Posts Tagged ‘John McLaughlin’

In David Byrne‘s smart (of course) recent book How Music Works, he suggests that music is created to fill a context that is brought about by the natural ebb and flow of the society around it. For example, Gregorian chants were created to suit the highly resonant architecture of Medieval cathedrals, yet African drumming was created to sound strong and carry far outdoors wherever it was played.

Listening to the new Crooked Fiddle Band album Moving Pieces of The Sea, I was reminded of Byrne’s idea – the microphone, that surprisingly innocent-looking device, makes any context you want possible. In the Crooked Fiddle Band it allows heavy (John Bonham heavy) drums to sonically co-exist alongside the band’s nyckelharpa, guizouki and cittern (what wonderful words for instruments), adding a contemporary thud to some very ancient sounding music. (No, not ancient sounding: more always-been-here sounding music).

crooked fiddle 2

But who cares about all that musico-anthropological flannel?  –  The Crooked Fiddle Band and Moving Pieces of The Sea make one want to jump for joy (albeit jump in a Bulgarian 9/8 – 2,2,2,3 – time signature). From the first note, the Band, via Steve Albini‘s (Nirvana, The Pixies, Gogol Bordello, Joanna Newsom) transparent and very sympathetic production, burst forth in a torrent of joyous/sad/reflective/triumphant feeling – whether whirling dervish-like at a mountain wedding, toasting the hunt with millet beer or gazing across the green waters for the return of a lover, these eight tracks (well, six and an 18 minute two-part suite) will transport you. I know they did me.

Brian Eno has said of the Band, “The Crooked Fiddle Band are completely surprising. The music is original and quixotic, and yet has the strength of some deep and strong roots. I can’t say I’ve ever heard anything else like it!” crooked fiddle 1

Brian Eno, Steve Albini – The Crooked Fiddle Band are attracting the attention and patronage of some heavy hitters. And it is no wonder – Moving Pieces of The Sea has that perfect balance of joy in the telling and some serious musicianship going on. It can be enjoyed on a number of levels and thrills one as much from the neck up as from the neck down.

Inspired by Scandinavian fjords, lakes, waterfalls and streams, Moving Pieces of The Sea is dripping with water imagery. The title comes from oceanographer Jacques Cousteau‘s letter to his son in 1963 which says “The fish were just moving pieces of the sea. I smiled because I knew… you would always seek after the vanishing shapes of a better world”.

Opening track, ‘The Vanishing Shapes of a Better World’ conjures these fleeting fish with guitars and marimba (and those John Bonham drums!) before a lovely fiddle melody from Jess Randall morphs into that Bulgarian hoe-down.

Just as blues seems to rise up in disparate cultures across the world from Africa to Chicago, so does the frenzied dance – ‘Neptunes Fool’ could be Bulgarian, Celtic, Pakistani. I am trying to avoid the ‘world music’ tag here – as John McLaughlin said “We all live in the world” – and it is lazy. Suffice to say The Crooked Fiddle Band draw from the music of the world – just dig Joe Gould‘s 7/8 tabla groove on “Shanti and The Singing Fish” before it explodes and goes all Led Zep on yo ass.

And so to the big one, the two part suite – ‘The Deepwater Drownings Part I & II’. The first part is a song, melancholy sea shanty – albeit twisted. The second part – all 13:39 of it – is where The Crooked Fiddle Band show themselves to be what all the great bands are: a force of nature. Over the course of the tune, the Band jam a tone-poem to wond’rous water, in all its forms – from wide Swedish rivers, to rippling streams pouring through the Carpathians, to fjords and eddies and ice creeks, widening out finally to oceans and oceans and oceans. As I said, transporting stuff.

The music and vibe of The Crooked Fiddle Band show themselves to be curators and stewards of vanishing shapes of a better world. Whether applied to the nature world – we all know, painfully, how quickly and irreversibly it is succumbing to myopic business interests – or to the vanishing shapes of music that is made for celebration, rituals of kith and kin, or just the plain joy of living – there is something elemental and – dare I say it? – important in what The Crooked Fiddle Band  do.

But while we are pondering all that heavy shit, grab your partner, charge your mug and  have a Balkan boogie to Moving Pieces of The Sea.

Published October 2013 on

Since forming in 2010, the Sirens Big Band have been a blast of Persian-scented fresh air into Sydney’s jazz scene, a scene where the rare female musician (who is not a vocalist) can stand out like a sapphire in the gravel. The Sirens are all-female, all-funky and all-embracing in their influences.

Sirens - pic Quirijn Mees

Band co-leaders Jessica Dunn and Harriet Harding have guided the Sirens from the beginning into a unique style heavy on the world-music grooves – oh, how I hate that word (as John McLaughlin, himself a great cross-pollinator, said “we ALL live in the World, don’t we?”) – there are Ethiopian, African, Latin, Balkan, Indian sounds there as well as New York funk, Chicago swing and Newtown boogie.

The Sirens’ debut album, Kali and The Time of Change reinforces these pan-continental grooves just as it reinforces the good time the band has when making music. Opener ‘Balkanator’ – penned by trumpeter Ellen Kirkwood (definitely a composer to watch) – jumps out like a joyful and slightly tipsy village wedding dance, the players throwing the solos around over drummer Lauren Benson’s grinning groove.

Sirens mentor (“our jazz mamma”) Sandy Evans’ Indian-spiced nine-minute-plus piece, the title track ‘Kali and The Time of Change’ opens with Harding’s sopranino talking back to the Band’s unison riffs. The piece settles down into a floating groove over which Harding raps “something majestic/ something lyrical/ female Aladdin representing future changes yo…” – a bright rap that evokes scenes in the mind and a call for peace in the heart. Quite beautiful.

Harriet Harding and tenor saxophonist Ruth Wells travelled to the Middle East last year and came back with more than they took away. These inspirations fuelled Harding’s ‘Kali’ rap and also Wells’ gorgeous ‘Hawassa to Addis’. This piece has guitarist Milan Ring singing over the entire band singing as a choir. I don’t know why it affects so deeply but it does – is it the lovely pentatonic Ethiopian folk tune the piece is based on? or is it that the choir of female voices sounds like children? or is it the low blues moan of Jessica Dunn’s bass during her solo? Who knows – best not to dwell on these things, best to just dig beauty as she should be dug, unquestioningly.Sirens Kali

The Sirens have, since their inception, played charts by some wonderful local composers and it is gratifying to see they have included several pieces here that they have had in their setlists from Day One. Paul Murchison’s hip-shaking 7/8 (if there can be such a thing, this is it) ‘I Still Remember’ gets the whole band cooking before a coolly soulful piano solo from Monique Lysiak. Nadia Burgess’s evocative, watercolour-washed ‘The Music in My Dreams’ is a masterclass in jazz big band tone-colour and restraint.

Jenna Cave’s sprightly African-limbed 9/8 jaunt ‘Odd Time In Mali’ has long been a Sirens’ favourite – by the time it smoothes out to 4/4 for Emma Riley’s sinuous trombone solo and Milan Ring’s chicken-picked guitar solo, if your foot ain’t tapping you are either made of machine-parts or dead.

Closing track Mulatu Astatke’s ‘Yekatit’ has all the elements that we love about the Siren’s Big Band – Ethio funk that swings, killer solos (Sophie Unsen’s baritone sax burning here) over a blasting band, and a joyful vibe presiding over all. It is a combination you won’t get anywhere else and they are one of Sydney’s – if not Australia’s – treasures.

The Siren’s Big Band – long may they sing us over the edge.

The Siren’s website is

Published February 2103 on 

Frank Zappa’s famous dictum of “Jazz is not dead; it just smells funny” was made at a time when Jazz had left the listener behind, cordoning itself off with fences of impenetrable theory and barbed wire tangles of unlistenable mathematics. Artists like Anthony Braxton, who named many of his compositions with symbols and numbers, chose to forget entirely about that function of music that activates the body below the cerebellum. The only way out seemed through fusing with rock, blues, funk and other, more vigorous mongrel-like musics.

Even though Jazz ultimately found its way again, it still intermittently reinvigorates itself by sucking on the funky, vital blood of other, more populist musics now and again – check current shining light Robert Glasper’s incorporation of hip-hop and urban favours into his Jazz, or our own D.I.G who mixed up House and Jazz so successfully in the 90s.

Sydney’s Vampires have long mixed reggae (Marley et al plus the Ethiopian skank of the great Mulatu Astatke and such) and African funk into their brew. Featuring compositions from altoist Jeremy Rose and trumpeter Nick Garbett their sound is beautifully open and spry – with no chordal instrument (piano or guitar) to thicken the sound, this allows the band to not only keep the jazzheads happy with some curly chromaticism in the solos, but helps the rest of us shake our asses to the surefooted grooves driven by Alex’s Boneham (bass) and Masso (drums).

Their prior releases – 2008’s South Coasting and Chellodene from 2009 – were hugely successful, pushing The Vampires out into the festival circuit and painting grins on the faces of all who heard them. The new one, Garfish is more of the same, thank God (and Ornette Coleman).

The title track opener, Nick Garbett’s ‘Garfish’ walks in with a beautifully  assured reggae stroll – the band, augmented by trombonist Shannon Barnett, moves between reggae, New Orleans march music and a joyous free-blown Dixieland section. Chilean percussionist Fabian Hevia introduces ‘Haiti’ and we are off into a Randy Weston-style Afrogroove. The ingredients are thrown in, the gumbo mix swirls and the album unfolds like a feast.

Much of this material was developed at the 2011 Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music under the direction of US trumpeter Dave Douglas – a musician known for eschewing genres and elitism: a righteous man, in other words. 

The calypso of ‘Dragon Del Sur’, the relaxed Cuban jump of Rose’s ‘Antipodean Love Song’ – it all reminds me of John McLaughlin’s statement that “all music is World music” – we all live in the World, don’t we? The Vampires take what they want and use what they want, to great effect.

And it is this which makes Garfish such a satisfying album – the solos and ideas are what is best about Jazz: adventurous, poetic, free and soulful; but the grooves and good humour here are also as valid as any other element. Seventy years ago, Jazz used to make the best dance records – in 2012, The Vampires make equally irresistible dance music. Garfish will have you shaking your ass while bright jungle flowers grow between your ears.

Published March 2012 on