Posts Tagged ‘Miles’

The music of Thelonious Sphere Monk is a world of its own. So unique in jazz is Monk’s conception – both in composition and in improvisation  – that it has pretty much carved out a sub-genre of its own.

Because of its unique language, it has proven down the years a notoriously difficult book to play. Some of the greats have struggled with its quirks and almost Zen-like mind-games: the staggered rhythms, the displaced phrases, the lines that seemingly go nowhere, only to bob up from rabbit-hole a few bars later. John Coltrane and Monk’s long-time foil, Charlie Rouse come to mind, but not too many others.

To improvise over Monk’s compositions – even a deceptively traditional blues such as ‘Blue Monk’ – demands an understanding of his highly personal logic. To move within that successfully, while not losing your own voice, is the grail.

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Sydney altoist, Michael Griffin has put together a tribute to Monk’s music based around an octet Monk toured in 1968. Griffin’s octet (a very Monk word I think; as ‘quintet’ is a very Miles word) is made up of some of our best and brightest. I was fortunate to catch them at Sydney’s swish Foundry 616.

After the opener, the sweetly melancholic ‘Ruby, My Dear’ played by the quartet of Griffin, Aaron Blakey on piano and the rhythm section of Tim Geldens (drums) and Tom Botting (bass), Griffin brought out the horns. With ‘Epistrophy’ I knew Griffin has done his homework. He explained, mid-set, that he had voiced the horns based on transcriptions of Monk’s piano voicings. So all the harmonic quirks were there – the clashed seconds and flat-seconds, the clusters, the more open intervals such as sixths and ninths (Monk seemed to favour either very close or very open harmony) – and the effect was, like Monk himself, akin to nothing else in jazz.

The band swung through a nice mix of faves and obscurities – the gonzoid mis-steps of ‘Evidence’, the fractured bop of ‘We See’, a wonderfully driving ‘Off Minor’, the horns – Griffin plus Michael Gordon and Louis Gordon (2 tenors), with Paul Weber on trombone and Tom Avenicos on trumpet – sounding huge on ‘Oska T’ and almost Stravinsky-like on closer ‘Crepuscule with Nellie’.

The soloists all dug into the material with zest. Griffin’s smart selection of players afforded a range of approaches – Michael Gordon’s reflective tone and ideas, Louis (no relation) Gordon’s more biting attack, the sharp tone of Avenicos (a beautiful solo in ‘I Mean You’ where the piano laid out and the trumpet notes played contrapuntal tag with the rhythm section), Paul Weber’s blues-inflected voice-like lines.

Griffin’s Parker-classic alto flurries at times could seem at odds with the more open Monk ideas – serving as an illustration as to the immense differences between these two ‘architects’ of Bebop, Monk and Charlie Parker (as different as Frank Lloyd Wright and Gaudi, though I couldn’t say who was which). That said, his more lyrical side was the highpoint of ‘Blue Monk’, beautiful long blues lines and lovely phrase endings. But what the hell – he is one of our most exciting players whatever he does.

Someone who seemed to be having too much fun was pianist Aaron Blakey. And what jazz pianist wouldn’t with the Monk book? Resplendent in a wide Sonny Rollins hat, Blakely placed perfect ‘Monk bombs’ under the soloists and laid out for great gaps, shoring up the tension as Monk used to (though, I noted, without Monk’s sweet, abandoned dance movements around the piano). Blakey’s solos had an equal measure of his own sparkling ideas and some Zen-lunatic Monk humour. His solo-piano take on ‘Pannonica’ which opened the second set was another high-point in a night of highs.

If only to experience the wonderful, eternally-modern music of T S Monk you need to see this band. The fact that Michael Griffin has rendered such perfect arrangements, kept close and respectful to the spirit of Monk, and engaged such a killer ensemble makes it  an essential to any fan of Jazz.

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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

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” So said that well-know bebopper (in words), Walt (‘Woody’) Whitman.

The quote came to mind when listening recently to two new releases from Melbourne saxophonist and composer Julien Wilson. Swailing is Wilson in Trio mode with guitarist Steve Magnusson and Steve Grant on accordion; This is Always has his big toned horn set amongst a classic quartet made up of Wilson, Barney McAll, Jonathan Zwartz and Allan Browne (and I don’t think I need to list what instruments each of these gents play…).

Julien Wilson3Swailing is as free as This is Always is restricted; it is as open as the quartet recording is closed. Swailing is the magpie, picking from electric Miles, Massenet and Fats; This is Always is the osprey, its eye fixed on the one prize.

And both are deliriously beautiful for all of these qualities and more.

I was thinking that together they represent the two sides of Julien Wilson, but then the Whitman quote swam into my mind and made me realise that an artist such as Wilson – a true artist in any and every sense – has more than two side: he has multitudes. And we are fortunate that he shares as few or as many as he wishes, with us.

I asked Julien Wilson a baker’s half-dozen questions, and his replies came back generous, insightful and filled with some cool riffing on the head. Thank you, Julien. Enjoy, people.

 

 

1. ‘Swailing’ and ‘This Is Always’ are obviously very different works which flow from the mind of the same artist – what is the aspect that you feel unifies them in your aesthetic?

Well, apart from the fact that I play tenor saxophone on both of them, there are a couple of unifying factors. In each case they are records that I have wanted to make for a long time, with musicians I have known and respected for most of my musical life. I met Steve Grant the same year I first heard Allan Browne play, 1986 I think. Al was in the first “live” jazz band I ever heard and Steve came to a jazz workshop I was playing clarinet at. He played seven tunes on seven instruments that day, and from memory, didn’t say a word. It was probably that same year that my Aunt gave me a Vince Jones Cassette Tape for Christmas that featured Barney on piano.

Anyway, I’m digressing already!

Both albums contain a mix of my tunes (originals?) and other peoples compositions (covers?). Both albums were recorded within a few months of each other. I mixed and mastered them during the same period – mid 2013 – (with different teams) and formed my own label to release them. Both represent a desire to retain 100% control of my own product, both musically and visually from conception to realisation, to release date and physical appearance. Both are available as High Resolution 24bit Downloads as well as CD, the point here being: I really care about the way the albums “sound”. Both in the recording process and through the mixing and mastering stages I was very aware of producing the highest quality product, which I guess is as “aesthetic” an answer as I can give. Julien wilson2

 

2. Did the players suggest the directions of both works, or did you start with a concept and then build a band around it?

The trio has been together for ten years now. Our first album was live, and we’ve discussed how to go about making a studio album for some time. The band kind of “presented” itself to us as a collection of friends, rather than a pre-determined selection of instruments, with players then selected to play those instruments. Mags and I have played in many bands together over the years, often without a bass player, and in trio with drums we’ve worked on making the time very elastic.  So the opportunity to play without drums seemed natural. All three of us have a love of various music and musicians from South America (esp. Argentina) so the accordion’s “bandoneon” qualities, combined with the nylon-string guitar’s obvious “Brazillian” references, and the expressive elements of the saxophone that conjure links to Tango and, of course, Stan Getz took us in a certain natural direction. Tunes I had written previous to the trio’s formation took on connotations of bossa rhythms and phrasing that were never originally intended. Magnusson’s composition, ‘My First 2001’ is a tune we’ve played with many groups. It was written before the trio was formed, but has become almost a signature piece for this band. My composition, ‘Midway ‘was written just before the recording. Actually the melody was written overnight between the 2 days in the studio, and overdubbed the next day, so this is one tune that was really custom built for the trio. The bass clarinet is a new instrument for me, and one that I’ve heard more and more fitting in to the fabric of the trio. The lack of a standard rhythm section of bass and drums means that the trio have to challenge the traditional roles of our instruments and find new relationships and responsibilities. Mags’ move from nylon-string to electric guitar (and more recently Moog Guitar) have changed my role in the trio, and the bass clarinet lets me move further in to an area that I’ve been interested in for many years. With the pitch and sonority of the bass clarinet I can play more of a supportive and propulsive function within the group. Additionally, the group has always been about the blend of tones we can achieve between our instruments, which is really unique to this band. The sound of the bass clarinet combining with the accordion has been more and more appealing to me lately. Interestingly, the tenor sax, accordion and guitar have almost identical pitch ranges, which means the roles within the group can be highly interchangeable.

Another point of interest with the trio is that for some reason an uncanny number of people seem to draw connections between our sound (perhaps the instrumentation and romanticism of it) with “French music”. Rather than fight this any longer, Steve Grant visited France a number of times in 2011 and 2012. He reported, despite visiting an extensive number of cafes and clubs throughout France, (and especially in Paris) of hearing NO accordionistas accompanying baristas. Despite this, he returned to Australia with a swath of French manuscripts for us to play, and, as fortune would have it, just before the recording session, we were hired for a season of concerts at the National Gallery of Victoria in support of a Napoleon exhibition! From the variety of “french” music we looked at, we adopted and recorded “Thai’s Meditation” by Massenet (incorrectly credited to Gabriel Faure on the album by yours truly).

For the quartet album, I basically just wanted to make an album with Barney while he was in town at Allan Eatons with Ross Cockle. Ross had recently recorded Sweethearts with Sam Anning and Allan Browne and I had such a good time doing it I wanted to do it again with Barney. I’ve always wanted to make a ballads album with piano, acoustic bass and drums, and the chance to have Al and Barney together seemed to good to let go. As luck would have it, my trio became unavailable for a concert we were booked for, and I managed to get Jonathan and Barney to replace them and book Eatons the next day. The half hour concert was all the rehearsal we had before the recording. Barney and I brought a handful of charts of “standards” on the day, and I picked a couple of my originals (all written very recently) that I thought would complement the other songs. So in this situation, the “concept” and the “band” were almost the same thing. I really wanted to just play all the tunes once, with as little discussion/instruction as possible, and let the musicians bring their individual voices to the music.

 

Julien wilson13. How do you pick your players on both works? What was the quality you looked for?

With the quartet record, Barney and Al have a long history together. Barney and Jonathan also have a long a history together. I’ve played with them all in various projects. Recently I’ve been playing more and more regularly with Al & Jonathan in a variety of projects. They seemed like they would make such a perfect team. It wasn’t until I booked them that I realised Al and Jonathan had never played in a band together.

The trio: Mags and I have played in so many bands together I’ve lost count. It started in 1992 when I was 20. Strangely enough, the first official gig we did together may have been in Niko Schauble‘s Tibetan Dixie! (We recorded Swailing at Niko’s Studio). We formed the trio with Steve Grant when Will Guthrie (who played drums with us in the assumptions trio) moved to France. (Hmm, there may be a French connection with the trio after all?!?)

Most of my music-making with Steve had involved playing traditional (and some modern) jazz with him playing trumpet (or piano, or trombone, or bass, or alto sax!). in 2004 we were living together in a share house in North Fitzroy and Steve was often sitting in the backyard “practicing” what we affectionately called his “screaming suitcase”. I remember one morning hearing “Blue in Green” drifting through the back door (strangely familiar, but surreal on accordion) then, later in the day  “Smells Like Teen Spirit”. It struck me all of a sudden that the accordion could give a really interesting take on material not normally associated with it.

The qualities I look for in musicians, (beyond ability, SOUND and touch) is honesty, confidence, heart-on-sleeve bravery, and the ability to tell their own story, regardless of style or influence. I like players who can commit spiritually to many styles of music but who don’t feel sacrilegious about stepping outside the confines of a given style. As an improvisor first and foremost, I give maximum credit to individualists, but I believe that dedication to immersing yourself in specific styles of music can open creative doors that stay closed to people who strive to stay free of influence in the pursuit of creative purity. I like to give my band members as few instructions as possible, so they can play what they hear, which is ultimately going to be more interesting to me than what I think I might want to hear them play. Ultimately, if I feel I can trust the musicians, I can just play, and let them find what the music means to them, without having to give it a label, or place it in the correct bag.

 

4. Your composition ‘Trout River’ gets quite distinctly different treatments on both albums – was this the band’s conception, or yours?

I actually wrote this tune around the same time as “I Believe This Belongs To You”. I had my regular electric quartet in mind during the compositional process, so both these recordings are different from the initial conception of the song. From a personal perspective, the treatment is the same. I basically just presented the lead sheet to the band and counted it in. The tune is a blend of sweetness and melancholy I guess and there’s a bluesy element to both those. After the first take with the quartet, I decided to just feature Barney, and do some restrained blowing on the intro and outro. It reminded me of a Wayne Shorter kind of vibe where the melody is just repeated and fragmented while the rhythm section solos internally. With the trio we’d performed the tune live a few times already before the recording so it was something we all felt comfortable blowing on. It sounds simple, but the changes are tricky to solo over smoothly. Everyone who’s played this tune quizzes me about the chord changes. Strangely enough, given the instrumentation, the quartet version to me feels like the floaty dreamlike version, whereas the trio really digs in and gets funky on it. I especially love the rhythm sections dreamy intro on This is Always, and the accordion solo and funky outro on Swailing.

 

5. What was you thinking behind the selection of non-original pieces on both ‘Swailing’ and ‘This Is Always’?

I like songs. I like playing other peoples tunes. I also like improvising and composing my own material, but there is a wealth of beautiful music out there that deserves to be at least “recycled”. On Swailing, they are mostly tunes we have had in the repertoire for a while, although some of them got new treatments in the studio. The Massenet tune was brought in by Steve Grant for our Napoleonic Season at the NGV. ‘Little Church’ is from Live-Evil, (Miles with Hermeto) which I’ve always loved. ‘Chanting’ is on the first Ornette record I ever owned. It is one of his lesser known pieces, but an incredibly soulful melody. Ornette actually plays it on trumpet. The trio only play the verse of ‘Stardust’, as a piece in it’s own right. It struck us as something the Paul Motian Trio would do. ‘Creole Rhapsody’ was taught to me by John Scurry, and I play it any chance I get. It’s early Ellington and just pure genius.

The idea behind This is Always was to do a jazz ballads session. My originals just kind of snuck in there as appropriate vehicles. I’ve been playing ‘The Feeling of Jazz’ & ‘Deep Night ‘on gigs for a few years and they’ve both got some voodoo about them. I guess neither of them are really ballads actually. I don’t really know anyone else who plays either of those songs. Barney suggested ‘This Is Always’, ‘The Party’s Over’ and ‘Stairway to the Stars’, which were all new to me. I loved that because it kept a freshness about the session that I wanted. I messed around with some other harmonies, some of which made it on the record, and some got vetoed by the band! We actually recorded enough material for two albums on the day. 17 songs I think. I wanted songs that haven’t been done to death, and that have something unusual about them. ‘Body and Soul’ of course has been done by everyone, but for some reason nobody plays the verse. I love that we just play one verse and one chorus on this version. FOR THE RECORD: None of us were trying to DO anyone on this recording. No song is a particular tribute to any one player. I dedicated some tunes to different friends in the liner notes, but the idea when playing the songs was just to play them as honestly as possible with respect to the song, the spirit of the music, the other musicians in the room and to myself.

 

6. What are your thoughts on jazz in Australia today?

As I write this I’m painfully aware that David Tolley has just left us. Dave was an inspiration to so many to find your own voice and be a product of your own culture. As was Brian Brown who died just over a year ago and inspired a whole generation (or two or three) through his playing and his teaching at the Victorian College of The Arts. Both were dedicated to encouraging others to find their own voice, express their true identity and reject established (and imported) stereotypes of what improvised music should be. In the interim between the departure of Tolley and Brownie we also tragically lost Bernie (McGann) and Dave (Ades). These four musicians were personally responsible for a lot of my convictions about music, and were an amazing source of inspiration and encouragement for me, as musicians dealing with the Australian landscape, and as close friends and mentors. They were my heroes, along with Mark Simmonds (who hasn’t performed for years) and Phil Treloar (who has been in Japan for decades). They all had (have) incredibly unique voices and were/are an inspiration for others to create their own.

I don’t want to get in to a “is there an Australian sound?” debate, as I almost think in this day and age of information overload and instant global communication that an artistic National identity is becoming a moot point. Unfortunately in the wider community there seems to be a disgusting move in Australia towards a Nationalistic attitude that I thought we’d grown out of. It’s ironic that This is Always  was recorded on Australia Day, and also they day Brian passed away. I’ve always been patriotic in the sense that I’m proud of Australian innovations and openness, but I’m finding it hard to deal with the Nationalistic attitude of “We were here first, so if you don’t like it, go back where you came from”. What happened between Hoge’s “Throw another Prawn on the Barby” and Hanson’s “I don’t like it”? Surely as a nation we don’t want to be seen as the kind of people that “give” a drowning family a raft and push them back out to sea!!!!! Where’s the honour and humanity (fair go??) in that?

But, back to music:

“New” is old. “Experimental” music is now as predictable as Mozart and Beethoven. “Mouldy” music has become “refreshed” again as young people adopt it. We have a new set of young musicians that understand all this and can straddle the fence rather than sitting on it. Brett Thompson, James Macauley, Marty Holoubek, and Aaron Flower are a younger generation of guys who embrace all styles, without arguing about which ones are more or less “relevant”. It’s ALL MUSIC. The guys from Cope Street Parade and Geoff Bulls Band and The New Sheiks and FLAP are reinvigorating music from another era in their own way. This is recycling in the best sense. Making something useful and relevant from something that has already been used, but is by no means worn out. The ideas of the Modernists who wanted to destroy the museums in an effort to stop glorifying the past have been proven merely interesting, rather than essential to the progression of art.

For jazz in Australia to continue to evolve and mature, it needs young people to reinvigorate it and continue reinventing not just the music, but the spirit of it. I like old music, but I don’t want to play in a museum. I like creating new sounds and experimenting and developing “my art”, but I don’t want to always play to an intelligentsia underground crowd of 5. Jazz (or whatever you want to call it) should be SERIOUS FUN. It should have the ability to tell the saddest story ever told, but still be UPLIFTING! It HAS TO BE playful and contain challenges as well as beauty. Above all, it needs to be emotive and expressive and communicate with an audience, because if we don’t have them…

 

7. What are your thoughts on music in general today?

See above. Without Music I would be …. …. … probably dead or in jail to tell the truth.

Music is becoming less and less of a commodity as everyone can now get it for nothing.

Anyway, there is so much music out there now … how can you make a dint in it?

Musicians are giving away their albums (and still finding it hard to be heard and reviewed!)

There is a generation now that don’t give a fuck about quality of sound. They love big TV’s with Full Definition Screens but are happy to listen to music on shitty compressed MP3’s through tiny tinny boxes. A survey I read recently said something like 85% of Teenagers surveyed on a blindfold test PREFERRED the sound of MP3’s to full quality High Def files??????? Some of my students at Uni prefer to hold a microphone to the speaker on their iPhone to play a tune through the PA rather than plug in in to the nice old stereo the school has. WTF??

There are more musicians in the world than ever before.

Many of them have (multiple) degrees.

Gigs generally pay the same (or less) than they did when I started doing gigs in the late 80’s!

Working musicians can no longer “join a band” or get an apprenticeship with one group.

Everyone is chasing their tail doing 8 gigs a week with 10 different groups.

“Popular” music (see Fox FM) picks up a few songs a month and squeezes them dry, wringing the very life out of them until they are bled-dry, disposed of and forgotten while they move on to the “flavour-of-next-month”

However, all this means that grass-roots musicians have taken control of their own products and their own performance spaces and are creating their own opportunities to perform, record and distribute their music. People know what they want and have the ability to be totally in control of their own products. Niche venues and homespun performance spaces are springing up like wildflowers amongst the corporate dust and music is being taken back where it belongs: [in to the local community] and re-establishing it’s place in society [a balm for weary souls and an elixir for our spirits]

‘Swailing is available here – http://lionsharecords.bandcamp.com/album/swailing

‘This is Always’ is available here – http://lionsharecords.bandcamp.com/album/this-is-always

Julien Wilson’s website is here – http://julienwilson.com

Published Martch 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 

When Willis Conover announces Thelonious Monk’s set at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival (as preserved in the film Jazz On a Summer’s Day) he observes that “we can’t describe him exactly as ‘daring’, because I think he is unconcerned with any opposition to his music…”.

Which is as good a descriptor of Monk’s view as any (and that of Miles, Shorter et al) and one which fits Australian pianist and composer Andrea Keller to a ‘t’.

The phrase popped into my mind as I checked out Keller’s new Quartet (with Strings) album, Wave Rider – directly after my mind shaped the phrase “Man, Keller takes some chances, daring stuff…”

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Wave Rider is the fifth Keller Quartet album and is made with a string quartet. As ever, I won’t list the accolades and awards Keller and her Quartet have attracted. Suffice to say, they are many and they are deserved. I will instead immerse myself in the wonderful world that is Wave Rider.

Which is easy to do; as easy as plunging into a temperate ocean or allowing oneself to be swallowed by the green cathedrals of the bush. Nature and Her life-force seem to pervade so much of this album.

Opener ‘From Nature’s Fabric’ and the title track are drawn from a 2010 work ‘Place’ – a work inspired by the Arcadian beauty of NSW’s Bermagui region. The dense waves of ‘From Nature’s Fabric’ put you right inside nature’s humid, fecund soul. It is remarkably Australian in its evocations, as is all of the music here.

Many of the other pieces on Wave Rider come from larger works – ‘Ingress’ and ‘Egress’, both featuring hair-raising whistling silvery harmonics from the strings, and ‘Waves I & II’ which put Keller’s splintered and invoking piano to the fore, come from the 2102 work ‘Meditations on Light’.

The pulsing and fading march that is ‘Mister Music’ as well as ‘Patience’ – 10:12 of temporal displacement and rich long spaces (yes, Keller’s writing can make silence feel as rich as the sounded notes are) – come from a 2010 collaboration with the ANU’s Jazz faculty.

Of course it is not even slightly surprising that so many pieces taken from so many sources hold together in perfect cohesion, as they all spring from the mind and sound-world of Andrea Keller, a place that is one of the most original – if not the most original – in Australian jazz.

In his liner notes (notes worth the price of admission in themselves), NYC based pianist Barney McAll – no slouch in the ‘daring’ department himself – says “(Keller) has been blending memories, sonic pictures, Bartok, Shorter and an immaculate classical technique to ensure her trajectory could never disappoint. Andrea is a serious inventor.”

Yes, invention. In a music such as jazz, why shoiuld a true inventor stand out in as sharp relief as this? Isn’t jazz the music of invention, discovery, voyages to the edge of the known world; isn’t jazz the music of ‘daring’? Often one forgets, or takes what hears as questing, experimenting or in some way original – when it is simply not.

It is only when one hears music this brave and fantastically new that one is hit – yes: an intake of breath, a stab of joy and a little shiver of fear – with the realisation that there are still new languages to be heard, new seas to cross. And it just reaffirms one’s faith in jazz, art and human courage that little sweet bit more.keller2

But of course, no space traveler flies alone – Keller’s Quartet has long (since 1999!) been one of our best. Trumpeter Eugene Ball and saxophonist Ian Whitehurst are remarkable, together with drummer Joe Talia they beautifully blur the line between the composition and improvisation allowed in Keller’s pieces.

The strings here: Erkii Veltheim and Helen Ayres on violins with violist Matt Laing and Zoe Knighton on cello, meld with the Quartet, breathing in and out as the music breathes, entirely integral yet free voices.

The result is stunning – Wave Rider is as monumental as nature yet as fleetingly lovely as nature. It takes the art of jazz to its very edge, not in an anarchic or revolutionary way, but in an organic and evolutionary – and thus more ultimately real and grounded – way. Keep your awards – we should simply thank Andrea Keller for that.

McAll, in his notes, also states that Keller’s work has, in some quarters, been ‘violently opposed’. My bet is that she is ‘unconcerned with any opposition to (her) music.’ Like nature, like the core inspirations for Wave Rider, it just is.

And it just is… beautiful.

 

Published December 2103 on australianjazz.net 

 

It has often been said that all composition is improvisation (at some stage) and obversely, that all improvisation is composition (or should be). Nowhere in music is this yin-yang dichotomy more naked – or more essential – than in Jazz.

Melbourne trumpeter Paul Williamson’s new album Four Connect blurs that improvisation-composition line particularly deliciously over nine tracks – nine duets with four fabulous pianists: Tony Gould, Paul Grabowsky, Andrea Keller and Marc Hannaford (yes, I know – wow! What a lineup).

This is Williamson’s eighth album since 2001’s wonderfully-named Non-Consensual Head Compression and, as well as being an obvious evolutionary step, it is a beautiful thing.

four connect2The four were chosen by Williamson as musicians he has had an ‘ongoing musical and personal connection with’, so the person-to-person rapport is already there. The musical rapport, though is somethin’ else.

Williamson says of Tony Gould, pianist for the opening track ‘Piece for Peace’: “Whilst Gould’s mentorship and musical inspiration has been ongoing, this recording is the first time we have recorded together. The rapport is evident in the flowing, expressive, and evocative musical dialogue…”

The mood of ‘Piece for Peace’ is reflective, meditative – and it is this contemplative vibe that is spread across the whole album. Even when things get rhythmic – like the pecked syncopations with Marc Hannaford which open ‘Buzzby’ or the vapid curtains of 4’s from Grabowsky later in ‘Good Morning Melancholy’ – it all has a flowing rubato feeling to it: untethered to rhythm just as the pieces are untethered to melody or untethered to harmony. Not free –untethered, or at most loosely tethered, as we are to a lover.

The lover – or, cooler, the good deep friend – metaphor fits here as well, in the sound of that precious intimacy, across all tracks, of two voices conversing. ‘Flow’ with intense young pianist Andrea Keller just wraps around itself and then around the intertwined trumpet and piano lines in a winding arc that seems to create its own language as it goes.

‘Flow’ is a unique piece among nine unique pieces. All nine are entirely self-contained sound-worlds – remarkable considering that all are made with only unadorned trumpet and piano. No, not unadorned – they are adorned with the impeccable chops, taste and musicality of these musicians.

Paul Williamson alone seems to have a limitless library of ideas, effects and colours at his fingertips (literally) and on the tip of his tongue (literally). His instrument’s breathy burrs, sprays of notes, bends, whimpers and wounded howls add an almost visual dimension to the material – whether Miles-limpid or Hubbard-harsh. There is never an effect for effect’s sake because it is all done with technique-beyond-technique (a phrase I am wearing thin through overuse in these reviews, but one which I keep coming back to as a quality that will save Jazz – and all of us – from the hollow ‘sounding brass’ of virtuosity).four connect1

To hear what I mean, listen quietly and deep deeply to the last two pieces on Four Connect – ‘Helix’ and ‘Time Munched’ – both played with that Zen master, Paul Grabowsky, both telepathically conjoined trumpet-to-piano, both almost meteorologically free yet both as logical as nature; Mandelbrot sets of curlicues and fern-clefs form before your very ears. Improvisation as composition.

Or is it composition as improvisation? Or is is just words after all – black and white reviewers’ ‘music’, dull as a ledger, waiting to be saved by people like Paul Williamson. Listen to Four Connect and let yourself be saved by Williamson and his four wonderful pianists.

Published November 2103 on australianjazz.net 

Composer and trumpeter Ellen Kirkwood is known for her inventive and genre-busting arrangements for Sydney’s Sirens Big Band – check out her ‘Balkanator’, the opener of the Siren’s recent debut album, Kali and The Time of Change. (The band also rocks her arrangement of Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android’ in performance.)

Kirkwood’s small group – the whimsically named Captain Kirkwood – is a whole other trip from the Sirens. But the much reduced format doesn’t reduce Kirkwood’s smart ideas and great sense of tonal colour one iota.

Nick photo 1

In fact, on the band’s debut, Theseus and the Minotaur, Kirkwood has taken on a hell of an idea: the Greek legend of Theseus and his battle to the death with King Minos’ monstrous cannibal creature, the Minotaur. The band tell the story over five linked pieces, with narration by Ketan Joshi.

It could easily be a train wreck – very few of these jazz-prose things really fit right – but on this one it all works beautifully. The balance between the music and Joshi’s measured narration never tips, the music following and enhancing the narrative path, now and again moving to the forefront to feature the ensemble or some brilliant and considered soloing.

Multi-instrumentalist Paul Cutlan stands out, playing bass clarinet, tenor and Eb clarinet across the tracks. His howling, gnashing bass clarinet evocation of the Minotaur’s roars reminds us why Cutlan is one of our most respected musicians: he somehow manages to, among the terrifying animal sounds, suggest the anguish that the poor creature suffers, being not man and yet not beast.

The Minotaur’s lonely pain is also touched on in the sharply written text adaptation (by Kirkwood together with Oliver Downes), widening the psychological scope of the good-vs-evil aspect of the legend.kirkwood1

Kirkwood’s band writing is subtle and deceptively tricky – all to convey the moods and settings of the story. Her band – the traditional jazz two-horns-plus-rhythm combo – is up to anything she throws at them. There are some truly exceptional moments: the dread conveyed when Theseus enters the Minotaurs labyrinth using just Tom Botting’s scraped bowed bass and drummer Alon Ilsar’s ominous toms; the ragged, angular dance that suggests Theseus and the beast circling each other before their final battle; the use of kalimba suggesting sparkling sea.

As well as the five-track legend suite, the band also works through three tasty Kirkwood originals with Cutlan playing Eric Dolphy to the leader’s Miles-inspired trumpet (her tone on the ballad ‘Dharamsala’ is particularly luminous). Pianist Glenn Doig through the suite and the three band pieces once again proves he is one to watch.

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Prior to publishing this review, I asked Ellen Kirkwood a handful of questions. Here are her responses.

1. The most obvious first – why did you pick the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur for your debut release?

This decision was mostly about practicality and a setting that I thought I could write well for. As for exactly why I wanted to write a “music story” in the first place – that’ll become clear when I answer your other questions later.

Basically after I’d decided to write a music story, I then had to find a story that would suit. I looked at a lot of short stories, and asked friends to recommend some. Some people suggested I do a musical setting for poetry, but I mostly found that too abstract for what I wanted. I wanted it to be a story, and my narrator to be a storyteller. Short stories that I read, or that people suggested to me, had a lot of dialogue, or plots that branched out in a few different directions. Looking at these texts helped me tease out what I DIDN’T want, and let me to decide that what I needed was something with a fairly simple and straightforward plot, but with an interesting setting and strong characters that I could express through the music I’d write. I didn’t want a story that was too detailed or complex because I wanted the music to be the focus, and also because I didn’t want to make what was already going to be a big challenge even more difficult.

When I started looking at myths and legends I seemed to be getting closer to the mark. I had studied Ancient History for my HSC so was already familiar with Theseus and the Minotaur. The thing that most appealed to me about the story of Theseus was the fantastical setting, particularly the labyrinth. I pretty quickly got excited about the possibilities of writing and improvising music to describe the labyrinth and Theseus’ journey through it. The other good thing about this story is there are so many versions of it out there, so I knew I could tweak it to make it work for me.

kirkwood22. What was it about writing a themed cycle of pieces that appealed to you, rather than a selection of unconnected tunes?

I really love composing. When I got the news that I had been nominated for the Jann Rutherford Memorial Award, and that I had to submit a recording and a proposal, after the initial freak out (“I don’t have a band! All the stuff I’ve written lately has been for big band and Sirens is too big to use for the award!” “I have a month to get a group together and record… what?”) I decided that, if I won the award, I wanted to do something extra challenging to make the most of it. I knew I had the ability to write enough original tunes to record an album with my own band, but I wanted to do something different with the opportunity. I guess I also wanted to do something to set me apart from the other shortlisted people (I still have no idea who they were, top secret!) too. And to be (extra) honest, maybe there was also an element of self-doubt there – lots of people out there writing and recording albums full of standalone tracks of their amazing original music – would a similar thing of my own stand out amongst those? Probably not, I thought. Do something a bit different!

And then I won the award! Clearly they liked my idea!

3. Was it more difficult to write like this – the symphonic challenge of individual pieces that work in a larger framework?

Yeah, it was pretty difficult, altogether. I didn’t find it too hard to come up with the raw material to begin with, but it was actually piecing the finer details together to fit with the story which was the hardest. The biggest mistake I made was not getting the text to be exactly what I wanted before I wrote the music. Instead, I basically wrote a summary of the story, which I then wrote the music to, thinking of it more as a general setting for the story, rather than music that followed the narrative closely. The more I wrote, though, the more tied in to specific events in the story it became. So then when I got Oli to help me fine-tune the text itself, I found that all the editing we did to make it better, including some changes in the sequence of events and the shortening of some sections, would mean I had to edit the music more than I had expected. This caused me to then have to re-think some parts of the music to see if I could fit things into different places, and reconsider if the mood of what I had still suited the changes in the text. Next time I do this something like this (and I hope to!) I’ll definitely make sure the text is exactly what I want before I write the music – after all, I’m a musician and composer, not an author.

I also had the help of the band members in making a lot of decisions about the performance of Theseus. As you can probably imagine, it took a lot of time to get it all together and fine tune it, and I purposefully left some decisions up to the guys in the band, because they all have great, creative minds and I wanted them to have some ownership over it as well.

4. What do you think about when you compose?

”How can I make this as complicated as possible?” Nah, just kidding (mostly). Tricky question. It can take me a while to get around to sitting at my computer and writing (that’s mostly how I do it) but usually once I’m there I’m pretty immersed in it. Or, alternatively, I can get pretty stumped and pissed off sometimes.

When I wrote Theseus there was obviously a particular context for the music I was writing, so my thoughts, at least when starting off, revolved around what I could write that would sound like it fit with stuff like the mood, characters, setting and action. Some of what was in Theseus was already written in older pieces I’ve done. Occasionally I also just do some free improvising when I practice and record it on my computer. I’ve come up with a few cool riffs that way, and then harmonised them and maybe put a melody over the top. A few of the patterns in Theseus came from those little recordings.

Theseus is sort of an exception though. I don’t usually have such a clear aim when I’m writing pieces. I mean, I think about the music itself when I’m composing, of course, but I rarely sit down and compose something that’s about my life. I don’t think I’ve written a song about a breakup, for instance, or about a specific person or occurrence, although I’m sure my general mood and what’s happening in my life sort of gets tangled up in there somewhere. No, usually it starts with me hearing stuff I really like and wanting to adapt one or more of those ideas into something new of my own. Or something pops into my mind that I get carried away with – the bassline of ”Tomorrow I’ll Know” is a good example of that. It came into my head as I was waking up from a nap one day, so I wrote it down and combined some other concepts that I’d heard and liked when writing the melodies, groove and structure. Once I’ve started and I’m into what I’ve got, it sort of takes off…usually.

And yes, I do also have a tendency to make things a little weird and complicated. I like odd time signatures and unconventional chord changes. And grooves, especially wonky ones. And I have this thing where I sort of fear using lots of major chords because I’m afraid of writing stuff that’s too cheesy, even though I know some amazing and beautiful music that’s mostly major and not cheesy. I’m trying to get over that.

5. I see Jeff Wayne gets a ‘thank you’ credit. His 70s ‘War of The Worlds’ top ten blockbuster seems a few lightyears away from your impressionistic writing. Or is the influence closer than we think?

Hehe, including him in the “thank yous” was my little joke, and a reference I hope some nerdy people pick up (yes John, I called you a nerd. It’s a compliment!). Maybe I should also have thanked Prokofiev, for “Peter and the Wolf”! But War of the Worlds definitely influenced Theseus, at least in the initial spark of an idea. As I said earlier, when I received word that I was shortlisted for the Jann Rutherford Memorial Award, I decided that I wanted to do something a bit epic and challenging with it if I got it.

At the time, I had been listening to War of the Worlds (years after having heard it as a kid and being a bit freaked out, yet fascinated) and absolutely loving it. So that was where the idea of writing music to go with a story came from. I thought that jazz would suit this purpose extra well, because of the role improvisation can play in the telling of stories, too. But you’re right, my music is pretty different to Jeff’s!

6. And finally, what are your thoughts on the current state of jazz in particular, and music in general?

Whoah. What a question. I reckon you probably don’t mean “in the whole entire world”…I HOPE you don’t mean “in the whole entire world”, because that’s a hell of a lot of music. So I’ll go with Australia. But mainly Sydney.

Umm, jazz. Jazz is getting blurrier, and I like that. I mean, it was already pretty blurry, and the definition of jazz (is there even one?) is really broad and everyone has a different opinion of where music starts and stops being jazz. What I mean by the blurriness of jazz is all the different things that are being mixed with it, the different instrumentations and technologies people are putting into it, unconventional structures in the music, bands taking their sound to different venues that don’t necessarily identify as “jazz” venues… that sort of thing. And other styles are borrowing from jazz. There are some people who would say a lot of it isn’t jazz anymore – it’s gone too far from tradition, but I think that’s fine. Even if it’s not jazz anymore, it’s still great great music that borrows from jazz, but might not have a name to clearly identify it.

It’s all music and it’s difficult, even annoying, to define. Unfortunately people ask “so what sort of music does that band play?” “Well, it’s sort of world (I don’t like that term, all music is from the world, but the meaning that people have given to that word makes it convenient) music, mostly African type stuff, mixed with jazz but there’s some rock and funk and…oh just listen to this [dodgy recording of a rehearsal/youtube video someone posted last gig they did/new album of theirs I just bought].” That happens to me a lot. It also says a lot about the bands I go and see, and listen to, and play with. So I feel like, even though over the last couple of years my “music bubble” has gotten a lot bigger than the mostly “jazz bubble” it used to be, but of course there’s still TONNES of other music out there, in Australia and the world, that is amazing and inventive and groovy and beautiful. I know I’ll discover some of it, but it’s impossible to hear everything. The music that’s around me is alive and well, and constantly changing, and it’s great.

http://captainkirkwood.bandcamp.com/album/theseus-and-the-minotaur

Published April 2103 on australianjazz.net