Posts Tagged ‘sydney opera house’

The twin pillars of 1970s jazz-fusion keyboards were Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock.

They had both been through the fire of Miles Davis’s greatest bands – Hancock most notably in the envelope-pushing Quintet of the 1960s and Corea in Miles’ envelope-puncturing electric groups of the early 70s. Unlike their contemporary, jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, both had taken to electronic keyboards naturally and immediately.

Yet there was always a side to both of them that loved the big-bellied roar and the percussive stab of the acoustic piano. In 1978 they toured as a duo, facing each other across two huge concert grands like a pair of whale-riding Western duellists. The resulting album An Evening with Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea was a best-selling jazz release.

The pair were out here on a tour that centred around their performance as the openers of the 2015 Melbourne Jazz Festival, but luckily also took in other capitals. Luckily one of them was Sydney.

Their Sydney show transformed the Opera House Concert Hall into a chamber of alchemy and maze-like wonders. Hancock stated that they would start with ‘nothing’ and make… ‘something’. A few short searching chords and lines and they were into it, flying like twin wizards, playing their pianos as a game, sometimes glass bead, sometimes canvas ring sparring, but always with a cosmic grin and wink.

chick and herbie

The music grew to a depth of density very early and retained that mesh of notes and rhythms throughout the concert. Both Hancock and Corea have highly individualised approaches to harmony, and – especially in the case of Corea – rhythmic syncopation. And yet it was a wonder – among the many wonders of the night – that they rarely crowded or pushed the other into a corner. Yes, it was dense and tightly woven, but never too tight, never cloying or knottily constricted.

Their take on Hancock’s lovely 1965 piece ‘Dolphin Dance’ was so impressionistic in parts as to be unrecognisable, as were most pieces they played – but play was the thing here: the two are among a handful of the world’s greatest improvisers, so as soon as they could play with the music, they did!

During some of Corea’s romantic tunes the two stretched the harmony to new areas of dissonance that recalled the 20th Century classical shaman Bela Bartók. Yet, on Hancock’s funky groovy ‘Cantaloupe Island’ they pulled back to the blues, the fruits and the roots.

Sitting next to the two big wooden concert grands were two synth keyboards. Apart from a little ‘colour’ here and there these were reserved for a light-hearted duet of electronic beats and bleeps which Hancock seemed to relish, but which broke the spell.

The closer of the show had the two disassembling Corea’s evergreen, ‘Spain’ with the audience involved in singing a huge E major chord (muso concerts always have great crowd singing) when conducted by Corea. We also got to scat with Herbie – answering his increasingly abstracted lines.

These things gave a little sweet relief from the relentless genius of the piano improvisations. Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock gave us a ride that was uncompromising in its artistry – a few I spoke with afterwards found it too dense, too unrelenting.

I must say I am still processing the experience, and that tells me it is a good thing. Jazz needs to jolt, art needs to jolt.

At an age when many jazz musicians’ faculties have become blunt or stunted – or, worse, touchingly predictable – Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock remain seekers and hungry explorers. One of them alone is a thrill, but taken together – with each pushing, challenging and turning on the other – they are a once-in-a-lifetime experience for anyone who digs the art of the improviser.

Published June 2015 on

Saxophone icon Wayne Shorter is – apart from Miles Davis – possibly the most uncompromising artist in jazz, if not in modern music. Shorter, whether in his own early Blue Note recordings, in his playing and composing for Miles’ 1960’s quintet or his time co-leading 70’s jazz-rock juggernaut, Weather Report has only ever done things Wayne Shorter’s way. And the jazz canon has undeniably been the richer for it.

In March 2010, Wayne Shorter toured Australia with his quartet and – as all truly pioneering artists do – fiercely divided audiences across the country. I was at his Sydney Opera House gig and recognised more than a few of our supposedly more progressively minded jazz players in the streams leaving the hallowed hall during his set.

Wayne Shorter

Shorter’s new album, Without A Net is eight live recordings (and one orchestral piece) from a late 2011 European tour with the same band that blitzed Australia – pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and the explosive Brian Blade, a hyper-kinetic drummer that makes Keith Moon look like Karen Carpenter. This is the 80 year old Shorter’s first album for the Blue Note jazz label for 43 years – yes, the numbers suggest great age and a charitable homecoming, but Without A Net is far from a creaky, olde tyme trip: it is as vital and new as tomorrow’s sun, each track roaring out of the speakers with full-blooded urgency. It is the three younger sidemen trying to keep up with Shorter rather than the other way around.

Of the three remakes on the album – Shorter also reworks his own Weather Report composition ‘Plaza Real’ and the 1933 film tune ‘Flying Down to Rio’ – the opening track ‘Orbits’ sets the pace. ‘Orbits’ was a piece Shorter contributed to Miles Davis’s 1967 album Miles Smiles – there it was a brisk bebop line, here it is a lugubrious piano riff that gets thrown around from piano to bass to soprano sax until the whole band has picked its bones.

Unlike most jazz you will hear today, it is not just one solo predictably following another but more of a group improvisation as the muse takes them. This group soloing not only aligns Shorter’s new music with the Free Jazz movement of the 1960’s but, surprisingly, with original Dixieland jazz of the 20’s. It also seems to cheese off the more conservative jazz listener more than it really should.

It’s not all frenetic momentum though – the lovely ‘Starry Night’ and the opaquely impressionistic ‘Myrrh’ show the band’s more introspective side; the intro to ‘Myrrh’ in particular is like listening to music underwater, floating in a warm current, unafraid and tranced-out. The band can also pull off a great Latin groove too (Shorter has always drawn heavily on the rhythmic innovations of Cuban jazz and the harmonic quirks of Brazilian Bossa Nova) – ‘SS Golden Mean’ (with a wry quote from Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Manteca’) and ‘Flying Down to Rio’ have a light Latin skip to them – but of course, as seen through the lens of Shorter and his band, which can be a sharpening lens or conversely, a distorting lens (groovy either way to my ear).WayneShorterQuartet_Withoutanet

The centrepiece of Without A Net is the 23 minute tone poem ‘Pegasus’. Recorded with the quartet and The Imani Winds, ‘Pegasus’ moves between shadowy, veiled passages which move slowly like cloud-shadows over savannah and sharply rhythmic passages with the orchestral ensemble stabbing and riffing in and around the jazz group. As is expected of Wayne Shorter, ‘Pegasus’ is like nothing you or I have ever heard: like much of his Weather Report work, it pulls in flavours and energies from European classical music, African talking drums, American jazz and points north south east and west. The result is pure Shorter and pure wonder. Not an easy ride, but what soul-deep experience ever is?

I will give the final word to Wayne Shorter himself. When reflecting on his lifelong dedication to the path of the artist, he says “The challenge we as artists face today is to create a ‘singularity’ or an ‘event horizon’ so that as human beings we will break the cycle of ego dominated actions which through repetition keep us bound to stagnation which denies us entrance to the Portal of Life’s Ultimate Adventure!”

Without A Net will be released worldwide February 5, 2013.

Wayne Shorter’s website is here.


Published January 2013 on

D.I.G – Directions In Groove – hit the stage of The Studio at Sydney Opera House, hard and tight at the tail end of their national tour to promote the new album Clearlight – their first studio album in thirteen years.

After a warm up set from the unique Abby Dobson (accompanied by Paul Mac), the room darkened into sea greens and acid purples and Clearlight’s ‘Pythonicity’ boomed through the PA. One by one the band came on stage and seamlessly merged with the recorded track until they were playing it, live. As a piece of theatre it was rivetting and something few ‘serious’ jazz flavoured groups would think to do – but that is D.I.G, never running with the pack. And D.I.G fans love them for it.

Keyboardist Scott Saunders announced the next piece, ‘All Is Quiet’, jokingly chiding us in the audience for being a little too quiet and ‘well behaved’. The featured soloist here was guitarist Tim Rollinson who rippled and howled over the band with fluidity and fire. (I caught a showcase gig that D.I.G played earlier this year at Newtown’s NOTES and Rollinson’s solo there was brittle and a little hesitant – tonight, toughened from touring, the guitarist – and indeed the whole band – was unstoppable).

Saunders introduced new D.I.G vocalist, Laura Stitt and they went into Clearlight’s opener, ‘Strangers Talking’. A sharp and hooky (almost) pop track, ‘Strangers Talking’ serves as a bright wake-up and a statement of intent for D.I.G’s new, evolved direction. Stitt – the latest in a line of enviable vocal collaborators such as Inga Liljestrom and Michelle Martinez – possesses a voice and style that work perfectly within the D.I.G sound-world; just like the band, her approach evokes jazz (tasty little Billie Holliday phrase endings), trip-hop, soul and the best of contemporary pop.

Stitt stayed onstage for ‘Upside’ and the surreal dreamscape of ‘Rumour Has It’ from 1998’s Curvystrasse, which took us into the new track, ‘Sunnyside’, a wash of synths with Stitt’s sky-clear voice floating disembodied over the top. The whole room held its breath until we were safely back to earth.

‘Bassick Insync’ serves as a vehicle for the joyfully funky bass of Alex Hewetson. Together with the astonishing Terepai Richmond on drums, they form one of the most intense and truly funky rhythm sections around today. And it is a funk that breathes – even moving in and out of tempo – rather than a funk that suffocates, which sadly every Saturday night brings to damp rooms all over Sydney. It is the jazz at the base of their playing that keeps the groove always moving forward, light and delicious.

A case in point is the Scott Saunders-rapped ‘Two Way Dreamtime’ from 1994. The groove is sinuous and preciously held all the way, allowing tenor/alto saxplayer Rick Robertson to paint lines and dots across the music. Robertson opens the following ‘O’Cumbaya’ with an ancient-sounding motif, a timeless African blues line, in the vein of Weather Report’s global voice. Whether playing simple three note phrases or free-jazz squalls, Robertson expresses it all with a great respect for the material and an obvious joy in his instruments’ voice.

By the time Laura Stitt returns for Clearlight’s title track, the natives at the bar are growing restless, whooping and clapping along. Closing number, ‘Re-Invent Yourself’ from 1994’s Deeper seems to flip a switch that says BOOGIE and the stagefront is filled with dancers. And I am reminded again what a great dance band D.I.G is, and just what groove truly is for. The track finishes and the band leaves the stage but the dancers will not allow this coitus interruptus and cajole D.I.G into just one more: ‘Favourite’, also from Deeper ignites the room with its ass-shakin’ riffing.

Music for the head, the heart and the ass. All the greats – Miles Davis, The Rolling Stones, T-Bone Walker, Wes Montgomery et al – know how to give us this anatomy lesson so well. D.I.G speak this language in a voice that will have us coming back for more and more. Long may they groove.

Published December 2011 on



NOLA (New Orleans Louisiana) is one of the true birthplaces of rock music – not only via rock’n’roll and blues, but via the easy and sleazy grooves of rhythm-and-blues (or R’n’B, well before the term was co-opted by those far less funky pretenders).

New Orleans rhythm-and-blues, as made indelible by greats such as Antoine Dominique ‘Fats’ Domino, drew heavily on earlier jazz forms and innovators like Henry Roeland Byrd, otherwise known by the wonderful nom de guerre of Professor Longhair – a brilliant blues singer and virtuosic pianist. The Crescent City had also been the birthplace of jazz, via Dixieland and street brass bands who played ragtime – “ragged” time (swing rhythm). This all led to a steamy, soul brew – think The Meters and Dr John The Night Tripper – which informed all forms of rock and funk, its tributaries leading to hiphop and beyond.

Jazz, blues, rhythm-and-blues, rock’n’roll, funk. Many musicologists and writers have tried to figure why New Orleans was such an astonishingly fertile soil for so many forms of music, but they all fall short. It’s obviously good old mojo, simple as that.

Jon Cleary, the opener for tonight’s 3-band bill – Legends of New Orleans – at the packed Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House, initially got the mojo as a young man almost 5,000 miles away. 20 years ago, bitten by the NOLA bug the Englishman moved there from Kent in the UK and is today one of the finest exponents of the New Orleans piano-vocal style. Backed by his tight and funky rhythm section, the Philthy Phew, he blazed with intensity and power from the opener.

A killer pianist-vocalist, Cleary rode the piano like a fast car, dazzling with virtuosic runs and turns, pounding that box like it should be. Things calmed down for his cool piece of seduction-funk, ‘When You Get Back’ and then revved up again for some real, old-(reform)school rock‘n’roll. In the 1950s the mighty Little Richard Penniman had chosen to record a lot of his early hits in New Orleans and tonite Cleary’s band reminded us how lean and mean piano-driven rock’n’roll once sounded – before the guitars took over. Professor Longhair’s take on the 8-bar blues standard ‘Tipitina’ was the high point of Cleary’s set, which was about as heavy and sweet as an entrée could be.

After a short intermission, the stage filled with the 5-horn, guitar and drums collective known as The Dirty Dozen Brass Band (I only counted seven, but they do things different in New Orleans, apparently). Modelled loosely on a brass marching band – complete with a huge Sousaphone (look it up; an amazing piece of plumbing) – The Dirty Dozen turned the sedate Concert Hall into a boogie party. Initially hampered by the usual ropey Opera House sound (why why why? – the vocal mic of trumpeter Efrem Towns was not even in the mix for the first few tunes) they moved through funk and bebop-flavoured tunes, showcasing the jazz chops of the band – 70 year old baritone sax man, Roger Lewis being the standout among a team of brilliant soloists. Then, trumpeter and main man, Gregory Davis got us all on our feet and the band had the whole Hallowed Hall rockin’. We didn’t even mind when they blasted ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’, it was all bliss. It is these brass bands that in New Orleans are used in funeral marches as well as joyful parades and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band sure seemed capable of waking the dead.

Anyone prone to quibbling might suggest that the name ‘The Legends of New Orleans’ – as exciting as Cleary and the Dirty Dozen were – really only applied to the headline act here, Allen Toussaint. The man is a truly legendary artist, and he walked out onto the stage to enraptured applause resplendent in a bejewelled, spangled suit befitting his status. His CV and rollcall of hits and musical innovations is staggering, with songs covered by The Rolling Stones (‘Fortune Teller’), The Yardbirds, Bo Diddley, Devo (‘Working in a Coal Mine’), The Who, Otis Redding and Ringo Starr. He has also a prolific producer (LaBelle’s ‘Nightbirds’) and has written scores of arrangements for people such as Paul McCartney, The Band and Solomon Burke.

A virtuosic piano player, like so many from New Orleans influenced by the genius innovator Professor Longhair, Toussaint applies a cool, artistic approach to his music. His band is tight and smooth, his intricate arrangements keeping them on their musical toes. After the bump of Jon Cleary and the grind of The Dirty Dozen, Toussaint’s measured, intelligent set had some patrons twitching in their seats. A few left – maybe tired from the lengthy show, maybe impatient for the party to start again – but it was their loss. Allen Toussaint remained as uncompromising in his selections as he has in his career and it was a rare jewel treat. He mixed ballads with funky pieces, inserting a medley of his hits early on just to remind us WHO we were listening to. One piece – ‘Shinjirarenai’ a dreamlike Japanese-sounding song – had guitarist Renard Poché playing double recorder. Toussaint’s piano solo towards the end of the set dropped jarring musical fragments of different songs into a sweet blues melody – like hearing a radio being tuned through the dial, picking up different stations. We were obviously in the presence of one hell of a musical mind.

Half a week later I was fortunate to catch Allen Toussaint and his band again at Sydney’s much more intimate Basement jazz cellar. Gone were the spangles and showbiz patter – this was Toussaint the musician in his natural element: funking it up in a humid bar within arm’s reach of a hepped-up audience. The band dug in deeper, the maestro driving it all from the piano stool. It was in this closer, hotter setting that this music had been born in the first place, so it was a deep pleasure to dig it in this more immediate here and now. And in the presence of a true Legend of New Orleans.

Published October 2011 on