Posts Tagged ‘Soprano’

Chamber ensembles can be a beautiful thing. Intimacy, flexibility, improvisation, new tone colours, astringent dissonances are all aspects of the small group that cannot work within the heavy logistics of an orchestra or jazz big band.

Chamber ensembles comprising instruments of the same family – string quartets, brass choirs, woodwind ensembles – up the aesthetic ante by creating colours and moods that are utterly unique, and often otherworldly. Check Beethoven’s late quartets – could anything be added or subtracted? I think not. Perfection.

The maker-or-breaker of course is in writing for the small ensemble. With such a limited musical palette of timbres and instrument capabilities, every decision has to count. Done badly, it can be turgid or insipid. To hit the sweet spot that is the intersection of composition, knowledge and vision, it helps to be a hell of a player, listener and thinker.

compass quartet1

Altoist Jeremy Rose is all of those and with the Compass Quartet, he has a hell of a group. Baritone Luke Gilmour, SSO soprano Christina Leonard and tenor Matthew Ottignon make up the other three points of the compass. Without listing their multiple awards, accolades and huzzahs, suffice to say, this is an A-Team of Australian saxophony. Guest pianist Jackson Harrison is also one of Australian jazz’s best and brightest.

The Compass Quartet’s third album, Oneirology (~ study of dreams), is dominated by a four part suite by Rose, as well as containing one piece each from Rose and Harrison. The ‘Oneirology Suite’ was inspired by the recent Christopher Nolan film, Inception – a film about dreams within dreams within dreams, déjà vu and strange loops in time.

Rose’s writing for the suite exploits the full range of the saxophone quartet. Opening movement ‘Daydreamer’ has a nice woozy country vibe, a feeling of lying in a field with your mind drifting. The saxophone writing is warm and choral. Harrison’s piano calls to mind the blue-sky pastoralism of Aaron Copland and suits the mood perfectly.compass quartet2

Yet ‘Dream Within A Dream’, the Suite’s third movement has a fragmented surrealism that folds back on itself to unsettling effect. Rose’s solo, leapfrogging Jackson’s piano over sighing grey chords, is perfectly held and serves to sharpen the claustrophobic mood.

To hear Rose and Matthew Ottignon soloing with such sensitivity in a chamber setting such as Oneirology (~ study of dreams) is a pleasure, as I have been recently grooving to their funky side – Rose in the reggae-jazz Vampires and Ottignon in his afro-beat guise as Mr OTT. They are exceptional players, as are Gilmour and Leonard. But, more importantly, the Compass Quartet are a group that breathe (literally) together. John Shand has said of the group, “The horns curl around one another in dramatic precision, or explode in joyous or sultry improvisation”.

The addition of Jackson Harrison, on paper seemed a misjudgement – I was concerned that the piano would clog the astringent voice of the four saxes and intrude on their conversation by its very nature. Not only was I wrong – Harrison’s measured playing gets the balance right on all tunes – but he contributes the beautifully conceived and wittily titled ‘Charcoal Chorale’ to the set.

Jeremy Rose’s final piece, ‘Interplay’ – a lightly syncopated 7/8 groove – features the four saxes playing around each other, together, apart and in subtly myriad combinations as the piece flies by. Rose’s solo on ‘Interplay’ is a delight for anyone sacrilegious enough to suggest (maybe me) that the alto is the most ‘jazz’ of the horns – nimble, fleet, dappled with flying colours, with an edge of blues cry in its trajectory, a pure joy.

It is all wonderful stuff – and Oneirology (~ study of dreams) is a beautiful album from The Compass Quartet, a group who continue to amaze as they explore deeper and deeper into the possibilities that can bloom from the conversation between four saxophones.

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Published July 2103 on 

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

Aaron Michael’s website is

Published June 2103 on 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a composer whose work spans the entire breadth of what it is to be human. From ribald ditties, to almost ‘pop’ hits of his day to soaring, achingly spiritual works, his music covers everything. His genius of course is that he adds even more dimension along the way – deeper laughter, more knife-edge pain, keener spiritual longing.

So it is particularly fitting that The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra presents their current program of the music of Mozart, Mozart The Great, under the direction of Paul Dyer – also an artist of great breadth, depth and humanity.

Instead of selecting the lazily popular, the obvious or – contrarily – the pretentiously obscure, Dyer has mixed it up beautifully. We have, at one end of the artistic spectrum, a choral canon that Mozart wrote largely for the fun of having a singer imply the words “arse” and “balls” as he mispronounced the Latin. At the other, the truly magnificent C Minor Mass – “The Great” – which vaults further toward Heaven with every movement.

Paul Dyer in rehearsal

Paul Dyer in rehearsal

Dyer has also mixed up the presentation: we have horn duets, trios, a sonata, and choral works as well as full ensemble plus chorus pieces that fill the City Recital Hall stage. It is all Mozart – and it is all superlative.

One of the joys of the Brandenburg is their use of period instruments. Since most music of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries is performed nowadays with modern instruments – with their attendant ‘improvements’ in tone, volume and execution – it is only when we hear a period orchestra that we actually hear the sounds that composers such as Haydn and Mozart were reaching for. To hear Eine Kleine Nachtmusik played as Mozart intended – in which I include the Brandenburg ensemble’s full-blooded attack on the music – is a bright gem in a glittering night.

The characteristic tones of period instruments is especially evident in the tone of the orchestra behind the singers – soprano Sara MacLiver and mezzo soprano Fiona Campbell. The period instruments, being markedly quieter and slightly more ‘woolly’ in tone, sit at a level that seemed more sympathetic to the vocal; music at a more human scale.

Dyer’s piano sonata (“with violin accompaniment”) also benefits from the use of the much quieter and woodier tone of the forte-piano, the ancestor of our present-day piano. (The comedic piano dusting is a good sign that Dyer and his players are – like Mozart before them – not taking life or music too po-faced seriously tonight).

The sharp narration from MacLiver and Campbell threads the disparate pieces together, mapping out and illuminating Mozart’s life and times. Dyer’s direction also intriguingly makes use of the various spaces within the Hall – from the opening basset horn (a great uncle of the clarinet family) duet performed in the balcony directly above the stage, to the choral canon Difficile lectu mihi mars. Here the chorus is split into sections – the women singing from various parts of the upper gallery and the men weaving through the downstair aisles as they sing. A little theatre never hurts – Wolfgang Amadeus, a great showman himself, would have approved.Mozart-the-Great-e1368104830394

But the crown of the program is ‘The Great’ – the Mass in C Minor which takes the entire second half of the evening, and from which the program takes its name. It is cap-G Great in every way – it is big, with the entire ensemble and the 32-strong choir, as well as four voice soloists on the stage; it is artistically expansive, running to thirteen movements (even though it was unfinished at Mozart’s death in 1791) and uses a dazzling combination of voice and orchestral elements, and; it is spiritually overpowering, its brilliant solo and ensemble writing suggesting – at various points across its almost hour in length –  the yearning for grace, the unfathomable deeps of eternity and the smile of the beyond.

Watching Paul Dyer conducting The Mass is a joy to behold. Utterly lost in the music, at once inside and outside its sphere, teasing and willing notes from the air – playing the Orchestra as an instrument, as all great conductors do – his energy is a symbol of the energy of the Brandenburg, one of our true national treasures.

Why this performance didn’t get a standing ovation on the night is beyond this reviewer. These Sydney crowds are tough.

Published May 2013 on

Purity. There is not much of it about in the modern world. In fact, there seems a conscious effort to move away from purity towards distortion, clumping amalgamation and cloying over-decoration. It is so all-pervasive that one only notices all this impurity when comes across something entirely pure, like a child’s eyes, or a folk tune.

Soprano Jane Sheldon has gone for purity on her new independently-released album ‘North+South: Ten Folk Songs’. From the top down this collection of songs from The British Isles and the United States (North), and Australia (South) has been built with simplicity and clarity in mind. And it is a pure delight.

New-York based Sheldon has a voice that is stunningly luminous. It is like a clear light in the dark of the void. As weightless as light, yet as penetrating, it makes all ten songs simply glow. The spare and beautifully held accompaniments of the Acacia String Quartet or Genevieve Lang’s harp seem often barely there, sometimes only a slipstream behind that voice or a halo around it.

The arrangements of the songs are so effective that they tie together a collection that is, at first look, disparate: Irish folk, Berio, The Go-Betweens, Benjamin Britten. But music is music, good music is good music, so we move seamlessly from the gorgeous ‘She Moved Through The Fair’ (the loveliest version I have heard since Alan Stivell’s 1973 ‘From Celtic Roots’ recording), to the convict lament ‘Moreton Bay’, to Sheldon’s sentiment-free arrangement of ‘The Dying Stockman’– taking the corn out and infusing the old thing with some real emotive depth.

Her selection, arrangement and treatment of the Go-Between’s literate and lovely ‘Cattle and Cane’ is a smart one. A song as evocative of time and place as any other piece on here, its nostalgic summer-haze is perfectly distilled by Sheldon and the Acacia Quartet.

Of the North+South project Jane Sheldon says “Once we started, it became apparent that stories told by immigrants, fragments of the lyrics and melodies had traversed the globe and belonged to more than one nation’s folk history… We opened up the program to include, for example, Britten’s arrangement of an Appalachian song. ‘I Will Never Marry’ is an English song set by two American interpreters in different centuries, which influenced my own arrangement.”

The lightness of Sheldon’s ‘I Will Never Marry’ – as did many other selections here – brought to mind the archaic term for a tune or song – an ‘air’. ‘North+South: Ten Folk Songs’ is as light as air, as light as sunlight and a little oasis of purity in a dim-lit, noise-clogged world. A pure delight.

Published November 2012 on