Posts Tagged ‘Matt McMahon’

Jazz at its best is a music of conversations. The dialogue between soloists and rhythm section – whether lover’s whispers, sibling bickering or gospel shouting-match – can take the music out to some fantastic and funky places.

Solo jazz performances are, unlike group efforts, conversations with oneself: in the hands of a pretender, touchingly masturbatory; in the hands of a master, deeply meditative.

On his new album – The Voyage of Mary and William – eminent Sydney pianist/composer, Matt McMahon reveals himself even further as a true master of the art we call Jazz. Over twelve solo pieces, McMahon converses with both himself, the history of Jazz and everything in life and music that has brought him to this point.

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He also, unconsciously, converses with past generations of his family, and his Irish heritage, that have physically brought him to this point as well.

For these twelve pieces were recorded (beautifully) with David Nicholas as purely improvised performances, with no thematic or conceptual rope for McMahon to pull himself along. It all came from the magic air.

But not quite. After he had finished he listened back and realised that there were spirits and ghosts from his Irish past, a past that reached back generations, hovering in and around the music. As he puts it, the Irish current was “not necessarily in the foreground, but somewhere underneath or behind the sounds I was hearing”.

So the tracks – and the album – were named, after the fact, for episodes in the voyage of his ancestors, William and Mary Navin, who crossed the oceans from Tipperary to Australia in 1847. The titles fit and turn all of these perfectly realised solo pieces into deep, still meditations that stop time and open pools of wonder below and star-choked skies above.

“Island of Destiny”, which opens the album, sets the spiritual pace with one note following another, and then another and so on like a language building a word at a time. “The Winding Path” surprises, along its winding way, with small dissonances and gently chafing harmonic quirks. Throughout The Voyage of Mary and William McMahon uses overt “jazz” harmony sparingly – and impeccably – giving all the tracks an astringent and faintly austere chamber quality.

The next three pieces seem to descend emotionally by degrees into a place of sadness the colour of Atlantic Ocean deeps –­ the colour of life’s bruise, indigo and blackened. “Embarkation” with its suspended chords which never seem to set foot on the earth; “Lamentation”, sadder still, sagging with sadness; and “The Creaking Night”, a nadir of nihilistic low notes rumbling beneath.

Then the storm that is “Tempest Within” hits and it is a tumble like rolling surf, churning and never letting you up for air. The only wildly rhythmic and propulsive piece on The Voyage of Mary and William, it builds into a kind of insanity that hits a wall of silence at bang on three minutes. And that silence rings like a bell, and we are back down into “The Second Dream”, one of the loveliest things here.

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“The Second Dream” is McMahon inventing a perfect jazz standard as he goes. Nostalgic reverie and half-remembered perfumes drift in and out of his notes as he plays. It is deeply felt and greatly affecting – as is all this music: McMahon connecting emotionally to the music throughout.

The final piece, “The Stranger’s Land” conveys the alienscape that Australia must have seemed to Mary and William after European juniper-green Tipperary. Its dry, ochre notes bring to mind the landscapes of Australian painter Fred Williams – all scraped background earth with flecks of tree-stump, mulga and rust-iron. The title may have been given later but the tone-poetry is there, aptly so.

The Voyage of Mary and William is Matt McMahon’s first recording of solo piano improvisation. In his illuminating liner notes to the CD, he describes the piano – a machine of wood, ivory and wire he remains obviously still smitten by – as “this wondrous invention”. The same descriptor could be applied to The Voyage of Mary and William. It is all invention and, yes, it is pretty bloody wondrous.

Published February 2015 on australianjazz.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The inner sleeve art of bassist Patrick ‘PW’ Farrell’s debut album, The Life Electric, depicts the man – face obscured by a hip-hop cap – towering over the remains of a smashed and very dead acoustic guitar. He is holding his electric 5-string like the weapon that did the deed.

It is a powerful image and a fitting one for an album that almost entirely eschews the woody acoustic (sound) world for the electric (and electronic) one. Apart from a little trumpet, sax, guitar and vocal spread thinly across the tracks (and ‘real’ drums on only two out of the ten here) all this music is performed and programmed by Farrell.

The purists will yelp (which is never a bad thing) but in The Life Electric, Farrell has created one of the better albums of the year – at least to these ears. Charges of electronic ‘coldness’ and lack of human interaction and warmth will be leveled, but it never bothered Herbie or Miles, so it shouldn’t concern us.

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In fact the whole sheen of the album brings to mind some of Miles Davis’ 80s work, such as You’re Under Arrest and Star People – albums which have recently been re-evaluated as the masterworks they are. Farrell adds a very contemporary spin of samples and chattering computer beats to the mix, all of it done with as much taste as the best constructed Matt McMahon (or Steve Hunter) solo.

But whereas fellow electric bassist Hunter – most recently on his live album Cosmos – moves through the music interacting with his band organically, Farrell gives his bass no less room to move, but istead plays inside a taut web of programmed beats and accents.

A startling instrumental technician – check the three unaccompanied pieces: ‘Irish Sons’, ‘Barcaldine’ and ‘I Have Wandered’ – Farrell will happily sit under on a hip-hop groove such as the title track, ‘The Life Electric’ or a lazily snapping lope such as ‘Inspiration’ (tenor player Daniel Rorke reading the mood perfectly in his solo).Farrell 2

Instruments outside the sealed programmed tracks, such as Carl Morgan’s crisp-toned guitar solo on ‘Jester In The Rain’, never jolt against the computer sounds – it is all woven with great care and skill into a seamless and fine-grained fabric.

When an element is meant to jolt, it does in a surprising and artful way – such as the sample of a Ronald Reagan speech on ‘Liberty’.

In his liner notes to Jaco Pastorius’s 1976 debut album, Herbie Hancock (a man who should know) wrote “Of course, it’s not the technique that makes the music; it’s the sensitivity of the musician and his ability to be able to fuse his life with the rhythm of the times. This is the essence of music.”

The Life Electric is of its time but is also of the tradition of jazz. PW Farrell has caught the balance of both deftly – not an easy thing to do: too many have failed by tipping too far one way or another.

His music deserves a listen.

 

 

Published July 2104 on australianjazz.net

I recently had the singular pleasure of watching Sydney electric flamenco samurai Steve Hunter perform a solo bass concert. For 45 minutes (or one minute, or a year; time sort of ceased…) Hunter played through a selection of his compositions, ingeniously segueing them together into one integrated and cohesed experience.

After two or three tunes, I stopped trainspotting and just went with the flow, which Hunter kept up effortlessly. One man, one (electric) bass, a little universe of music – a cosmos of one.

steve hunter, the translatorsHunter has always been one of our most single-minded and disciplined players, one whose prolific output has been of one consistently high standard – the standard he applies, bushido-like, to himself and expects (and gets) from his sidemen/collaborators.

His latest album, Cosmos, is a departure in many ways, but a revelation in others. His ninth album as leader, it is his first live album – recorded at Sydney’s 505. It is also an album mainly of previously recorded compositions. And his first without guitar.

Significantly this time around, rather than precisely planning arrangements, Hunter and his band took the more traditional ‘jazz’ approach of using the compositions as musical material for blowing – more departure points than destinations, if you will.

And what a band ­– all Hunter cohorts from many a gig, all entirely familiar with his body of work and with these particular works; and all entirely in tune with the spirit that drives this remarkable music: Andrew Gander on drums, Matt McMahon on keys and Matt Keegan on tenor and soprano.

‘The Kingston Grin’ sets up the easy interplay and conversational mood of the album. A loose-limbed swing which see-saws between the tension of two chords for the solos, it is a simple canvas across which the players paint pictures, poetry and pure joy.steve hunter cosmos

‘Love and Logic’ from 2003’s If Blue was Orange is given a very open treatment, Keegan’s solo searching and finding, searching and finding over the floating 7/8 Weather Report-like groove. Hunter’s music can sometimes bring up his influences a little strongly here and there, but such influences were cataclysmic to a generation, and the Jaco-isms here are welcome and warming. McMahon’s acoustic piano solo is notable on ‘Love and Logic’ – controlled and uplifting.

The lovely Spanish-tinged ‘Cazador’ has shown up on 2007’s Dig My Garden as well as the eponymous 2009 album of Hunter’s flamenco-jazz co-project The Translators. Here it is reimagined differently again, showcasing Hunter’s astonishing virtuosity and passionate ability to get inside the music.

Hunter says that his decision to not use guitar on this album allowed him to exploit some recent breakthroughs he has made in his playing – listen and you’ll see. Gander’s drums here are astounding for their transparency: light washes and translucent colours as background for Hunter.

‘Area 51’ is Hunter’s heartfelt tribute to five jazz spirits who left us at the early age of 51 and as intense as it is lovely. The brawn of Hunter’s playing can push his bands sometimes a little hard, but if it pushes them into a performance such as the one delivered during McMahon’s sparks-spitting Rhodes solo, then all is forgiven.

The closing track, ‘So To Speak’ from 2010’s Nine Lives is here given a spikier, funkier reading. The blowing section is nicely captured by Craig Naughton’s live recording – a little boxy but very in-the-moment – with the band really talking to each other and to us, especially during the simmer of Matt Keegan’s tenor solo. Just listening to the fun Andrew Gander has with the 7/8 groove is worth the price of admission in itself.

A focused and hard-edged album from one of our finest talents – all the more enjoyable for it’s openness and live excitement. An evolution of Steve Hunter’s artistry is seen in the Zen act of letting go and seeing what the universe can bring his way.  Yes, Cosmos is quite a ride.

Cosmos is available here http://stevehunter.bandcamp.com/releases

 

Published April 2104 on australianjazz.net

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saxophonist and composer Rick Robertson’s Mutiny Music suite has been ten years in the making. But in another sense it has been almost 225 years in the making – as the events which led to its story were set in motion by the famous Mutiny on the Bounty of 1789.

Robertson, born on Norfolk Island and a descendant of the Pitcairn islanders, has composed this wonderfully evocative 12-part suite around this story. He recently presented it with his band, the wonderful Baecastuff, on a sticky, sultry – yes, very Pacific – evening at Sydney’s 505.

Baecastuff – the band’s name a Norfolk word – has long been one of our musical treasures. What has always set them apart is their ability to play and breathe together as one entity;  combine that with a line-up of astonishing soloists and you have magic. Formed in 1996 they have carried the torch for tough hard-bop flavoured jazz like no other.

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Which is why much of Mutiny Music came as a (warmly pleasant) surprise – the sensitivity and openness of much of the suite demanded an almost chamber-jazz touch, revealing a side to the ensemble I had not heard.

After a short history lesson from Robertson, Matt McMahon’s gentle piano octaves magically created a calm sea before our very ears with the band, a wave at a time. This was the “Mutiny” section of the suite, which built into the band blowing over ‘Big Swell’, the driving Afro-shuffle from their 1997 album of the same name.

baecastuff live3“Search for Sanctuary” featured drummer Simon Barker on the Polynesian log drum, or pate, in duet with percussionist Aykho Akhrif, creating probably the only Polynesian-Afro-Cuban mash-up you would have heard in Sydney that night. To add to the cultural gumbo, Robertson and trumpeter Phil Slater coolly intoned a traditional tune over the top of the edgy, feverish drums. The effect was hallucinogenic; your mind being pulled in a number of directions at the same time.

This cross-cultural mash-up worked beautifully across the entire suite – a testimony to Robertson’s smart writing, deep research and even deeper emotional connection to the music. Glorious old hymns such as “Come Ye Blessed” played solo by Robertson (sounding as sanctified and grizzled as an island preacher) at the start of the “Pitcairn Found” section pulled you back in time, a McMahon Rhodes solo put you in back in this humid Sydney night; the traditional “Gethsemane” (and it’s ethereal deconstruction) coming up against the almost electric-Miles skronk of “Arrival at Norfolk”.

An additional level of space-time dislocation came through the startling use of snatches of field recordings (snaps, crackles and scratchy sound intact) of the distinctive Pitcairn language. Phrases, recorded in the mid-50s and triggered from Robertson’s Apple laptop, were woven into the loping grooves (driven by that peerless driver, bassist Alex Hewetson) of “Conflict and Murder (HueHue)” and the later “Discovered (Dem Da Mus Gwen It Et)”. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t understand what was being said, the dynamic curves and rhythms of this language was music in itself.

The soloists were astounding as is expected of a Baecastuff set, and yet the suite was the greater entity – a true sum of its parts, as the band is. Mutiny Music took us all away, to the Pitcairn and Norfolk islands, to a time far in the past, to an event that had such wide historical ripples. And yet Rick Robertson and the band held us tight in the present, as all great musicians do.

After a short break, Baecastuff came back for three tunes, which was a bonus. However, as rivetting and fiery as these performances were, I couldn’t help noticing the Pacific Ocean seeping in beneath the 505 door, soughing waves all the way from Norfolk and Pitcairn, salt on its breath.

Mutiny Music will be recorded late February with a projected release date sometime late 2014.

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Prior to the performance of Mutiny Music at 505, I asked Rick Robertson a handful of questions about the project. Here are his answers:

1. Rick, you are a descendant of the Pitcairn islanders, so this suite is close to your soul. What was the spark that lead to you writing ‘Mutiny Music’?

I’d heard about a recording made on Norfolk Island in 1954 of a group of islanders singing a few Hymns in the traditional way. There was only a few copies pressed by the ABC and it took months to find one. I can remember listening to it for the first time and the tears were rolling down my cheeks. A few years later I was asked to do a soundscape for a Cyclorama on Norfolk which depicted the Voyage of the Bounty and the history of the Pitcairn people. At that point I thought that I could write a piece that could be performed live that drew upon the history, music and culture of the Pitcairn and Norfolk Islanders.

2. What is it particularly about the Pitcairn culture that stands out as unique to you?

The circumstances under which the culture developed are fascinating.

A few British sailors, led by Fletcher Christian, put their Captain in a longboat and sail back to Tahiti where they pick up a dozen Women and a few Tahitian men and head back to sea to find somewhere to hide. After nearly 12 months at sea they find the wrongly charted and uninhabited Pitcairn Island. Two very different cultures living very closely together with no outside influences led to some very interesting outcomes. 10 years later when they were finally discovered there was only one surviving Englishman, a dozen polynesian women and a bunch of kids. They were pretty much left alone for the next 70 years in which time they developed a very distinctive language and a unique culture.

3. You use samples of the spoken Pitcairn language in the suite. Why did you decide to incorporate these?

Language is a very important part of any culture and the Pitcairn/Norfolk language is a very musical one. Apart from the Hymns very little of the musical culture was recorded. I found some recordings made in 1956 of spoken word and realised that the lyrical way in which the Islanders spoke could be transcribed and used as themes. So I guess it serves two purposes. It highlights and exposes the language and it provides thematic musical ideas.

4. You play with many ensembles, all of them exceptional musicians. What made you choose Baecastuff to present the suite?

Baecastuff is a Norfolk word and I’ve been working with this band for 16 years. I guess we’ve really developed something of our own over a long period of time and I really admire and trust all the guys. They are also the most creative musicians I’ve ever worked with so it wasn’t really a hard decision. I have thought about doing the show with strings and vocalists but that may be for the future.

5. Do we have a recording of ‘Mutiny Music’ to look forward to in future?

I’ve just received an Arts Council Grant to record the music. We’ll be in the studio at the end of February. Very much looking forward to it. I guess we’ll have a CD out in a few months. It will definitely help us get the show onto the international stage.

6. What are your thoughts on current music: jazz in particular and music in general?

There is so much music around these days it’s hard to keep up. I make a conscious effort to listen to new music and keep my ears open but I’ve still got a lot of music that I’ve downloaded that I haven’t listened to more than once. I have teenage kids who love music with a passion so I hear what they are listening to. Some of it I like, most of it I don’t but there’s always something to listen to within the track, whether its the vocal production or the massive bottom end. As far as current Jazz goes there’s a bunch of artists who continue to push the barriers and it’s about going to the venue and hearing them live. That’s as current as it gets.

Photos by F. Farrell

Baecastuff’s website is www.baecastuff.com.au

Published February 2104 on australianjazz.net 

In James Ryan’s liner notes to Aaron Michael’s eponymous debut, Aaron Michael, he mentions that the Sydney saxophonist took an unusual tack when picking the players for these sessions. He put together people who did not usually play together, players from different parts of the jazz community – a risky move, but one which paid off, as the band appears to greatly relish the new accents and flavours of the experiment. You can hear their buzz jumping from the tracks.

pic aaron blakey

pic aaron blakey

In the goldfish bowl of the Australian jazz scene this might be the sort of calculated risk that we need to see more of. All evolution needs diversity and the occasional short sharp shock to the status quo.

Opener ‘Leytonstone’ is an immediate illustration of the ensemble’s joy: a bright expression of positivity – a happy strut with maybe a whiff of New Orleans gumbo, the tune’s broad smile disguises an intricate melody – intricate in harmony as well as phrasing. Michael digs in for a solo duet with drummer Paul Derricott that cuts up hot and sweet.

And here it must be mentioned that Aaron Michael’s playing has not had the edge knocked off, despite being the go-to horn-guy who seems to be playing all the time, with everyone… everywhere… Consummate professionalism can be a hell of a thing – too many players lose their own identity, their own voice, working nine-to-five replicating the voices of others, as superbly as that may be. But the most beautiful thing, ultimately, is a musician’s own voice, as it has all the scars and laugh-lines and happy-sads of life which make it as unique as fingerprints or a face. Session work can suck that right out of a player.

Aaron Michael’s voice is as true to himself as he would want – a clean, nimble, modern tenor tone, unadorned with effects or false sentiment, it is astringently honest. Check ‘Por Favor’, a lanquid pulseless ballad that Michael’s soprano floats over – bringing to mind Wayne Shorter’s ability to express every part of the straight sax’s vocabulary, sometimes within the same phrase: the sharp jabs widening out to round, sonorous tones. (The lovely bonus track at the end of the CD is for once, truly a bonus – a second take of ‘Por Favor’ with a spare piano accompaniment – lovely stuff indeed).

‘Here and Now’ shows Aaron Michael’s compositional strengths – it is a piece of contrasts: 3/4 against 4/4, swing pulse against straight, with a smartly conceived ensemble section towards the latter part of the tune (and, as a bon-bon, a typically measured and balanced piano solo from Matt McMahon). Michael’s ‘Spicy Beans’ with its rush-hour head and his 9/8 gospel blues ‘Communion’ (with a testifying bass solo from Duncan Brown) are sharp pieces of writing that also show him as a jazz composer to watch.aaron michael Album cover

‘Spicy Beans’ and Paul Derricott’s ‘Evening Haze’ have the band plugging into some fusion electricity. Guitarist Dieter Kleeman snaps, crackles and shreds on these – an impressive player equally at home playing a sweet acoustic jazz tone on the opener ‘Leytonstone’. The whole band, in fact, strongly convinces on the rock pieces while remaining totally mesmerising on the more ‘jazz’ tunes.

But as hot as the players are, and as fine as Aaron Michael’s compositions may be, it is really his playing which makes Aaron Michael such a startling debut. As a pointer, the sheer beauty and downright ‘heart’ of his solo on the last piece ‘Communion’ is a small masterclass in blues, restraint, humanity in music and transcendence of technique. Modern jazz has always been a balancing act between science and poetry, chops and soul – and sadly, too many players fall for the formulae and lose the funk.

Gladly, Aaron Michael is not one of them and you need go no further than Aaron Michael for actual proof.

Aaron Michael is available from http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/aaronmichael2

Aaron Michael’s website is http://aaronmichaelband.com/

Published June 2103 on australianjazz.net 

One of the true delights of any music festival is that, for a few days – or even just a few precious hours – you are in a strange and beautiful new world, away from the tangle and hum of city life. The 4th Jazzgroove  Summer Festival reigned over Sydney’s Redfern-Surry Hills Delta for four days in January, staking out the territory in the name of modern composition, improvised music and the jazz life.

And what a strange and beautiful world they conjured for us among the bricks and grime, the litter and the 7-11 Stores.

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I was fortunate to start at the very beginning, with Tom O’Halloran’s solo piano opener on Thursday at Surry Hills’ Tom Mann Theatre. A smart choice to open the Festival, O’Halloran’s sure touch made the piano sigh and glitter. His closer, a sparkling ‘No More Blues’ served as a teasing appetiser for a weekend of stellar music.

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And stellar was the word (a TV sports cliché yes, but too apt to not use here) for Jonathan Zwartz’s band, up next. A Dream Team of players – Slater, Maegraith, Greening, Julien Wilson blowing (his and) our minds, Dewhurst, Matt McMahon, Hamish Stuart and percussionista Fabian Hevia holding it down with the calm river that is Zwartz himself. And from that calm river flowed strong and sure compositions, with melodic lines that were often country-simple but Gospel-true. From the opener ‘Shimmer’ through to ‘Henry’s High Life’, it was transfixing soul-blues that had the soloists reaching within – Phil Slater and Richard Maegraith especially going deep on the latter tune – leaving the audience at Tom Mann visibly affected. Like all true wisdom there was very little flash, but a universe of quiet fire.

The opening night was climaxed by the mighty Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra, paying tribute to genius jazz composer Bob Brookmeyer (who sadly passed from this earthly plane last year). Even though the Orchestra bristles with astounding soloists, it was the Festival’s International Guest Artist (I suppose Aotearoa counts as international) tenor magus Roger Manins that was featured on all charts. The Orchestra is truly a national treasure and for this, their 10th anniversary gig, they played better than I have ever heard them – snapping and roiling on the fiery pieces and painting colour washed mists on the quieter pieces such as the lovely ‘Fireflies’. Manins stood toe-to-toe with the band on the blasting finale, ‘See Saw’, his tenor sassing back and cajoling the Mothership. Big kudos to drummer Jamie Cameron who rode the roaring beast on all pieces with great style and verve.

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Friday was Fusion Day for me as I took in the electro-jazz of the Alcohotlicks at 505 and later, the flamenco-jazz of Steve Hunter’s Translators down the road at the Gaelic. It had been Sydney’s hottest day ever (!) on record and the evening was still dripping from the day.alcohotlicks

At 505, The Alcohotlicks’ Evan Mannell admitted to ‘shitting himself’ at the prospect of working without a drum kit. He then won us all over with a beautiful funky groove, cut-up on his sample box from Jimi Hendrix’s throaty ‘Who Knows’ riff. Joined by Ben Hauptmann on MIDI guitar and laptop, and Aaron Flower (the hoary traditionalist of the group who merely plays a guitar through an amp) the trio – winners of the inaugural Jazzgroove Association Recording Artist Award  – astounded with tracks from their album Danaïdes. ‘Neon’ was neo-NEU! motorik funk; ‘Baader’ was Goldfrapp/Moroder replicant-porn boogie. Did I sense a few members of the 505 audience shifting in their seats during the Alcohotlicks set? Artists such as these are the ones who move any music forward and all kudos to them for working at the edge of the Jazz comfort zone. A little seat shifting is always a good sign.

steve hunter, the translatorsDown the steaming street to the Gaelic. By now slightly drunk on the merlot and the humidity, I was taken away completely by The Translators. Too loud for the room – not a bad thing at all – electric bass toreador Steve Hunter and the quartet blazed through a set of flamenco-flecked originals that had Míro dancing with Manitas de Plata, Chick Corea dancing with de Falla in my swirling head. At times Ben Hauptmann’s electric mandolin solos sounded like a 70’s micro-Moog, the otherworldly tone beautifully offset by Damien Wright’s flamenco gut-string. ‘Turquoise’ was blue in green in orange. ‘The Last Trannie’ was Madrid via Soweto. Always a fiery and sparkling group, tonight – after not playing together for two years – The Translators shone like a Catalonian sun and lit all our faces with broad smiles. Not so long between sangrias next time, please amigos!

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the fantastic terrific munkle

Saturday my hangover needed the peace of Prince Alfred Park and the gentle afternoon humour of The Fantastic Terrific Munkle. Cool breezes blew, people picnicked on the grass, and from between two huge trees, The Munkle – powered by Sam Golding’s tuba and the (snake-)charming clarinet of Jeremy Rose – wove their musical tales of whimsy, recalling ragtime, Dixie, weird old blues and French salon jazz. The song announcements were made through a megaphone, the guitar amp was powered by solar panels and guitarist Julian Curwin wore thongs. It was all so sweetly organic, it made the afternoon time stand beautifully still.

Too much daylight – bah! Back into the night and the Steve Barry Trio with Alex Boneham and the quicksilver Tim Firth at 505. This is the trio that played on Barry’s recent album, Steve Barry – a startling album made (conjured from the elements, rather) by this startling combination of players. All the telepathic play and spiritual-empathic magic that lights up the album was here on stage tonight. Reminding me of Bill Evans’ trios or Keith Jarrett’s ‘standards’ trios, Barry-Boneham-Firth could spat and spar – as on opener ‘B.W.’ – or dissipate like evening mist across an introspective ballad such as the lovely ‘Epiphany’. Some of the most fluidly intelligent music in jazz has been made within the piano trio format and groups such as Steve Barry’s trio remind me why.

After the rollicking fun of altoist Ross Harrington’s vibey, young and fun Midnight Tea Party – Dixie, klemzer, ska flavours; a huge hit with the 505 crowd – we were treated to the Andrew Gander Band.

richard maegraithIn a Festival line-up luminescent with musical wonders, I can unreservedly say the Andrew Gander Band was the highlight for me – and I am sure many there would agree. His five-piece group hit their jaw-dropping stride from the first note and ascended from there. I had already seen each of Gander’s sidemen in other Festival groups but playing with Gander seemed to push each of them into the deeper reaches of their own musical universe. Tenor player Richard Maegraith seemed particularly inspired, blowing hard into the white-hot areas of his horn’s capabilties. (My friend, CC – who knows about such things – said after one of Maegraith’s solos “I could see his aura and light flashing off him!”) Bassist Brett Hirst twinned with Gander through all of the music’s twists and turns almost preternaturally. Steve Barry would smartly sit out during guitarist Carl Morgan’s solos, allowing the drum-bass-guitar trio to stretch the harmonies and rhythms into new fluid shapes. The Gander originals such as ‘Retrograde’ (with one of those sizzling rock feels that Billy Cobham does so well) and the 5/4 roller coaster ride of ‘Prism’ were just eaten alive by the band, who also managed great takes on radically reshaped standards such as ‘Star Eyes’ and Dizzy’s ‘Con Alma’.

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ben hauptmann, zoe and the buttercups

Where to go from there? Thankfully the Sunday program offered sweet soul relief in the form of Festival Guest Roger Manins and the original lineup of his soul-jazz champions, Hip Flask. To a packed 505, Manins’ testifying tenor led the quintet through ‘Bang’, ‘Big Sis’, ‘John Scon’ and others from their Jazzgroove catalogue. Against the indigo-blue Hammond of Stu Hunter, Adam Ponting’s peppery shards of piano dissonance put Hip Flask in their own category without losing any soul-jazz juice. The intro to ‘Blues for Adam Ponting’ moved in and out of harmonic focus until Manins brought us back to the planet with some real deep earth. (Manins was also one of the drollest bandleaders of the Festival, his tongue popping almost through his cheek at times during his stage announcements…)

By now saturated to the brim with music and fine 505 merlot, I took one last rolling stroll down Chalmers Street, climbing the stairs to the Gaelic to bid the Festival adieu with Zoe Hauptmann and her Buttercups. The six piece snapped my jaded mind awake with their patented country-soul stomp and Tele-blaster Aaron Flower’s always-exhilarating chicken-pickin’. Watching Ms Hauptmann leading her Buttercups up there, a question swam into my mind: Where were all the women musicians at the 4th Summer Festival? Ok, there was Zoe H and new bassist Hannah James (yes, Elana Stone too, but I am not counting vocalists in this equation) – that’s two out of an awful lot of male musicians. This is not a polemic point, nor is the question rhetoric; it is an honest query. The Con and other institutions turn out many many women musicians, musicians who have graduated alongside their male contemporaries, women musicians who are out there any night of the week paying as many gig dues as the guys. So why, when you get to the highest levels of jazz in this country – such as the annual Jazzgroove Festival – are women so insignificantly spoken for?

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In his Sunday night wrap-up speech, Jazzgroove President (and Buttercup trombonist) John Hibbard admitted that this year’s Summer Festival almost didn’t happen. The committee had sat around Matt McMahon’s dining table and voted on going through with it or not. It was that dire. After four days of wonderfully attended gigs by our best and brightest – and some performances that seriously deserve to pass into myth and legend – it is hard to believe that meeting ever took place. But positive energy ruled that day – the vote was to go ahead – and that same positive energy ruled the 4th Jazzgroove  Summer Festival.

And thank God, Miles and Duke that it did.

The Jazzgroove website is here.

Published January 2103 on australianjazz.net