Posts Tagged ‘Tim Geldens’

Hurrying through an unpredicted rainstorm I was late for the first masterclass of the day. Well this was jazz, the music of the unpredictable, so it sort of fitted.

The masterclass with New Yorkers Kris Davis and Tony Malaby began the one-day Sydney Con International Jazz Festival for 2018. There was talk of intervals in birdsong, and piano clusters, and saxophonist Malaby spoke of actively moving away from jazz forms. The two played a tantalising duet with Davis’ piano shimmering out Messaien-like clusters and chirps. The lovely wood-walled Recital Hall felt, in this hushed and rarified atmosphere, like church.

Barney McAll mentioned the phrase “Music is church” during his masterclass, quoting his long-time employer, Gary Bartz. McAll was next up and his session was as freewheeling and live-wire as Davis/Malaby’s had been pensive and considered. McAll is a unique Wayne Shorter-like  figure in Australian jazz, original to the point of almost being his own genre, and intuitively Zen in his approach. He spoke of freedom, Skrillex and technology (giving an insight into the surprisingly mechanistic origins of his compositions). When he sat at the piano to demonstrate, his dynamic attack made me jump (as it always does).

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Later in the day I would enjoy McAll in his ASIO (Australian Symbiotic Improvisers Orbit) setting. His band of drummer Hamish Stuart and bass mainstay Jon Zwartz, with “the children” (McAll’s affectionate term) – young guitarist Carl Morgan and Mike Rivett on tenor –  took to all the quirky twists and turns in his compositions, which ranged from roiling gnashes of ensemble interplay to intensely beautiful skeins of arpeggio. Was McAll my highlight? In a day of highlights it was hard to say.

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Out of the cloisters and into the much more easy going Jazz Cafe where there was food and drink and people talking – and the rumbunctious Geoff Bull and his young band The Finer Cuts blasting traditional jazz. This music is always a delight – a ribald reminder of the street (and brothel) origins of what has evolved into high art. The triple horn weavings of Bull’s trumpet with tenor and trombone shouted out that joyous anarchy that is still at the heart of even the most contemporary jazz. Pianist Harry Sutherland had the style down in spades, with a rolling grin to his playing. ‘God bless Geoff Bull’ is all I can say.

The Jazz Cafe also presented Darren Heinrich‘s Trio – the classic organ-guitar-drums sound that is one of jazz’s most sublime mutations. The Trio’s sound immediately transformed the Cafe’s club-like atmosphere, the air heavy with imagined nicotine. Guitarist Sam Rollings‘ biting blues-jazz tone was the perfect foil for Heinrich’s intense Hammond attack – at the top of their dynamic the Trio was verging on rock-band loud.

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For 2018, the Con Festival’s artistic director, David Theak, brought together a truly fascinating program – impressive not only for its quality, but for the breadth of its range. At the other end of the music’s timeline from the original street music represented here by Geoff Bull, we had the Berlin-based duo Spill. This was truly startling stuff. Both Magda Mayas on (extremely) prepared piano and Tony Buck on drums treated their instruments as boxes of possibilities, to be unpacked in real time, as they played. It was all the more remarkable, considering that both instruments are acoustic percussion instruments, traditionally incapable of a non-tremolo sustain. Well, I heard a piano sing like a bird and a bass drum moan like a wounded bull. The inventiveness of Mayas and Buck was jaw-dropping, but also transportingly beautiful.

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Back to the Jazz Cafe to bring myself back down to earth from the ionosphere. Andrew Scott‘s Pocket Trio were playing, and it was just what I needed. Scott has based his group on the driving but inventive trios of Oscar Peterson and Bill Charlap et al. They swing like hell but can turn on a dime. The other Pocketeers, bassist Max Alduca and drummer Tim Geldens seemed to relish the ride as much as Scott – whose driving and unfrilly playing reminded me more of Tommy Flanagan or even Ray Bryant than the sometimes frilly Peterson. (Scott’s droll spoken song intros are worth admission in themselves).

Fortrified with a few glasses of good red I took in the experience of Stu Hunter‘s ‘Migration’ project. A massive work, performed by a percussion heavy ensemble, it really is something to see (and hear). Grooves are set up and move in and out of rhythmic lattices to reform into new grooves. The players he assembled worked the material beautifully in their solos, notably saxophonist/clarinetist Julien Wilson and Phil Slater on trumpet, with Tina Harrod‘s voice lending an ethereal Gospel edge to the atmosphere set up by Hunter’s astounding ensemble writing.

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David Theak had joked with me that if I stayed “dawn till dusk” he would shout me a cold one. By the time it came around for the last concert of the day – the international Festival star artist Gretchen Parlato – I was still fresh as a daisy, buoyed by the energy of all the superlative music I had witnessed. And her music made me feel as it I was floating on air.

As all truly great jazz vocalists before here, Parlato’s voice was an instrument among instruments. The unique makeup of her ensemble – gut-string guitar, cello and percussion – surrounded her airy voice with an ebb-and-flow of an entirely organic nature as she moved thru bossa and Bach, and beyond. The effect was mesmerising. The Verbruggen Hall seemed at times too large for the intimacy Parlato and her group conjured – I would have loved to hear her in a closer, smaller space. But this is a small quibble, too small for so sublime an experience.

So to the train home, high as a kite from such a day. Weaving through the swelling VIVID crowds coming into the sparkling city as I was going out, I knew it would take me a while to process it all.

Finally, thanks to David and the Con for putting their resources behind such a landmark event. Jazz is a living, breathing music and it is gratifying to see audiences for such a program not only exist, but exist in enthusiastic numbers.

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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.

Watching tenor colossus Dale Barlow tonight at Foundry 616 blowing alongside young altoist Michael Griffin, my mind went back to when I first saw Barlow play, way way back in the hazy day.

At an age not much older than Griffin is now, Barlow used to – in the words of my friend Greg L – “decapitate everyone in the room”. Of course, he continues to astound and his story, Jazz Messengers and all, is well know.

Griffin’s trajectory may not be as well documented yet, though for a younger player it is impressive. A semi-finalist at Washington DC’s 2103 Thelonious Monk International Saxophone Competition, Griffin is rising rapidly and capable of more than a little decapitation of his own.

griffin cannon3To see the two men working together, obviously digging each other’s playing was a thrill that pointed to this being one of the jazz gigs of the year for me. Griffin was overjoyed to be locking horns, literally, with the great Dale; Barlow, for his part, equally seemed to enjoy having the younger player’s sparkling alto nipping at his heels, pushing him into some hair-raising tenor work.

The night was sold as a Tribute to Cannonball and Coltrane, yet – rather than trot out the obvious – Griffin smartly used the first set to recreate the fire and brimstone of Cannonball Adderley Quintet in Chicago, the 1959 album which featured John Coltrane, as well as the Miles Davis Quintet at the time (sans Miles).

The tunes are exceptional hard-bop blowing vehicles and Griffin and Barlow rode straight through them. The band, The Jon Harkins Trio – Harkins on piano, Noel Mason bass and Tim Geldens drums – were high on the ride as well. Harkins’ piano was sometimes muscle, sometimes sinew; the tough physicality of his playing matching the attack of the horns.

Opener ‘Limehouse Blues’ was a burner with Griffin leaping into his solo and turning the heat up early. Barlow answered with equal fahrenheit. Pins dropped. Mouths gaped.

Griffin, after a short spoken welcome – he is a personable and easily funny host ­– took us through the ballad ‘Stars Fell on Alabama’. Like Charlie Parker, Griffin is not only an eighth-note blazer, his ballad playing is lyrical and considered, his lines leaning into the beauty of the melody.

John Coltrane’s fractured and tricksy ‘Grand Central’ had Barlow blowing at his most electrifying. During his solo something clicked and his scything runs and leaps of melody lit us all up. Throughout the performance, the Harkins trio kept all of Coltrane’s little rhythmic shots in place under the solos without losing their collective minds.

The second set was given over to a selection of Adderley and Coltrane pieces – once again, not going for the obvious. All soloists navigated the cycling changes of Trane’s brilliant ‘Just Like Sonny’, Harkins in particular (to my ear) taking them out to their harmonic edges, just as Trane would have meant it to be.

‘Naima’, the only truly obvious choice of the night (how could you not?), was rendered un-obvious by its reading on the alto, rather than the tenor. Once again, Griffin took to the melody like a lover, teasing great beauty out of Naima’s dusky head.

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Half-jokingly apologising to the Trio for the speed of the tune they were about to play, Griffin lit into ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ in triple-time, summoning Parker’s fire and Cannon’s joy. His solo left more than a few of us decapitated, but in the sweetest way. Barlow’s solo reinforced his rep as one of our most thrilling and consistent tenors; his unmistakeable voice on the instrument, his ability to create at the highest level is something else.

The idea of the “perfect expression” of an artform – one where, like a shark or a Gibson Les Paul guitar, no further evolution is needed, or indeed, wanted – is a contentious one. Does the Blues need to go anywhere else?

Jazz, especially in its hard-bop, post-bop or, simply, acoustic form (I avoid the term ‘mainstream’ because it is meaningless) seems to have everything it needs.

Especially when one encounters players such as Griffin and Barlow and Harkins, the words ‘perfect expression’ seem to express its wild and sleek perfection just fine.

 

 
Published April 2105 on australianjazz.net