20 December 2009

It must be Christmas

Sally observed it wasn’t jazz, but Handel’s Messiah well deserves a post on CJ. The Canberra Choral Society performed it again this year at St Christopher’s Cathedral, the cream brick Catholic cathedral at Manuka. We went to the first of two performances and it was an immensely satisfying experience. The Cathedral is not my favourite building around town, the acoustics were heavy with reverb that made for a loud but somewhat mushy sound and there was frequent traffic noise and Harley splutter outside on Canberra Avenue, but nonetheless this was a treat. It was the long performance with the full 3 Acts, verging on 3 hours with the interval. I thought this was a daring choice and all praise is due. This was my first Messiah (a late starter) but I was glad to hear one where the three parts, dealing with the Birth, Passion and Aftermath, were present, and the familiar arias and the exultant Hallelujah Chorus were in their right places. It was long but the time passed like a breeze. I was impressed by the stamina of both performance and audience. Pews are not the most comfy places to spend three hours, and I noticed the audience stirring but it was uncomplaining and stood for the famed Hallelujah Chorus, as people apparently have since King George 2. I expected that we would be too casual for that these days, but no. It was a pleasant surprise. And the applause was deafening at the end, so the effort was much appreciated.

It was a small orchestra with a light presence that was sometimes overshadowed when the voices took flight. But it had a lovely courtly baroque tone that benefited from the reverb. Clear, fat trumpet ringing through (beautifully resonant and very different from a jazz trumpet tone), bassoon or oboe evident at other times, the strings fairly restrained with 7 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos and a double bass. Organ and a harpsichord that presumably played the original basso continuo part. The choir was 21 sopranos, 30 altos, 10 tenors, 14 basses and there were arias and recitatives for SATB - Rebecca Collins (soprano), Christina Wilson (mezzosoprano), Christopher Saunders (tenor) and Stephen Barnett (bass) - and the whole was directed and conducted by Peter Pocock.

What glorious, exultant, dignified, elegant, rational music it is! Lines echoed by passing between voices and on to instruments; big and joyous interval jumps, and shapely lines. Apparently Handel is famous for word-painting where the melody mimics the meaning of the lyrics, so lines rise to mountains and fall to valleys, and “crooked” alternates crookedly between B and C#. I heard a unison bass and bassoon line that surprised and amused me. But always the neat cadences to confirm dignity at the end of scenes. I enjoyed it immensely, and the final applause was long and enthusiastic, seemingly beyond the expectations by the performers. In the end, I felt the words were strangely other-worldly (no-one much chats about exalted valleys, easy yokes or feeding flocks these days or even walking in darkness) but the rational baroque music fits well enough with modern rationality in architecture and politics and economics. We left with high spirits and much joy to take on the Christmas season. Truly a fabulous outing, so thanks in spades to my neighbour Trish and the rest of the performers. BTW, ArtSound were recording the Saturday night performance, so keep you ears tuned for the replay.

18 December 2009

Ambassadors

Miroslav Bukovsky and his quartet played the Bruschetta Café on Thursday night. This is a sublime band: the most subtle and virtuosic of the recent students with the mature master and new compositions all round. From the first tune, I thought story-telling. The musical structure was not complex, but the playing was exquisite and pensive. I thought Film Noir with dark alleys and the unkempt, self-damning detective. Think Charlie Haden and Quartet West: purposeful and restrained, precise but with humanity and humility. This was deep, demanding, concert material. The attention level was pretty good in the space, but it was also a restaurant and some people were presumably there for other purposes. Fair enough, and their chatting was mostly curbed by the attention lavished by others in attendance or by one or other of the stunning solos. And the solos were fabulous. Ed positively overwhelmed the space as he developed from the lightest of taps to the most intense of percussive extravagance. Miro dropped eminently tuneful little turns of phrase or descended into long and sharp scalar runs that weaved though dissonances and ended at unexpected places. Luke was muscular in volume for his jaggedy lines, richly extended chords and mobile dissonances. Bill was the great listener, waiting for the muse and then explosive with fast runs, always with honey smooth tonality and long sustain and accurate intonation. No-one standing on anyone’s toes; no interruptions; close listening and huge dynamics. Miro has obvious influences from Miles so no surprise when I heard suggestions of Sketches of Spain in some passages. And I thought later Miles while listening to Luke’s piano a times, but he’s broader in conception than just this one style. To me, this was chamber jazz, meaning intimate and perfect for this audience, but not the French polished form that people often use this term for (here I think MJQ). This had depth of soul and passion, despite the perfection of the presentation and the clarity of intention. This band has recently toured interstate and we may get a CD out of them at some stage. Good, because they are excellent ambassadors. This really is music at the highest level of the local scene, and we are blessed to be able to hear them, and doubly so in such intimate surroundings. Excellent, profound music, and thanks.

BTW, the Bruschetta Café is a new University of Canberra venue which seems to have good support from the University. It promises to stage some prominent acts in a nice concert environment over the coming year. UCAN does lots of interesting musical things: community choirs and orchestras and the like. And the price, at least for Miro last night and for Eric Ajaye’s Vertical a month or so ago, was unbeatable: free. Well worth your support, and perhaps a pre-concert dinner.

Miroslav Bukovsky (trumpet) played with Luke Sweeting (piano), Bill Williams (bass) and Ed Rodrigues (drums).

17 December 2009

Out of the studio

Reuben Lewis and his Quintet performed two sets at the Front the other night, supported by the Andy Campbell Quartet. It wasn’t the busiest night, but it was very satisfying, showcasing the different styles of original music composed by Reuben and Andy.

Andy played first. They played one set of five tunes of richly changing time signatures that obviously demanded careful counting and care with the charts. Other Andy confirmed that it wasn’t an easy read, and the band wasn’t overly practised so it was a challenge. But they are competent players and the performance was satisfying. These were good solid and loud rock-influenced feels, with solid, hard-hitting drums from Aidan and that characteristic rich syncopation on electric bass by Chris. I guess that the melodies were composed first and that they defined the time signatures and chords rather than the other way around. I expect that’s how ballads are written, and it’s probably how you end up with tunes like Andy’s that count 5/4, 6/4 and 4/4 all in the same chart. I enjoyed both the Andies when they soloed. A year or more back, I heard Andy C as a bit jagged and disconnected in some of his solos, but now he’s developed this into clever twists of phrasing that deliver pleasantly unexpected lines. Andy B has a different approach, as would a pianist: sometimes chordal; sometimes harmonically substituted; often a different use of intervals. I especially liked his playing with sequences that he would repeat in different keys and pitches. I caught the titles for the last two tunes, and that evoked some interest for me. The penultimate was called “Pool party” and was written for one, but it was a particularly cool event. I heard it more as a laid back easy-going tryst rather than a lively, splashy affair, and I guess that’s what that pool party was like. The last was Belco, obviously from Belconnen, the area that Andy apparently grew up in. This was gentle and hinted of lullaby, or even of Hawaii and Arthur Lyman (perhaps from the heavy tremolo on the guitar). It wasn’t a Belco that I recognise, but then I’ve never lived there. But that’s of no importance, and I enjoyed the set.

Reuben played second. The band has spent time over recent weeks preparing then tracking a CD which they plan to mix and master over coming weeks and release in February. So we could expect a well rehearsed and settled band, and we got it. I really liked these two sets from the first sounds of front line horn harmonies: Reuben on cornet and Max on tenor. For this band, the times were more settled and the melodies more classically clear. After the first set, I chatted with students who identified the style with European jazz, but I heard post-bop moving to cool from the fifties and some well informed mature jazz-following mates agreed. I also heard hints of the crystalline but luscious nature of CTI records of the 70s and without residual schmaltz. Suffice to say, I very much enjoyed it. Steady rhythms of ska/reggae through solid swings and sambas and then to some more ambient, expressionist styles in the second set, and a fully composed short tune to finish called “Get well soon”. All steady and thoughtful stuff. Lovely interweaving or sometimes parallel harmonies up front, and even some unison lines from other combinations, like wah-ed nylon strung guitar and tenor. Well considered solos that didn’t shout speed or virtuosity, but moved you through emotions with well-picked intervals and phrasings. There were some tonalities, too, that I noticed were different: Reuben playing cornet mostly in preference to trumpet (not so harsh a tone, but retaining an edge that the flugelhorn discards in favour of mellifluousness), and Matt’s very unusual amplified nylon-strung guitar with its thumpier sound that worked well in the rhythm section with Chris’s thumpy acoustic bass. Aidan was again on drums, but this was more the jazz style, with brushes and swing times and jazz accents. We even heard a few simultaneous solos from the horns, a style that is occasionally revived by modern players. This band first played at Jazz Uncovered in April and they caught my ears then. They are more developed and settled now. The music is gentle and tuneful, and it’s played with soft, acoustic sounds. It was a great gig, and I’m looking forward to hear how Reuben and mates preserve it for posterity on CD. Very well done.

Andy Campbell (guitar) led a quartet with Andy Butler (piano), Chris Pound (bass) and Aidan Lowe (drums). Reuben Lewis (cornet, trumpet) led a quintet with Max Williams (tenor), Matt Lustri (guitar), Chris Pound (bass) and Aidan Lowe (drums).

14 December 2009

For polite company?

Robot Sex Dolls came to Earth at the Front on Sunday. I didn’t know of the band, but a mention of “influences of 70s Miles, electronica and the conceptual improvisation approaches of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor” had me hot under the collar. So I did some research, and it was illuminating, although not just about the band itself. That’s a digression for late night and a few drinks (and it’s further evidence that the Japanese love gadgets) so back to the Front.

RSD is a trio of sax, keyboards and drums that is often supplemented with bass. On their CD, it’s Cameron Undy. At the Front, it was our local Chris Pound. They are from Adelaide and the product of a lengthy residency with an invitation to be challenging. And they certainly are challenging in some of the more out tunes and especially with the runner that finished the gig with ecstatic cacophony. But there’s also a strong groove component with jazz-rock and dub and reggae feels. The charts were mostly one liners, and the all-important grooves were often set with a piano left hand before being taken over by bassist Chris P who was new to the music. The melodies were sometimes simple, sometimes recurrent, and merged into soaring soprano and tenor plays from Chris S that twisted freely and satisfyingly through alternative harmonies. Richard’s keys were big, busy, other-wordly adventures. A local keyboard mate heard Rhodes and Wurlitzer tones but admitted to not picking up on all the effects from the Nord keyboard. He suggested flanger, and there was definitely tremolo and perhaps a ring modulator and I guess other delay-based effects. But it was his playing that was really extreme, with hands flailing over the keys and, on the other hand, an organ-like approach that hinted of sustained (organ) rather than percussive (piano) sounds. So when I heard organ it was not unexpected because Richard often plays Hammond.

The soloing was wonderfully out and challenging, but (as a rhythm section player, I can say this) there’s no band without the groove, and I loved the combination of drums and bass. Gilli would set a groove and hold with rock-like precision, looking around with sunnies and drummer-cool. At one stage, I realised the band was essentially playing rock music, but as it should be played: with solidity and strength and with well-chosen fills and contrasting rhythms as only a trained player can do. In the context, Chris P was a wonder. He was just sitting in, but his playing was strong and apt and easily deserving of the recognition he was getting from the band: syncopating with complexity and inventiveness through grooves and solos with a delicious bassy thud. It was a stunningly capable performance. Looking back and over the ecstasy and soaring solos, I think variety. The reggae and dub and rock and jazz-rock were there (one tune successfully channelled Bitches Brew-era Miles) but also a few ballads, with their more involved melodies and restrained soloing. One was written for the Bali bombings: Richard knows the father of one lost son. Another was written for a lost love, and looking out the window, seeing a young bloke performing on a skateboard, I thought of human males as the performers as females sit and chat. Interesting, but another diversion … as were the (pant, pant) Japanese gadgets.

This was powerful music with no room for slackers but with a sense of enjoyment and ecstasy. Involved and complex and heads-down music that was sometimes harsh but with a positive, humane feel. Just confirmed when you saw Chris S frequently smiling at the strength of the groove or the ebullience of the solos. Catch them if you can.

Robot Sex Dolls were Richard Coates (keyboards and programming), Gilli Atkinson (drums) and Chris Soole (soprano, tenor saxes). Chris Pound (bass) sat in for the gig.

12 December 2009

Double header: set 2

John reappeared with the band he got together to perform his compositions for his recent Recital at the Jazz School. They had performed for the recital, and presented one ArtSound Friday Night Live (which I sadly missed), and this was their one gig. But what an gig! I always love the complexity of interwoven written horn lines. Here, the bell-like clarity of two trombones and trumpet/flugelhorn rang through, with Jo Lloyd’s impassioned alto fills. Wonderful, goodebumps material, this. Then time for solos all round. I noticed the diverse guitar styles, at least in solos: Andy’s rapid lines; Matt’s minimalist explorations. Raf especially commented on their accompaniment; I missed most behind the horns but noticed some single note counterpoint that was fascinating. Raf was involved and entertaining as he inevitably is, with slap and solos on his Yamaha. Grey did another minimal but melodic solo, accompanied by unison voice. Jo always excites, and was no less here, sounding increasingly professional in style and comprehension. Rob’s solo was melodic and rich; Valdis’ was more simple but strong and emphatic. Bari always reminds me of Mingus bands, and I enjoyed Tom’s solo. John was leading so more out front, the smiling leader, again more outspoken in this context than in the Boys. They played a version of Freddie Freeloader, but otherwise it was originals with lush front line harmonies ringing with the clarity of brass over a range of changing rhythms and grooves – funk, rock, jazz, 12/8, 6/4, well varied. There was some intonation that wasn’t perfect, but this is not a regularly performing band and the music is not trivial or constant. But it was was vibrant, alive, informed music. Truly impressive stuff.

Three By 3 was led by John Milton (drums) and played charts compased and arranaged by him. The rest of the band was Jonty Hall (trumpet), Joe Lloyd (alto saxophone), Rob Lee (trombone), Valdis Thomann (trombone), Tom Fell (baritone sax), Matt Lustri and Andy Campbell (guitars), Grey Milton (piano, vocals) and Rafael Jerjen (bass).

Double header: set 1

The Front is a strange and unique place. It’s the centre of a little artistic and bohemian-cum-indie community that’s quite unusual in modern Australia, at least given the places I inhabit or am aware of. There’s music of all sorts, ages of all sorts, costumes of all sorts, arts and theatre and cabaret. There’s a constant chatter, there are sketchers and drinkers and listeners. You feel you are part of the show at the Front, and it’s exciting and friendly. Last night’s show was a double header and a great night out. Just two sets, but varied and new.

Gerry and the Boys opened for the first set. Garry is Gerry Gardiner, one time bassist for Johnny O’Keefe’s DeeJays and a stalwart of early Canberra jazz clubs. And his history was evident in his playing: a nice awareness of blues and standards lines, with fitting chromatics and a sense of dynamics. His bass also had stories: an old Boosey & Hawkes from the 1940s, blond, ply, ex-Army band, that he’s found with shards of glass poking through one hole in the back, and a broken neck. But it played OK. The Boys were Dirk, Graham and John of As Famous as the Moon, a sweet, melodious outfit that does standards like a dream when in flight. They played Blues, My little suede shoes, Well you needn’t, Softly. Standard stuff, but some laid back walks and lovely, capable solos.

Gerry and the Boys were Gerry Gardiner (bass), Dirk Zeylmans (tenor saxophone), Graham Monger (guitar) and John Milton (drums). BTW, excuse splitting this post, but Blogger has imposed new limits of tags, so no choice.

6 December 2009

Paris

“Sorry but I'm in Paris at the moment.” That’s the coolest reason I’ve ever given for turning down a gig. But last week Dirk made another offer that I couldn’t refuse and I had a great time. Just Dirk, Graham and me – tenor, guitar, bass. But we got some solid swings and decent latins going, we enjoyed some long and slightly indulgent solos, and we had a chatty loud audience that was having a good time and let us have our head, so all was well. It was a Real Book repertoire. I was impressed that Graham jumped at one of my favourites, that lovely if syrupy ballad, Out of nowhere. And I enjoyed playing a Charlie Parker’s Blues for Alice that falls constantly through 2-5s in various chromatic changes. I played my double bass, but also took the opportunity to bring out the old Maton fretless which has sat in the cupboard for years and deserved the outing. Graham had his toneful semi-acoustic Gibson and old Fender amp, and Dirk’s horn was shiny and no doubt slick and perfectly set up. The melodies flowed easily and the communication was simple and effective with the slightest of glances. As it should be. Excuse the indulgent entry but the night deserved it: a gig that was very much enjoyed. Thanks to Dirk and Graham.

Eric Pozza (bass) sat in with Dirk Zeylmans (tenor) and Graham Monger (guitar).

5 December 2009

Jazz narratives of nationhood

It was a different jazz experience when I heard Bruce Johnson present his lecture on jazz in Australia and its relationship to film over the first half of the 20th Century. The talk was one of a three lecture series by Bruce. The Canberra talk was entitled Jazz & Australia: Bridging the gap on screen. My summary of Bruce’s presentation is this.

Australia was a masculine place in its early days, with its ethos determined by the bush and male strength and perseverance. Jazz was more feminine, a product of an urban environment, a component in the decline of Western civilisation. Think drunken jazz parties and jazz as an ecstatic dance form in silent films. This association with dance as primarily a feminine art was threatening to the honest labour of the bush. As films added sound and industrialisation was promoted in Australia between the world wars, jazz came to be legitimised within the narratives of a more urban nationhood. Interestingly, this parallelled the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, representing a link between the industrialised south shore and the more rural north shore. Well before the time of Dingo, Ralf de Heer’s 1991 outback film featuring Miles Davis, jazz had taken on a musical seriousness in the popular consciousness, become the music of modernity and found a synergy with the bush. Bruce showed snippets of early films featuring jazz bands (The cheaters, Showgirl’s lunch, Squatter’s daughter) to display the early view of jazz as wanton and depraved and to confirm the modernising thesis. These snippets are always amusing to our eyes, and they got a few chuckles. As did the song called “Can’t sleep in the movies anymore” referring to the new-fangled talking movies. And the poster for a lost film, Can a girl propose, which was obviously indicative of early feminism and a changing society.

We heard plenty of interesting bits of trivia. The first jazz concert in Australia was a theatre burlesque affair, sometime around 1918. The first jazz festival held anywhere was staged in Australia, and it was so successful that it ran for an extra week. Jazz parties were a form of indulgent, bohemian affairs at the time. As an ex-librarian, I was particularly interested to hear that the State Library of South Australia has a unique collection of 80 shelf metres of sheet music to accompany silent films, from the archives of the now demolished State Theatre in Sydney. It is perhaps the only collection of its type in the world, and is particularly valuable as each piece of music has a date and place of performance, so it could be linked to a film being presented in a town on a certain date. Another fascinating snippet was about a ban against black/foreign (?) musicians performing in Australia that stood until Louis Armstrong visited in the 1950s. (See John Sharpe's corrections below). The ban followed a promiscuous visit early in the century that was busted by the police. Apparently the Musicians’ Union combined with the forces of propriety and intolerance to oust that band and establish the regulations to prevent further visits. All interesting, and a very different form of jazz outing from the other gigs that get reported here.

Corrections

Thanks to John Sharpe for his email with the corrections copied below. John is the author of our local history of jazz and obviously a far better historian than me. John’s book is A cool capital : the Canberra jazz scene, 1925-2005 / John Sharpe. http://shop.nla.gov.au/product_info.php?products_id=3708 Eric

There was a discussion about race relations in jazz in Australia. Mention was made about the sex, drugs and jazz scandal at the time of the first African-American jazz band to visit Australia in 1928 - Sonny Clay’s Plantation Band (this is covered in my book ‘A Cool Capital, pages 19-22). It’s interesting that Ivy Anderson, later to sing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra was in that band (dancing in photo). Someone said (not Bruce) that visits to Australia by black jazz musicians were then banned until Louis Armstrong came out in the 1950s. Not so. Rex Stewart, ex Duke Ellington trumpet player came to Australia and toured with Graeme Bell in 1949 (see photo).

This was opposed by the Australian Musicians Union which eventually reluctantly agreed that Rex could play near but not with the band. He had to appear as a soloist and at all times had to stand at least 60 centimetres in front of any accompanying orchestra (see photo). This visit is covered in Graeme’s autobiography pages 126-34.

While in Australia Rex also recorded with some of our then leading modernists, including Frank Smith, Don Andrews, Bruce Clarke and Don Banks (Australian Jazz on Record 1925-80 – Jack Mitchell, page 197).

2 December 2009

Old guardians

It’s a pleasure when the old guard returns. Last night it was Michael Coggins at Trinity. Michael’s a guitarist, ex-Jazz School and now in Sydney. He led a trio with Simon Milman and Mark Sutton. The set started with what seemed like original, mostly groove-based tunes with moderately complex overlying melodies, although later he was playing some standards charts. I noticed from the start a comfortable and confident style, mixing unhurried melodies with chordal fills, all at ease and unpressured. The structures were simple, at least for the groove tunes, but they came with interesting melodies overlaid. He felt eminently unfussed in playing them, displaying a competence that I enjoyed. Mostly it was a clean and unaffected standard jazz tone that he used, but there was also a descent into a rocky, overdriven sound and playing to match, and this was lively and well received.

The band worked well, too, and I’m sure this was related to Michael’s composed leadership. The easy going and quiet starts left lots of room to grow the volume and intensity, which was another benefit of such a composed approach. Simon fitted the bill with steady and reliable bass accompaniment. I noticed this especially on a tune that I counted as 10/4, where he held the line mostly unchanged. This can be easier said than done, and is often lauded by sidekicks if less so by less-informed listeners. The bass player’s role can be thus. His solos were interesting. I heard them as modal explorations, modifying 8th note lines by starting from different notes of the scale. Again, controlled but exploratory. Mark was more outspoken, and I felt the drumming was amongst the most memorable I’ve heard from him. The bass/guitar ostinato and grooves obviously suited and he played with precision and constant innovation: rolls collapsing into skins, rhythms cutting across grooves, accents constantly shifting and colours moving, and a unity that was clear over the solo. Great solos that had me in awe, and were obviously well received by the audience.

Michael Coggins (guitar) led a trio with Simon Milman (bass) and Mark Sutton (drums) at Trinity.