third [A]part guest artist is saxophonist Sandy Evans, a mentor to the Sirens from their beginnings in 2010. She seemed to take great inspiration from Kirkwood’s music on the night – a soprano solo beginning with a scream that was a little too human for comfort; yet later accompanying a faintly demented and disintegrating Balkan waltz with a barrage of kazoos, razzers and squeaking rubber duckies.

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pic: Catherine McElhone

And that ­– from anguish to giddy silliness, and everything in between – is the scope of [A]part. It is a massive piece in every way: challenging to the ear and the mind, highly original (as we know Kirkwood to always be), often cerebral and abstract, all the time threatening to be too much to take in in one sitting. But what saves it from possible overwhelm is that Kirkwood never loses the emotional thread in the music; it is human music and it consistently makes you feel. Sometimes, as with all valid contemporary art, those feelings can be baffling or even plain uncomfortable, but you do feel them deeply.

Kirkwood’s writing here, as in everything I have heard from her, is smart (without ever being clever-clever), dynamic and imaginative. The task she has taken on with [A]part tests her formidable skills as a composer/arranger, yet she never seems to run out of ideas, always finding new sound possibilities and textures to be gleaned from the big band.

She uses hand-claps in polyrhythm from the various sections. She has Jess Dunn rattle her bow around on the wood of her bass, making harsh knocking sounds (which she then contrasts with airy flute textures answering the knocking). She has sections play against each other. She has sections slip out of synch within their ranks. She writes starkly dissonant brass sections which unfolds into satiny 40’s dance orchestra textures (albeit a dance orchestra which slowly dissolves and decays).

Yes, [A]part is massive in every way (it took almost a year of writing and rehearsing and the mentorship of stellar pianist Barney McAll to, as Kirkwood says “Get this music out of my brain”). It is ultimately a massive experience – massive in immersion, like rolling in the currents of an ocean, and massive in response: the music, together with the power of the visuals leave you feeling wrung out and a little wired.

I cannot imagine how Ellen Kirkwood will ever top a work such as [A]part. I know of course that, given what we have seen and heard of her up to this point, she undoubtedly will.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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