Posts Tagged ‘jazz’

Cameron Undy’s new Twentieth Century Dog album, Bone, has left this reviewer speechless. Which is quite a feat in itself.

The only honest review I could give is “Go listen.” But my pen, once unsheathed, needs to talk, so talk it shall.

Listening to the remarkable improvisations that make up the ten tracks on Bone, I see not a group of separate musicians but a single organism – a big body with waving arms and heads – a Dog of Seven Heads. Surely this music cannot come from separate consciousnesses, even of those consciousnesses are as hyper-conscious as Simon Barker and Jamie Cameron and Ben Kidson on drums and percussion, Jeremy Rose on reeds, Greg Coffin on keys, Ben Hauptmann on guitar, and leader, composer, producer Cameron Undy on barking, growling bass.

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The presser says these pieces are made up out of long buried ideas “dug up, buried in the yard, dug up again” over the ten years that Undy focused his energies on his iconic jazz room, Surry Hills’ Venue 505. These ideas shape the grooves and basic motifs of the improvisations, and also form ensemble sections that rise out of the music and then are gone as soon as they came.

The Dog is big on rhythm too – with two drummers and a percussionist, as well as having a bass-player as leader, it is inevitable that there will be grooves of all flavours, and rhythm games running through the music like pulsing veins. Funk, Afro-beat, jazz: all booty-shaking but mind-bending at the same time.

‘Tail of the Dragon’s’ melodic pass-the-parcel leads to some big-fun messing with time, its play extending into the band comping behind Coffin’s solo, then behind, in and around Rose’s solo. ‘Dog Day’ is taut funk which Ben Hauptmann nips and tugs at until it is reshaped in his image. ‘Bone’ conjure’s the same skull-grinning space-griots as Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi band. bone1

‘Broken Creak’ applies Broken-beat to some serious funk: the drummers slip in and out of sync with each other, like a musical moiré-pattern moving in and out of focus. Undy’s bass solo here is muscular and propulsive while Coffin’s soul-gospel piano passage moves against the lagging drums like a sermon that will not be denied.

Bone was recorded live at Venue 505 over two days in late 2016. The live recording brings so much out in the band (have I said before there is a strong argument at all jazz should be recorded live?), giving the album an in-the-moment electricity that charges the air.

It is not all funk and zap though; the three short interlude pieces – ‘Anagram’, ‘Sunrise’ and ‘Constellation’ – are welcome breathers from the tropical storm of Bone. Rose’s bass clarinet on the latter is particularly affecting, singing a folk-like song of universal longing.

Final track, the long workout ‘Bust Down_Parallelism’, captures everything that is good and real about Bone and Twentieth Century Dog. An almost endlessly inventive Hauptmann solo rises to a boil that bursts like a summer storm, washing away to a half-dark duskscape, only to rise through a percussion conversation into Jeremy Rose’s strutting tenor solo. Composition/improvisation. Magic While U Wait. It’s what the Dog does so well.

Ok, I will shut up now. Go listen to Bone.

 

Bone is available from Earshift Music – http://earshift

 

Published on http://jazz.org.au/ January 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Published July 2015 on australianjazz.net

 

Like post-punk has done since the 1980s, Jazz has gradually eschewed and expunged the Blues from its vernacular.

Yes, there are still lipstick traces left from the grand old dame, but many contemporary Jazz artists seem intent on (consciously or sub-consciously) avoiding her patois, perfumes and punch-drunkenness in any overt sense.

Sydney’s Dubious Blues Trio have no such qualms. In fact the Trio drink deep not only of the blues but – horrors! – the blues’ boozy trailer-trash cousin, blues-rock.

Made up of guitarist Cameron Henderson, double-bassist Elsen Price and drummer Tully Ryan, The Trio are one of the current young bands that make me jump for joy. Genre-hopping is admirably rife in the modern jazz world, but done as it is here on their debut – Dubious Blues Trio – so unselfconsciously and with a real blues wildness, is a buzz.

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After a short ‘Intro’ (a bit of cod-blues piano quickly devoured by an electronic belch), Henderson’s ‘Shoemound’ snaps our attention – the unmistakeable tang of Stevie Ray Vaughan salting his Stratocaster. Yet the line he plays winds into some snaky shapes – hhmmmm, dubious blues indeed.

‘Mousterious Moustache’ takes their tough sound into 6/8 and ‘Bigger Than The Mammoth’ has some Zappaesque riffing slding into a very SRV boogie.

Bassist Price’s ‘Fixy and Your Haircut’ flies along in a bluegrass handbasket-to-hell – Price has recently been seen around town playing with bluegrass mavericks The Morrisons. Price’s choppy triple-time bowing opens it up for Henderson’s banjo-like guitar. It’s all over in 1:36 but we are sweating.Dubious Blues1

The funky ‘King Hustle’ goes back past SRV to Jimi Hendrix, who seems to be as much a touchstone for Henderson as Bill Frisell or, maybe even moreso, Wayne Krantz. After a languid, gospel-throated bowed solo from Price the whole piece dissolves beneath a (not-so-)hilarious montage of phone recordings of the guys hustling for gigs – and accepting having to “play for tips”.

Dubious Blues Trio leaves us with Price’s ‘Miscellaneous Whale’ – a 14:15 monolithic jam featuring trumpeter Will Gilbert. Gilbert’s breathy tone, together with the black-hole ambience of the piece, dimly recalls Miles Davis’s electric anti-jazz psychedelia of the 70’s. Whatever their influences, this is entirely original music made by fresh-thinking players – Gilbert’s longing horn, Henderson’s whale-song guitar, Price’s leaden bass moans. Special mention here goes to drummer Ryan – a piece as stretched out as ‘Miscellaneous Whale’ is a true challenge for any drummer and he is always in the right space with the right colour at the right time.

Dubious Blues Trio was recorded live in the studio, which adds a layer of danger and shows the Trio to their best advantage. Henderson, Price and Ryan have a wonderful thing here – a three-way joy of noise and a questing group-mind. There is no leader, and no followers – as it should be, but too rarely is.

Dubious Blues Trio brings the blues back into jazz – not the clichés and the tired down-home trappings (we’ll leave that to the official Blues® scene), but the innovation, the openness and, above all the humanity that the best blues always had. And it is about time.

 

Published February 2104 on australianjazz.net

 

Two jazz releases around the beginning of the year that really made me prick up my ears were Mace FrancisLand Speed Record and Alice HumphriesELICA. Both were bristling with unique vision and sparkling with ideas. Both contained performances among the best I’d heard in Australian jazz. Both emanated from Perth-based artists.

This month I was sent a quartet of new releases from Perth’s Listen/Hear Collective, the ‘record label – music community – home of creativity’ set up by Mace Francis and Johannes Luebberslistenhear3

They were Sweethearts by the Sam Anning Trio (beautifully open and conversational trio work), City Speaks by Callum G’Froerer (impressionistic and sharp music from the trumpeter who leapt out at me from the ECILA album), Wear More Headbands from THE GRID (quirky and tough grooves, jazz power trio) and lastly – the one that really knocked my socks off – Caterpillar Chronicles from the Steve Newcombe Orchestra (some of the most ecstatically original large ensemble material I have come across to date).

Again, the same daring, fun and crackling energy of creation that I had earlier encountered on the Francis and Humphries albums sizzled off each of these releases. Looking through the online catalogue of the Collective I saw an embarrassment of riches in creative music.

And I really fell for their line: ‘The recordings we sell will paint a picture of a scene without a name, without trying to give it one.

Even though some of the artists are based elsewhere – Newcombe in Brisbane, Perth-born G’Froerer now in Melbourne – there was a definite Perth thing going on. I asked Mace Francis and Johannes Luebbers a handful of questions about the Collective and Perth and music.

Here are their responses:

What has attracted me to the Listen/Hear Collective is your reaching for eclecticism. Do you feel that jazz needs cross-pollination from other genres to survive?

Mace Francis – Definitely.  Musicians and composers have access to so many more influences and each generation grows up listening to different styles of music that gets stuck into your subconscious.  I certainly didn’t grow up listening to Ellington or Armstrong rather it was commercial radio, then guitar gods like Clapton, Hendrix, then hip hop, then jazz.  Jazz is different in every period of history and has relied on cross-pollination to grow and survive since the beginning.

listenhear2Johannes Luebbers – I agree. In my view, the capacity for jazz to draw on other kinds of music is the thing that most defines it. It grew out of the collision of different styles and has evolved pretty consistently over the past century through the assimilation of other influences. So rather than needing cross-pollination to survive, I would say cross-pollination is core part of it’s identity. I love swing and bebop, but I think the overemphasis on these styles runs the risk of turning jazz into a museum piece, when its essence is really improvisation and spontaneity. You need new inputs to keep these aspects alive.

You say the Collective is not afraid to explore the ‘places where those genres meet’. What is that place? Could it be a new music?

MF – We don’t know where that place is either but, the excitement is in the journey to find it.

JL – The reality is most people creating contemporary music sit in between traditional genres. I suppose we just want to acknowledge and support these growing areas and support a space where artists don’t feel the need to conform to a particular label. If we name the ‘place’ it might stop being so open!

I have been pretty knocked out by much i have heard from WA – is there something in the water?

MF – Maybe its all the chlorine? It is a small but strong scene.  Musicians understand that you need to train, practice and rehearse.  WAAPA and WAYJO have certainly helped to instil this in young players and then you just get some freaks that come out of nowhere… and then move to Melbourne (unfortunately for us).

JL – There are limitations to a scene the size of Perth, but I think there are certain benefits also. It can act as a bit of an incubator. You get to know pretty much everyone in the scene and there is often great camaraderie.

WAAPA seems an epicentre. Is it all WAAPA or is that institute just a lightning rod for a wider scene?

MF – WAAPA has a great reputation around the country and here in Perth.  It was the reason I moved from Victoria.  It has great musicians on staff and they really push the importance of the fundamentals of the music.  There are other organisations in WA that then support these pools of great musicians that graduate every year.  WAYJO (WA Youth Jazz Orchestra) has been around for 30 years and gives young musicians great professional performance, recording and touring opportunities.  Perth Jazz Society is the longest running modern jazz society in the country (40 years) and they promote performance opportunities.  We now have the Ellington with music 6 nights a week so there are many more performance opportunities and there are more venues opening up and hosting live music.listenhear1

JL – WAAPA is also the reason I moved from Victoria to Perth. It’s certainly the hub of the jazz scene, but as Mace said there are various other organisations and opportunities that surround it. From a people point of view WAAPA is certainly the hub. Most of the top players in town would teach there and as a young artist that’s where you meet people at a similar level. Most of the people I work with now I either studied with or met through WAAPA in other ways.

Manhattan pops up as a jazz sister city to Perth – Mace Francis’ ‘Land Speed Record’ was as much of Manhattan as of Perth and the Steve Newcomb Orchestra grew out of trio jams at the Manhattan School of Music – what is the connection there?

MF – It is the new home of jazz and a mecca to many musicians.  Most of the connections have come out of personal ones.  There are loads of Perth musicians in NY at the moment, Matt Jodrell, Troy Roberts, Des White, Sam Anning, Linda Oh, Sean Little and they are all doing well.  My connection was with Jon Gordon who came to Perth to work at WAAPA, he then randomly suggested Matt Jodrell as a trumpet player to play on the recording.  Steve Newcombe studied with Jim McNeely and had many Aussie musicians on the recording.  It makes the world a smaller place when you have personal friends and contacts around the world – just so happens that many friends have moved there.

JL – Steve is actually based in Brisbane, but as Mace said there are quite a number of Perth (and Australian) musicians in NYC. I think perhaps because of the relative smallness and isolation of the Australian jazz scene, and the Perth jazz scene specifically, musicians feel more of a need to move elsewhere to expand networks and, to an extent, validate what we do. Australians aren’t always great at acknowledging our own worth. If you’re going to move anywhere New York is a pretty good choice! Some of the greatest artists of any genre are based there, so the potential to network is huge. So I think the desire to leave Australia, combined with the huge number of excellent jazz and improvising musicians already in NYC, results in the high representation there.

It seems too glib to suggest that all this creative hothousing comes from Perth being the most isolated capital city in the world, but it is the sort of too-neat shit that us writers thrive on – indulge me…

MF – It is isolated, in that it is 4 hours flight to the next big city but I am happy with that.  Perth is great for all the reasons above and the weather is sweet.  It would be different if we were on horse back.  I dont ever think about the distance or isolation.  We are speaking across the country, you can email/skype anyone in the world for pretty much free and we are closer to Europe than the eastern staters, depending which airline.  So no, I wont indulge you.

JL – Ha, it is the classic question. As I’ve already said, I think isolation plays into it. But at the same time we are no more isolated than Melbourne from the happenings of New York, London, Berlin etc. The interweb means it is all a click away! I guess when it’s just me, the desert and the roo’s out here what else there to do but go and practice more?

Following on from that idea – I am sent a lot of jazz releases over time, but I did find many of the releases from Perth refreshingly original in concept – Mace Francis, Alice Humphries’ ECILA ensemble (a favourite) and now the rather amazing Steve Newcombe Orchestra. Am I imagining it?

MF – What can I say – we are awesome! Steve has always been based in Brisbane but we would claim him if he was here.  Perth has a strong large ensemble composition culture for quite awhile now which was started by Graeme Lyall almost 20 years ago. He was involved with WAAPA and WAYJO and many composer have come through that program and all been bitten by the large ensemble bug.

JL – Yeah there is a great culture of composition which really lends itself to large ensemble writing. As well as those you’ve mentioned there are people like Tilman Robinson (who’s soon to release his debut), guys like Andrew Murray and Jordan Murray (unrelated) in Melbourne, Grant Windsor and Chris Grieve over in the UK… As Mace suggests, it really is the legacy of Graeme. He managed to teach you just enough, but not too much (probably to the frustration of many), which meant if you were interested you had to chase down leads he suggested and figure a lot of stuff out yourself. It resulted in a whole bunch of graduates who had come at it from slightly different angles. If you compare the writing of Mace, myself, Alice and others, we don’t sound the same at all. The experience of WAYJO for many was also a fantastic opportunity that furthered the interest in big band music. Then once you get a few people starting their own group others see what’s possibly and follow suit. I was a couple of years behind Mace and his creation of MFO was an example for me of what I could do to – others then follow on as we go too.

Does the Collective seek out all the singular talents on your roster – jeez, where do you get a Callum G’Froerer? – or do they find you?

MF – It goes both ways.  We seek out some and some seek us out.  What we release is based on the quality and the timing of it.  Because we are a small organisation and we are also busy doing other things we can only limit ourselves to a certain amount each year.  Sometimes there are some great releases and the artists wants it out a week ago but we cant help at that time.  As for Callum, we was in my big band when he was 16 so it was only right that we released his first CD.  Now that he is famous he might want to go elsewhere.

JL – Yes Callum has worked with both of us in different contexts over the years, so we knew his stuff pretty well. To date we have been pretty reactive to things that have come our way, and we’ve just been lucky some interesting things have come. It would be great to curate things a little more, but it’s been hard to find the time and resources to do it properly. It’s been a slow burn but we’re slowly moving more in that direction.

What next for the Listen/Hear Collective?

MF – We have a part-time administrator now who is keeping us in line and we have a few releases planned coming out soon.  At the moment we are just trying to get the word out on our recent releases  http://listenhearcollective.bandcamp.com/

JL – Hopefully more great music. In the current financial and digital climate a record label is a tough sell. It’s an ever evolving process, but we’re trying to tighten up a few processes and do things better all the time. The website is about to be redesigned which is exciting. As Mace said, we’ve now got some administrative help too, which is great and we are doing some mentoring with Room40 Records in 2014, so will be hopefully developing the business further. Ultimately we just want to provide a great platform for interesting music to be heard! But sustainability is a constant question (know any mining magnates who love jazz?).

And finally – what are your thoughts on jazz at present and on the wider art/commercial form of music today? Feel free to use bad language.

MF – TV talent shows are ruining everything.

JL – There’s a lot of great music being made – in both commercial and art music spheres – but there is also a lot of shit. I find the sheer quantity of music out there overwhelming – there’s never enough time to check out all the things that seem to pop up. It’s also difficult to get noticed above the noise, and the democratising of recording means there’s a lot more noise out there. In terms of jazz, people seem to reject the term more and more frequently, which I guess is partly where Listen/Hear comes from (though both Mace and I’s music is probably often pretty firmly in the jazz camp). The rejection of labels and the fluidity of different genres has led to some exciting sounds – I’ve been listening a lot to the Claudia Quintet lately, who bring aspects of 20th century composition into a contemporary jazz setting, creating some wonderful sounds. A number of Australian jazz and improvising artists have been pursuing cross-cultural collaborations for some time, one example being Simon Barker and his work with Bae Il Dong. This has resulted in some really interesting stuff that also breaks away from conventional stylistic divisions. As a very different example, someone like Esperanza Spalding makes incredible music that pulls in the world of pop and and results in music that is completely accessible but very sophisticated too. Leading back to your first question, this all highlights jazz’s affinity for cross-pollination. I think the most exciting jazz related music I’ve heard in recent years is that which brings in other sounds and styles in some way.

Check out the Listen/Hear Collective online at http://listenhearcollective.com/ and http://listenhearcollective.bandcamp.com/

 

Published October 2103 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 

 

Soaking up the rootsy atmosphere at this year’s Byron Bay Bluesfest (often to saturation point), I began thinking on music and the notion of authenticity. To be honest, I began to get a little irked by the relentless barrage of worn leather, road-dusted denim and sweat-ravaged Strats used in the style-language of this music.

Ben Harper, modern roots superstar

Ben Harper, modern roots superstar

There is a division of Fender Guitars, the iconic US manufacturer of the Stratocaster whose job it is to create a patina of age and wear on factory-new instruments. The ‘Road Worn’ range comes complete with distressed paintwork, rusted hardware and, apparently, built-in ‘history’. It really is a bunch of bullshit in anyone’s language, but of course they sell like hotcakes (or maybe out-of-date cheeseburgers).

The unstoppable Buddy Guy, generation-spanning blues guitar master

The unstoppable Buddy Guy, generation-spanning blues guitar master

And I often wonder if the same can be said of the very notion of ‘realness’ in 21st century Roots music.

Roots music – like World Music, a catch-all term invented by marketing/media to weave a saleable genre out of multiple disparate threads – comprises Blues, the less airbrushed forms of Country and the more earthbound elements of Jazz. A prerequisite seems to be that it appeals to everyday people and usually conjures up either elation or deep emotion – ‘good times’ or ‘blues’. Roots also prides itself on its ‘realness’.

I love Roots music deeply and its innovators and artists – both old and new – I hold in the highest regard. But is Roots music any more real than any other form of music? Is it any more real than Punk, or Hip-Hop, or Black Metal?

If a music’s level of ‘realness’ can be measured by the importance it has in a person’s life then the music of Dance-Rave people is easily as important as Roots – they live their musical culture minute by minute. If the question of history comes up – the longevity and historical development of a music in years – then J. S. Bach is the rootsiest muthafucka on da block.

If the idea of authenticity is where ‘realness’ comes from – music woven like veins or DNA helices into the fabric of a culture, inextricably – then I direct you back to the above para about Fender USA’s factory-made ‘soul’. These days, ‘rawness’ and authenticity can be bolted on, as skilfully and easily as a (factory-)‘rusted’ Strat tailpiece.

And it appears to be something Roots fans are all too ready to believe. Maybe because there is so much plastic fakery about, we imbue the lesser fakes with at least some hope of Truth.

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With these cogitations swirling in my mind, I decided to ask some people, way wiser than I, for their thoughts on Roots, ‘road-worn’ and realness. They are Johnny Cass, blues-guitarist and vocalist extraordinaire, DJ/producer Marc Scully, known to Australian dance-music fans as Omegaman and Jim Woff, man-about-town and bass-player with Sydney band Crow.

Titan of the blues, the larger-than-life Howlin' Wolf

Titan of the blues, the larger-than-life Howlin’ Wolf

Here are their responses:

What does the term ‘roots’ music mean to you?

Johnny Cass: A derivative type of music. Just like the roots of a tree, genres of music grow from a base and then branch out into other genres.

Marc Scully: To me its about tradition – blues, country, reggae etc – some acoustic element, a certain heartfelt rawness, echoing back where it all began… back to basics…. at a grass roots level

Jim Woff:  Someone once asked Thelonious Monk what he thought of folk music, he replied “all music is folk music”.  The rural blues of the twenties and thirties sprout country and jazz, while the blues itself mutated countless ways using the same three or less chords. If we’re talking about how “roots” earnt it’s inverted commas, that seemed a 21st century thing. Good when it was Gillian Welch, not so hot when it was hippies with dreads and acoustic guitars and rich parents. The soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou was significant.

Does ‘roots’ music need to have a historical/traditional element to it?

Cass: Yes. The term roots has been overused and has lost its definition.To understand Roots music you must know its history and the struggles of the people of that time.  To keep true to it meaning ‘roots’ music must have strong similarities to the roots genre it claims to be from. Those elements would be chord progressions, tonal qualities of instruments and melody.

Scully: I think so, an element of nostalgia and instrumentation is required, a nod to the past, you would not be playing a certain style if it weren’t for what came before you, something that inspired you to dig deeper, caught your ear in the first place – something styles don’t need re-inventing.

Woff:  I think so. The historic/traditional aspect doesn’t necessarily have to be old, electronic music has a relatively short history for example. The work of the German bands in the seventies is a “roots” music, it’s been incredibly influential.

Can the idea of ‘roots’ be applied to any form of music?

Cass: No. I don’t really think you can say that roots can be applied to Classical music. Roots music was spawned from the urban areas, city streets and small towns and communities. It was a way for the people to express themselves, Roots music was not born from the Aristocracy it was born from the worker, the farmer, the musicians on the street.

Scully: As long as there’s a traditional element, having said that really I can’t see glitch, dubstep or techno being termed ‘Roots’ music.

Woff:  Cave men blowing flutes, wandering minstrels on lutes, spreading the gossip and news from town to town… it’s all free reign, go nuts. I wish more people were as good as Beethoven but you can’t have everything.

Gillian Welch, folk-country artist whose music resonates with older forms

Gillian Welch, folk-country artist whose music resonates with older forms

Does the ‘roots’-iness of musics such as Country and Blues make them any more ‘real’?

Cass: I think the rawness of those musics keep it real. Acoustic forms are the most real. Those instruments don’t lie. The combination of flesh, wood and emotion really take aim at hearts. As the listener or the musician there is no room to hide. There is no wall of sound to get lost in, the message gets through, its more personal.

Scully: To me, yes… some artists can sound quite contrived, be real = be true. Raw, back to basics music played by real musicians – doesn’t have to be flash.

Woff:  Those early recordings… Louis Armstrong… Hank Williams… the Blind men of the blues, Willie Johnson, Lemon Jefferson, WiIllie McTell… Duke Ellington… all rather real. You could appropriate their sound but it wouldn’t be real. You have to make your own sound to be real.

Does the ‘roots’ factor of music such as Blues hold back its future development and evolution?

Cass: Musically, maybe. Lyrically, no. Roots music evolves into new genres as it branches out. The most pure form of the genre will always be respected. What may end up happening is roots music won’t be performed as much. Without the support of mainstream it becomes harder for roots genres to exist. Only purists will hold onto its legacy.

Scully: Not as long as artists still carry a torch in salute of what came before them, you have to acknowledge the past, the birth of a style – without that, there is no future.

Woff:  I’d argue that jazz hit the wall in the eighties but I’m sure there’d be plenty to take issue with that. Blues has never changed but it’s influence is a musical universe. From a young Jagger and Richards listening to Muddy Waters through Tom Waits reeling in Howlin’ Wolf to Nick Cave obsessing over John Lee Hooker, it’s all pervasive. Country hasn’t changed much.

What are your feelings on current ‘roots’ music in particular and the wider art/product of music in general?

Cass: Reality talent shows concern me. Their lack of integrity make music take the back seat. Those shows are not about the music, and they are not about the performer, they are about getting the most viewers and exploiting people’s dreams, disabilities and personal crisis. I understand that it gets some musicians a chance they would not normally get, but it’s fleeting. Viewers that sit at home and don’t experience the live factor of music. That is the real feeling of music. Watching music being made in real time in front of you, is like having your food cooked to order. It tastes better and feels better. That goes for music too.

The Coen Brothers' 2000 movie, O Brother Where Art Thou? invigorated interest in bluegrass music

The Coen Brothers’ 2000 movie, O Brother Where Art Thou? invigorated interest in bluegrass music

Scully: Some of the modern roots artists can sound a little contrived… that goes for all styles. You are either true to your art or you are following musical trends. Way too many producers out there that know how to use a music software program and call themselves artists… Be yourself, learn how to play an instrument, you don’t have to be the best at it, as long as you are passionate about what you do.

Woff:  “Roots” was a Noughties thing, wasn’t it? The good ones will continue to grow while the imposters are already considering another career path.

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