Posts Tagged ‘James Muller’

James Muller has long been one of our most exciting jazz guitarists. His fluidity, ideas and just plain swing has dazzled in every recording he has ever made.

So it is surprising to see him express his discomfort with the recording studio environment  – “I hate playing through headphones!!!” – in the notes to his new release on 54 Records, Live at Wizard Tone. Equally, it is gratifying to see him (and hear him) in a zone that allows him the freedom for the “adventure and abandon” he seeks in his music.

muller wzard2Recorded before a live audience at the Adelaide studio over two sessions, Live at Wizard Tone has Muller playing up a storm with the equally driven ensemble of Sam Anning on bass, drummer Ben Vanderwal and – serendipitously in Adeliade from NYC over the Summer – altoist Will Vinson.

The tunes selected for the recording balance out Art and Fun, with Fun maybe winning out. ‘Scrapple From The Apple’ literally grins in your face with its energy, all players digging in up to their elbows, pulling out their their bop chops and having some truly Big Fun.

Opener ‘Evidence’ has the band modelling solos and rhythm section around Monk‘s angular melody with all its stops and starts, whilst the implied swing roils way beneath. Check the rhythm section here, and on the closer ‘The Song Is You’ – their conception of swing and what you can do with it is quite something. muller wizrd1

The three Muller originals hold up fine too – mid-tempo Latin ballad ‘Dalby at Dusk’ is evocative tone-poetry with not-obvious changes which altoist Vinson seems to relish in his piquant solo. (Vinson is a knockout here and everywhere else I have heard him lately – a truly original alto saxophone voice with his swoops and surprising invallic leaps flavouring his solos, and making them jump out of the mix).

Muller’s ‘Assignment 1’ has a pastoral, elegiac quality that belies its minimalist title. The guitarist’s taste and restraint in his solo here shows the breadth of his playing. His tone across the entire album is immaculate: rich yet biting when it needs to be, with piano-like chords or brittle percussive comping. The minimal comping and lack of piano lends all of the performances an open, contrapuntal transparency that lend it an astringent economy, letting the music breath organically. Exciting stuff.

I have said before that all true jazz should be regarded as being recorded live. Sadly, this is too rarely the case, with much recorded jazz sounding sealed off and boxed in. An album such as Live at Wizard Tone is a breath of wild wind – jazz as it should be: in Muller’s words, a music of  “adventure and abandon”.

Live at Wizard Tone is available at https://54records.com.au

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 

 

Guitarist and composer Jessica Green saved me.

Depressed after listening through a covermount CD that came with a recent Blues magazine, her new album Tinkly Tinkly put a big goofy grin right across my face. (Now, I love the Blues dearly but it all is starting to sound the same – new Blues artists seem so scared of losing market share they opt for the tiresomely obvious and the well-worn over new ideas. Can this be the same music that is stamped with the character of great innovators such as Hubert Sumlin and T-Bone Walker?)

Wearily replacing the covermount with Tinkly Tinkly I was sat straight up by the loping township jive of album opener ‘Bamako Youth’. For the next 11:12 I followed the track through chirpy sax motif, tough fusion solo from Green, a Paul Simon-ish vocal section (again by Green – great lyric!) and a coda of massed horns and Matt Keegan’s snarling outro solo. Unlike the drab Blues-by-numbers that had brought me down, this track told a story and took me willingly along its dusty African road.

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The next track ‘Orange Rock Song’ was equally thrilling in its twists and turns, its unexpected rhythms, horn voicings and snaky riffs. Unlike the Blues-under-glass, this track and every one that followed showed Green and her band – the aptly named Bright Sparks – willing to experiment, take chances and strike out for the unknown.

I hear this a lot now in Australian jazz: younger players such as The Alcohotlicks, Aaron Flower, Tim Willis in Melbourne and anyone named Hauptmann (James and Zoe are two of the Bright Sparks on this album) taking the freedom and chops of Jazz as a starting point and filtering it through the kaleidoscopic lenses of rock, electronica, bluegrass, trip- and hip-hop. These mongrel musics – as in nature – cannot help but strengthen and invigorate the music nominally called Jazz.jess green 1

The title track ‘Tinkly Tinkly’ is a good case. Starting with percussionist Bree van Reyk’s glockenspiel-like intro, a building eighth-note lattice of harmony is built until a heavy guitar solo from Green pushes the tune over its tipping point into a jabbing 6/8 riff that could be a cousin of Weather Report’s ‘Boogie Woogie Waltz’. It all hangs beautifully together in a deceptively simple manner, but you are always aware there is a shrewd compositional mind behind it.

The moody blues of ‘The Alias’ transforming into a lop-sided oom-pah under Dan Junor’s alto solo; the ambience and snaggle of ‘Rothko’ (I could see the painter’s glowing colours at times here); the ominous leaden riff of ‘Postcard for Alice’ reminiscent of Frank Zappa’s ‘Filthy Habits’ leading into a sprightly latin 6/8 under Simon Ferenci’s spitting trumpet and back again; the hilarious high-spirits of party-jam ‘Dear Mr Cave’; transformation, play, smart decisions, seeking and finding – wonderful stuff from a bright spark.

Thanks for saving me, Ms Green, from a fate worse than deaf.

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Prior to posting this review I asked Jessica Green a few short questions. Here are her responses:

1. You have recently completed your new album Tinkly Tinkly. What was the moment that told you now was the time to record?

Well the first session was 4 years ago, so it’s hard to actually remember! This project is way overdue really, we’ve had a bunch of new good tunes kicking around for ages, more appropriately the question might be “when did I know it was time to release” which was having a good tax return to fund it!!

2. Jazz nowadays – especially releases by younger players – seems to really stretch the genre thing. Tinkly Tinkly has heavy Zappa-esque rock grooves quite happily cheek-by-jowl with New Orleans joyful blues; what is it that you enjoy about mashing (and even utterly ignoring) genre divides?

Well I suppose it’s difficult for me NOT to mash up. This is how I hear music. I am heavily influenced by Zappa (I played in Sydney Zappa band Petulant Frenzy for a year) but also I’ve grown up listening to so much different music. I like to tell a story that leads the listener to unexpected places.

3. Your Bright Sparks really are quite a cast of the best and the brightest – how do you settle on your players?

Well this band had been around for a while. I loved their originality and talent right from the beginning, and at that time I was relying on recommendations. I’m just lucky they keep agreeing to play with the group!

What makes a lot of the songs work is their unique personalities coming through, I’ve always aspired to this sort of band, right from first hearing and reading about the way Duke Ellington worked. He wrote for each player.

4. As a guitar player myself, I am always interested in what makes a player settle on a particular weapon of choice. You seem to have your beautiful Telecaster Thinline in every pic i have seen of you – why the Tele Thinline?

The Thinline was a recommendation from James Muller. I was trying to find a lighter guitar and when I tried this one I was hooked!

It’s such a versatile guitar which suits my music. It can be warm as well as have lots of bite!

5. What are your thoughts on jazz on Australia today?

Seems pretty healthy to me! There’s a lot if experimentation but also it’s great to see a lot if younger players embracing some of the earlier styles of jazz and blues and making it their own.

6. What are your thoughts on today’s music outside of jazz?

Mmm I do listen to a lot of cross over indie pop/rock. I love what bands like St Vincent, Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear are doing and also groups that are under the New Music banner. Particularly in Australia there is some really interesting music being made.

For more information visit: http://jessgreen.com.au/

To hear and buy the album, go to http://jessgreensbrightsparks.bandcamp.com/

Label: Yum Yum Tree http://www.yumyumtree.com.au

Published February 2103 on australianjazz.net 

New Zealand pianist and composer Steve Barry has been living and performing in Sydney since 2009. Well known as a sideman for touring artists such as John Hollenbeck, Theo Bleckmann, George Coleman Jr. and Chris McNulty, he is also the regular go-to-guy for local artists such as The Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra, Dale Barlow, Simon Barker and James Muller.

On the strength of his eponymous debut album, Steve Barry, I get the feeling we will have to do as we did with the Finn brothers and Rusty Crowe (and any other frighteningly talented Kiwi) and willingly refer to him as the Australian pianist and composer Steve Barry. The album really is that good.

In a world of astounding soloists (yes, those 14 year old YouTube Yardbirds) what seems to set the finest jazz apart is the communication and empathy between interacting players. This communication is so expected today that it is pretty much a cliché – that is, until one asks, How often do I hear true, ego-less empathy in jazz ensembles; that virtually telepathic group-mind of a Bill Evans Trio or Miles First or Second Quintet? (Not such a cliché after all, is it?)

Steve Barry

From Steve Barry’s album opener, ‘B.W.’ we know we are in for a treat. The trio of Barry, Alex Boneham and the always elevating Tim Firth truly have that spooky rapport, that twined-consciousness that leads to great things. As much as ‘B.W.’ cooks and roils, the ballad ‘Vintage’ allows that superlative communication to flow across a piece that reminds us of the true meaning of ‘nostalgia’ – ‘homecoming ache’ in the Greek.

Guitarist Carl Morgan joins the trio for the cooking ‘Changes’ and the bopping ‘Unconscious-Lee’ – an angular Monk-trip, a wigged-out cousin to Lee Konitz’s ‘Subconscious-Lee’. Morgan shines on this track, snaky and biting.Steve barry cover

Morgan returns for the driving 6/8 ‘Sparse’ – one of the many tunes here where Barry’s playing brought to mind Keith Jarrett. The sparkle, the fingers-joy over the top of truly effortless technique, the swoon (no, Steve Barry doesn’t spin around in that Keith J trance when he plays) – all served to bring Jarrett to mind.

But of course, Steve Barry is more than an imitator of anyone – he has his own voice, in performance and in composition (check out the utterly transporting Esbjörn Svensson-via-Bartók ‘Clusters’) and in Boneham and Firth he has a magic band. It is hard to conceive that Steve Barry is his first album as a leader. I eagerly await the next twenty or so.

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Prior to posting this review I asked Steve Barry a few short questions. Here are his responses:

1. You have been on the scene for a few years now. What was the spark that led to this album?


Musically it wasn’t so much a spark as a graudal developmental process. I’d been working on the music for a while and had reached the point where I thought the album would be an honest artistic statement. Having said that the instigator was really facing a few months overseas in the middle of the year and being largely away from a piano, as well as Alex living in Italy for most of the year. On top of that Tim and his wife are about to have a baby, so if it hadn’t been then it might not have been for a while!

2. Even though your playing has a nicely original voice, I can hear Keith Jarrett in there as well as others. Who’s playing shaped yours?


Sure, Keith has been a huge influence. I love his seemingly inexhaustible knack for melody (especially with the standards trio) and his solo cadenzas/concerts are just incredible. Herbie Hancock is huge for me to, especially with Miles in the 60s. Lately I’ve been listening to a wide range of stuff, from modern jazz guys like Kurt Rosenwinkel and Aaron Parks, back to things like Shostakovich‘s Preludes and traditional African pygmy music. I’ve also been geting more inspired by works of fiction, I just finished a great book by Jonathan Franzen called “Freedom”, which looks at the implications of the word in modern families and society. Check it out!

3. They are great players, but what did you see in Alex Boneham and Tim Firth that would fit your music so well?


Alex and I met at the Sydney Con when I moved over in 2009 and have been playing together a lot since then. He has a huge sound and is a really strong creative presence both on and off the bandstand. He also has an infectious perpetual excitement about life and learning, which is really inspiring (and he makes great coffee). He’s happily taken though sorry ladies… Tim and I started playing together a few years ago and he’s just what I like about a drummer – he’s always listening and interacting and also supporting whatever is going on. He’s also got a huge amount of flexibility and is always ready to take the music to different places. And he has monstrous chops! It also helps that he’s a lovely dude, a great poker player and enjoys a nice scotch.

We’ve been playing together as a band for about 2 years now, and there’s a really strong, almost intuitive musical connection happening. I’m also happy to call them very close mates.

4. You use Carl Morgan on three of the 10 tracks on the album. Why guitar instead of, say, a tenor horn?


Carl and I started playing together when he moved up from Canberra a few years ago – we lived together for about 2 years and did a lot of playing/drinking of beer/talking about music during that time. Carl is totally passionate and focussed about creating music and is always striving to explore new ways of playing and composing. I wanted him on the album because I love his playing and I like the timbre of piano and guitar together. The tunes were also arranged so we could could get a lot of interaction in (and hopefully I could steal some of his licks).

5. What are your thoughts on Jazz in Australia right now?


It’s really strong – I think we have a pretty special thing happening. Australia is a great environment and culture for creating and exploring new music – we have access to a huge range of sources, and in Sydney at least there are more performance venues springing up all the time. We don’t have anywhere near as strong historical tie to jazz as the Americans do, which I think has both pros and cons – the pressure to “pay our dues” isn’t as strong as there’s a real focus on original music and ways to create it. Having said that I think there are a few ideas we could take from the Americans – for example there’s a powerfully competitive spirit in NY that continuously pushes all the musicians there forward. There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance, but in general I feel we could have more outgoing faith in presenting what we do and what we’re about.

6. And finally, what are your thoughts on music in general today?

That’s a big question! I think it’s really healthy. There’s always going to be your Lady Gagas/One Directions/Justin Biebers but there’s a lot of incredible music happening out there if you’re interested in finding it. Sure, it would be nice if a few more people came to jazz gigs, but I have a great lifestyle and get paid (mostly good money compared to the rest of the world) for doing what I love. Can’t complain about that!

 

Steve Barry’s website is here

Published December 2102 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