Posts Tagged ‘Lauren Benson’

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 


The story of US pop singer Karen Carpenter is well-known – the squeaky clean all-American girl-next-door who, with her brother Richard as the duo The Carpenters, had sunny hit after sunny hit during the cloudy 1970s.

What is maybe not so well known is the dark shadow behind the perfect Colgate smiles – the spectre of Richard’s prescription drug addiction and, most tragically, Karen’s awful battle with anorexia nervosa which ultimately led to her premature death at the age of 33.

It is this tragedy which adds an aching poignancy to Carpenters’ hits such as ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’, ‘Rainy Days and Mondays’ and ‘Yesterday Once More’ – a poignancy amplified by the bittersweetness of Karen’s woodsmoke voice and Richard’s widescreen arrangements. It is genius capital-p Pop, on par with the hit-radio triumphs of Björn Ulvaeus ABBA or Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys.

Sydney cabaret chanteuse, Meera Belle’s ‘Close to You: A Tribute to Karen Carpenter’ – performed over two nights at the inner-City Italian Forum as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival – took on both the sunshine and the moonshadow of Karen Carpenter’s art and life. The songs were hung on a smartly scripted monologue – shared between Belle and backing vocalist Rob McDougall – detailing Karen’s sunny highs and nightblack lows over a two-part show.

It worked beautifully too: the first half – kicked off fittingly with the almost too cute ‘Top Of The World’ – is the sunshine. Meera Belle, cool in a pale mint gown, recounted the meteoric rise of the Carpenter siblings under the eye of A&M Records hitmaker, Herb Alpert. She touched on the irony of Karen, who only ever wanted to be a drummer (and she was a damn good drummer),  growing to become one of the world’s most beloved singers.

A smart touch here was the featuring of young Sydney jazz drummer Lauren Benson in the band – between Benson’s cool swing and Meera Belle’s rich, assured voice they created a kind of composite Karen for us, drummer and singer.

The band, led by astute musical director and keys player Ray Lemond, somehow managed to recreate – with very spare means – those huge luscious Richard Carpenter arrangements. Veteran bass player Phil Scorgie and alto/flute/clarinet man Scott Simpkins rounded out the intrepid quartet that achieved this magic. (Kudos to Belle for not using backing tracks – these songs deserve more respect than that).

Meera Belle returned for the second half in black with a simple gold belt, reflecting the somber nature of the moonshadow half of ‘Close to You: A Tribute…’ The backstory here was of the personal decline of both Carpenters, focussing on Karen’s snakes-and-ladders love-life and, of course, her descent into anorexia nervosa – the wracking slimmers disease that, in the late 70s, was still barely acknowledged. She always wanted to be perfect – the perfect wife and suburban Mom, the perfect show-biz face and figure. Her parade of faithless lovers robbed her of the former, anorexia robbed her of the latter, and finally her life.

‘Close to You: A Tribute…’ did not shy away from the tragedy of Karen Carpenter’s life but allowed her story to colour and illuminate the way we heard the music. And what music it is – one of the rare bodies of work that, like the music of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, is beloved by millions now and into the future. Perfect pure pop – beauty, born, like Brian Wilson’s, of pain.


Published September 2012 on