Posts Tagged ‘Sandy Evans’

On Saturday, 5th August I checked out the Sirens Big Band performance of Ellen Kirkwood’s new suite [A]part. The show I heard (and saw) was the second of the evening in the intriguingly named Io Myers Theatre at UNSW. Io was, in Greek Mythology, the daughter of Zeus and is, in astronomy, the innermost Galilean moon of Jupiter.

It was fitting, as Kirkwood has previously drawn on Greek mythology in her Theseus and the Minotaur suite and also because [A]part took my head, at times, into the outer galaxy and beyond.

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pic: Catherine McElhone

The themes of this multi-part, hour-long suite are however quite down to Earth. Composer Kirkwood takes on the big issues of this strange and cruel age: climate change, the refugee crisis and the myth of connectedness that is the broken promise of the internet. The title is a pictogram of the feeling of being at once connected and yet separate – a truly modern condition.

Whereas Theseus and the Minotaur combined music with spoken narration, [A]part works with visuals – Cleo Mees’ intriguing video projections: sometimes mysterious, sometimes sardonic and humourous, always startling, as is the music.

The ecological theme opens the piece with guest artist Gian Slater setting up, via loop-pedal, vocal drones onto which she adds layers of swishes, chattering and mouth percussion. By the time the horns enter with a fugue-like figure, you feel as if you are surrounded by nature: wind, animals, insects, rustling grasses.

Pianist Andrea Keller, also a guest of the Sirens, creates a typically unique solo against the rhytm of Alex Masso’s drums and Sirens leader Jess Dunn’s bass. Keller’s work throughout this performance is as imaginative, precise and exciting as one would expect from one of Australia’s finest. In a later unaccompanied solo her raw attack had a few of us sitting up straight in our seats.

The third [A]part guest artist is saxophonist Sandy Evans, a mentor to the Sirens from their beginnings in 2010. She seemed to take great inspiration from Kirkwood’s music on the night – a soprano solo beginning with a scream that was a little too human for comfort; yet later accompanying a faintly demented and disintegrating Balkan waltz with a barrage of kazoos, razzers and squeaking rubber duckies.

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pic: Catherine McElhone

And that ­– from anguish to giddy silliness, and everything in between – is the scope of [A]part. It is a massive piece in every way: challenging to the ear and the mind, highly original (as we know Kirkwood to always be), often cerebral and abstract, all the time threatening to be too much to take in in one sitting. But what saves it from possible overwhelm is that Kirkwood never loses the emotional thread in the music; it is human music and it consistently makes you feel. Sometimes, as with all valid contemporary art, those feelings can be baffling or even plain uncomfortable, but you do feel them deeply.

Kirkwood’s writing here, as in everything I have heard from her, is smart (without ever being clever-clever), dynamic and imaginative. The task she has taken on with [A]part tests her formidable skills as a composer/arranger, yet she never seems to run out of ideas, always finding new sound possibilities and textures to be gleaned from the big band.

She uses hand-claps in polyrhythm from the various sections. She has Jess Dunn rattle her bow around on the wood of her bass, making harsh knocking sounds (which she then contrasts with airy flute textures answering the knocking). She has sections play against each other. She has sections slip out of synch within their ranks. She writes starkly dissonant brass sections which unfolds into satiny 40’s dance orchestra textures (albeit a dance orchestra which slowly dissolves and decays).

Yes, [A]part is massive in every way (it took almost a year of writing and rehearsing and the mentorship of stellar pianist Barney McAll to, as Kirkwood says “Get this music out of my brain”). It is ultimately a massive experience – massive in immersion, like rolling in the currents of an ocean, and massive in response: the music, together with the power of the visuals leave you feeling wrung out and a little wired.

I cannot imagine how Ellen Kirkwood will ever top a work such as [A]part. I know of course that, given what we have seen and heard of her up to this point, she undoubtedly will.

 

 

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With any worthwhile art, universality can spark from specifics. ‘Guernica’, though a reaction to Fascist bombing of one village during the Spanish Civil War, says much about us all, forever. Beethoven’s pastoral tone poems flow far from his German rivers, flowing into the sky, into the stream of time.

Saxophonist Sandy Evans’ recent project with tabla player Bobby Singh, Kapture, has come from very specific origins, yet speaks with universality. Conceived in 2011 as a collaboration with dancer/choreographer Liz Lea inspired by the life of South African anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada, the music has a life, and a voice, of its own.

Brought into being by the remarkable group of musicians on Evans and Singh’s recent recording of the piece ­– Toby Hall on drums, Brett Hirst on double bass and singer Sarangan SriranganathanKapture speaks of joy, pain, cold fear, longing and unbroken spirit.

Martenitsa

From the drone fade in to opener ‘Passive Resistance, No Regrets’, one is in a new place: Sriranganathan’s vocal and Evan’s soprano moving over a 14 beat Hindustan taal rhythm.

‘One Planet’ leaps into a frenetic 7/8 dance then, exhausted, we are adrift on the drone sea of ‘Explosion of Memory’ – Evans’ soprano sax swooping and gliding overhead like a gull while Toby Hall’s percussion ripples the surface or swells waves from beneath.

A number of tunes here have rhythms derived from Kathrada’s Robben Island prison number – 46864 – but, far from being a cold mathematical exercise these beats and grooves jump and leap with that assymetrical joy which is at the heart of much Indian music. Indo-Jazz fusions seems work with greater success than many other jazz fusions because they are bound by the art of improvisation. Also, because Indian music has a horizontal linearity – melody and rhythm, without vertical harmony – it makes for a sinuous union that works with a natural propulsion.kapture1

Brett Hirst’s bass solo ‘Deprivation’ was improvised to Liz Lea’s dancing in the studio and it conjures the blue darkness of Ahmed Kathrada’s prison loneliness perfectly – this flows into Evan’s melancholy ‘No Children Here’, its longing lines mirroring Kathrada’s longing for his own children. A universal pain.

Sandy Evans’ playing across the album is unique and spiritedly human, which is what we have come to expect from her. Her questing nature and driven desire to consistently move out of the confines of Jazz has shown her to be an artist going for a universal sound. That universality is present in all of her more recent music and, as I have mentioned above, is all over Kapture.

The final piece on the CD is a Bobby Singh solo performance called ‘Some See Stars’. It is inspired by a remark of Ahmed Kathrada’s concerning two Robben Island prisoners: looking out of the cell window one only saw the bars, the other saw the stars.

Sandy Evans, despite being all too aware of the bars, has always made music that only sees the stars.

 

Published April 2015 on australianjazz.net

From time to time the modern music lover can be afflicted with ennui. As an outgrowth of the general modern malaise, our appetites – dulled by experiencing countless hours of music – can become jaded. Jaded to the point of boredom, even when faced with the best there is.

Artists often leap to the forefront of the Pop and Art consciousness simply by being willfully weird and opaquely obtuse. But that is a dead end street, in the main, for as soon as the Emperor’s new clothes fall away, we see he is naked, ordinary and empty, and always will be.

Jazz is a music that prides itself on innovation and forward thinking but, especially in this age where the Con turns out astounding young virtuosi by the sheaf, it can often all sound the same. On the other hand, dressing up and self-consciously setting out to shock – look at 60s jazz – ain’t the way to go.

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Tenor magus Sean Coffin debuted his new sextet at Sydney’s Sound Lounge for SIMA recently. And he reminded me that there is still room for truly innovative jazz that swings like Charles Mingus’ mutha and resonates with echoes of the past – while still pointing to the future.

Sandy Evans has said of Sean’s main trip over the past 20 years, The Coffin Brothers“There is great love for the jazz tradition in their music, a joy in the energy, spirit and language of jazz. They build on these powerful roots to create imaginative sonic journeys that are completely their own…” , words which also apply perfectly to the Coffin Sextet.

The Sound Lounge gig presented new and old tunes – opener ‘That Night’ was a reworking of a 20 year old piece – that the Sextet gave their all to. The frontline of Coffin, Nic Garbett on trumpet and alto man Dan Waples sang Coffin’s arrangements with real joy in the telling.

It is a while since I have heard such inventive arrangements for a three-horn frontline – smaller Jazz Messengers-size sections seem to play most lines in parallel or simple harmony, ignoring the possibilities that arrangers use when writing for big band horns. Coffin’s arrangemental trick-bag had the horns playing off each other in myriad combinations to astonishing effect, covering a wide range of emotive colour from rolling chorale to bristling car-horn dissonance.

The arrangements also smartly wove in the rhythm section of Gavin Ahearn, Brett Hirst and James Waples. Ahearn, moving between Rhodes and acoustic piano impressed on me yet again his almost big-C Classical logic. Hirst and Waples fortunately did what they always do – invent, underpin, drive, colour and have wicked fun with rhythm. During the 7/4 funk of ‘The Strength of Your Convictions’ I thought for a minute that Waples was going to bash his kit clear across the stage (and that was in his socks, sans shoes!). Once again, joy in the telling.

Coffin stood beaming like a proud papa – obviously thrilled with the lineup and the stars and colours they wrung from his charts. ‘Alright, Today We’re Gonna’ was written, Coffin explained, just as Mingus and Ellington had written for their own ensembles, as a piece for the band to have fun with. And they did, the logical Ahearn now grinding illogical Don Pullen-style clusters out of the polite Sound Lounge piano and the Waples brothers warming up the winter’s night with a heated horn-drums duet.

Sean Coffin’s tenor tone and approach fits the music perfectly. In his sound there are distinct echoes and cries from jazz history – the blues is prominent if abstracted – yet the same imagination that elevates his arrangements carries through to surprise us in his solos. Funky as fuck in ‘Booga Dunny’ (get it? ‘I’m  a funny cat’, says SC), a soul-jazz boogaloo, he also plays a ballad such as ‘Quiet Thoughts’ with great depth – the coda cadenza was a composition in itself. His horn can bite but it can also kiss.

Closing piece, ‘New England Sketches’, flew through tempo and mood changes as if we were motoring through a landscape. The Sextet flexed their bebop muscles on the fast section, creating horizontally and vertically at a high level. I was reminded – not for the first time that night – that this Sextet was a cap-B Band, a rare mix of particular players, a six-headed entity that breathed and jumped and laughed together.

Sean Coffin promises recordings of this band within the next six months or so. I for one keenly look forward to them – but recordings are recordings. True Jazz is of the moment and the Coffin Sextet gave us some shining moments that night. Do not miss them when they play again.

 

Published July 2103 on australianjazz.net 

 

 

 

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 http://www.sirensbigband.com/

Published February 2103 on australianjazz.net