29 July 2009

Intimacies

Right from the first notes, we knew these were special players, although it was hard to catch the intimate performance over a very noisy venue. Kristin Berardi was playing a duo with guitarist James Sherlock. Trinity is a lively acoustic space, so talk carries, but this was a particularly intrusive night, with a birthday group and a newly minted 18-year-old girl having a good time. That’s fun and OK but it was certainly a battle for this performance. Kristin took it with good humour, and the second set was better after the partygoers had mostly left and the PA was tuned. Oh, the travails of live performance in bars.

But they were such satisfying performers! Kristin is an international award winning singer, and it showed. My concentration was not so much on the quality of her voice, but on her incredible fluidity and mobility and inventiveness. This voice was vibrant and alive with athletic vigour, bouncing up and down the vocal range. Not so much smooth as vivacious and clever and joyous, and comfortable in counterpoint. James was similarly impressive. He’s having a bad run in Canberra: last week with WECC and a dismally small audience; this night with a decently sized audience but very noisy environment. Again, it was wonderful playing: a relaxed style; reliable and comfortable rhythms; sweet and varied chordal accompaniment; deliciously clear solo statements; an earthy, wooden tone. And the tunes were also intimate, especially several originals: one dedicated to her toddler son, others of loves lost and gained. I felt we were let in on some very personal histories: it was certainly honest. On the other hand, there was a humourous tune with a chorus of Yippee-ay-oh and mentions of V8s, and some standards and a few lovely 60s pop songs: I’ve grown accustomed to his face, and God only knows (I don’t know what I’d do without you), which I was surprised to learn was a Beachboys song. All performed with musical vivacity and emotional intimacy. It was a wonderful and endearing performance (at least those parts I heard). BTW, it was also a CD launch, so presumably there’s more where this came from. Buy it to hear it without the added ambience!

Kristin Berardi (vocals) performed with James Sherlock (guitar) at Trinity Bar.

27 July 2009

Browsing

It was a pleasant Sunday afternoon of browsing and listening when the Sienna Aguilar Quartet was playing at the Beyond Q Bookshop. The bookshop has a little café surrounded by a decent collection of second hand books. You can sit in the café for an intimate concert experience, or grab a comfy chair amongst the shelves and catch up on reading with a live musical ambience. Sienna presented a lovely collection of standards, latins and ballads, sung with a rich and rounded voice. It was a tempered few sets, perfectly suitable to the surroundings. John’s soft and observant drumming provided a steady pulse to support some occasional scatting by Sienna, and solos by Andy and John. John’s were more tonal, as bass is wont to be, which fitted well with his clearly stated walks and accompaniments. Nice tone, too, on an NS 5-string EUB, and good hands that suit bass, although the thumb positions look strange on the long neck with no body to reach over. Andy was on piano, which provides far more opportunities for adventurousness. His solos were slim and lithe, nicely phrased and well considered, frequently chromatic and atonal. I was glad to hear several favourites: Sam Rivers’ Beatrice, Benny Golson’s Whisper not, Jobim’s Dindi, Billy Holiday’s Don’t explain, and Luiz Bonfa’s Manhã de Carnaval/A day in the life of a fool. ADITLOAF started with a bass line that just said James Bond to me. Sienna told me it’s on the original. Otherwise, I remember Alone together, Green Dolphin Street, Like someone in love, Corcovado, a blues. It’s a common, but satisfying, repertoire. We know the standards well, but they are superb tunes, and support frequent performance and sustained listening, and they are essential in the development of a jazz player. This was one pleasant and satisfying outing for these great tunes.

Sienna Aguilar (vocals) led a quartet with Andy Butler (piano), John Burgess (bass) and John Milton (drums) at the beyond Q Bookshop.

26 July 2009

Tallyho, Pinkerton

… was one of the favourite books I used to read to my kids when they were little. But I saw that other Pinkerton last night, and what a cad he was! This Pinkerton was the debaser of Madame Butterfly, of course, in Puccini’s opera. He was a nasty piece of work, and she was the dignified and faithful spouse and mother. This Butterfly was a two-act version. I guess this is the original text from La Scala that was poorly received; Puccini subsequently rewrote the work in three acts and several further versions to much success. This one was performed in English, with a cast of ~9 and a small (~12 piece) orchestra. I was a bit non-plussed by it all, and disappointed, especially given MB’s renown. The music seemed pretty samey, especially through the first act, although I felt it was more dynamic and passionate in the second. I could only catch a few words, despite the presentation in English, and sometimes I felt the phrasing was forced, presumably to fit the lyrics to the music. The sopranos were plenty loud when they hit their higher range, but there were several voices that were lost, even with this small orchestra. I can understand this is not kosher, but some subtle PA work may have helped here. I found it all a bit ho-hum. The cute puppet that was MB’s toddler just about stole the show. It was only the final scene with the hara-kiri that finally affected me, and that ended so, so abruptly, along with the whole performance. No epilogue here. I only recognised one aria, by MB in the second act, although the humming chorus is apparently famous too. You couldn’t miss the Star-Spangled banner references, but … wasn’t he a cad. Thank god for that nice Sharpless who represented the honest side of the yanks. This production is set in Nagasaki in 1946 (think: Fat man, A-bomb). I didn’t see any particular relevance for the A-bomb connection, but we enjoyed the show well enough. As I was leaving, I heard some women chuckling that they had been thinking “Die, bitch” during some lengthy passages in the second act. I didn’t quite feel that, but I don’t expect it will be long remembered by me. Probably not as long as my memories of that cute book, “Tallyho, Pinkerton”.

Madame Butterfly was directed by John Bell and performed by Opera Australia. I’d have some pics, but in these days of obsessive concern with Copyright, they are strictly VERBOTEN.

23 July 2009

Everyone does bass jokes!

Guy Pratt, bassist of “legendary Australian band Icehouse” (but previously unknown to me), started with Canberra jokes then on to bassist jokes. Everyone does Canberra jokes (I find most intercity rivalry tiresome) but he did get the image right of Canberra as an up-market university town. Then the bassist jokes. He’s a bassist, so that’s OK. Then a few snippets of tunes played on guitar and bass, then various tales of the rock musician’s life. It’s a pretty earthy existence, although at this level, the egos are strong and the living is hard and committed. Sex, drugs and rock & roll are still staples of the chatter and presumably of the lifestyle. I recognised some of the big names: Davids Gilmour and Bowie, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Jimmy Page. There were others I didn’t know. There was a whiff of name-dropping, but they were amusing stories none-the-less. It wasn’t a humour of wit, more of circumstance and shock and extremity. But I remember one self-deprecating line with a wry touch: “There’s no beginning to his talents”. Self-deprecating, but I doubt it’s true. His playing didn’t blow me out, but they were just little snippets and secondary to the patter, and if half of what he described was true, he’s got a true rock pedigree. In summary, interesting although perhaps from the dark side! Guy Pratt (bassist and raconteur) performed at the Playhouse.

PS. I’ve just checked out his website and his Wikipedia entry with discography. Impressive!

  • Guy Pratt's website
  • Guy Pratt on Wikipedia
  • 19 July 2009

    Sensuous and satisfying

    There’s always a buzz around the jazz community when one of the Jazz School faculty is playing. I haven’t heard Eric Ajaye much recently. Last time was with Vince Jones a few months ago. His trio gig with Mike Price and Col Hoorweg at the Kurrajong is now defunct after more than seven years, so there’s no opportunity that I know of to catch him regularly. Eric is, of course, the bass teacher at the Jazz School and has authentic stories of LA sessions and playing with several very big names, so he’s local jazz aristocracy. It’s well justified: he’s a great player and a nice guy. Eric often plays with Chris Thwaite and Chris was there to make up a trio led by James Le Fevre. James has just graduated from the Jazz School (honours, I think). I’ve watched his progress over recent years, and I’ve very much enjoyed his playing recently.

    They played a gig of modern jazz and standards tunes, a really good collection including some great favourites. Starting with Ornette’s When will the blues leave?, Sam Rivers’ lovely Beatrice, McCoy Tyner’s Passion dance, Monk’s Round midnight and Well you needn’t, Freddie Hubbard’s Sunflower, a favourite standard There will never be another you. There were a few others, and no doubt more after I had to leave. Eric plays was supreme fluidity: mellifluous slides, syncopated lines, long notes intersperced with fills in triplets or more complex divisions of the beat and bass chords. All there, beautifully expressive and simply correct. Chris plays with commendable simplicity and clarity. I’ve heard him play more colour in other circumstances, but this was more crystal clear and straightforward rhythmic interpretations and solos, played with simple correctness and clarity. James is playing with much maturity. He’ll play melody, but he likes to shift the time and occasionally the pitch. He’ll play tunefully then happily drop into chromatics and dissonance and flourishes. He’ll also vary intervals, so we get obvious seconds and thirds, but branch into longer steps continuing across the range. So, a great way to while away an afternoon: very much enjoyed, sensuous and smooth and musically satisfying.

    James LeFevre (tenor) played with Eric Ajaye (bass) and Chris Thwaite (drums) at a Minque afternoon session.

    Nicely composed

    The Reuben Lewis Quintet was a unexpected find for me at Jazz Uncovered. Intelligent, composed in several senses, gentle grooves and thoughtful soloing. So I wasn’t surprised by the quality and interest I heard from the band when they broadcast for ArtSound last Friday. This was laid back, unforced notes, solo lines pulled from the ether. I understand the tunes were mostly written by Reuben with one or two by Matt. In interview, Reuben said he’d found mates who would share this understanding and compositional sensibility. They did. There were relaxed reggae and latin rhythms, sparse open spaces for nylon-strung guitar, gentle accents from drums and Chris’ steady bass. The music sat rather than grew, comfortable and stable, but gently insinuating with delightful melodies and similarly melodious soloing. Reuben used the various expressive possibilities of brass, tounging, glissandoes, flutters, growls, for strains of Freddie Hubbard and Sketches-of-Spain-era Miles. Max played a more uneffected style, with long eighth-note passages outlining and exploring the harmonies with just occasional 16-th note runs. This was expressive and intelligent and delightfully understated playing from both the frontliners. So Reuben’s band provided another composed, thoughtful performance and just confirmed my impression at JU. Don’t go expecting thrills and dance. This is a band to ponder, to imbibe. Recommended.

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

    16 July 2009

    Fine and tragic

    The West End Composers Collective visited Canberra last night on a national Sound Travellers tour. Fine was for the music: it was truly splendid. Sweet and precise harmonies, interesting tunes and complex arrangements, a sound that was beyond the 10-piece format, strong voice (this was a big band with frequent vocals) with playful lyrics, some great soloing. What more could you desire? Audience. That’s the tragic side. Up with the best gigs I’ve heard, and the band almost outnumbered the audience. Perhaps it didn’t help that jazz students are on holidays, or that Sound Travellers had a double booking with Trio Apoplectic at Hippo on the same night. But it’s a good path to being ignored. Watch footy; ignore the yartz.

    I’ve been reading blogs about the resurgence of creative Brisbane. From a distance, there seems to be a vibrant, fresh, new injection of creative energy. WECC has to be part of this. It was lively and inventive, a glowing conception of the small big band format. The voice had much to do with it. Hannah Macklin was strong up front, with a powerful voice and great control to manage bop-like complexity, but she’s also a compositional wit. I didn’t catch all the lyrics (there were many and they rolled over each other with boppy urgency), but her Jack seemed a story of lost love built on an underlying parallel with of Jack and the Beanstalk. Clever. She had similar references in another tune, Starlight. They both harked back to the wry lyrics of standards jazz. This was faithful to tradition, but modernised and relevant to our current times. Fabulous singing but also clever writing. Not just by Hannah, but also by Rafael Karlin and an earlier band-member, Laura Karl. But it was not just the words and compositions that were clever. This band was slick, and playing a storm after touring together around Australia for the last week or so, and after a reportedly memorable performance at the Promethean in Adelaide the night before. Playing and touring together makes for tight, and this was. Despite busy arrangements, the whole sat together with real class and comfort. There were signals for planned changes; there were arranged hits and contrasts; there were feels that merged and twisted, or otherwise just sat behind solo or instrumental passages. I noticed Joe Marchisella on drums who massaged these rhythms with intelligence and feel. Mingus was never too concerned about how his bandsmen soloed as long as they interpreted his writings effectively. This band did that with panache, but there were some capable soloists, too. James Sherlock on guitar was frequent and outstanding. I took particular notice of solos by Graeme Norris on baritone sax and Mikael Strand on trombone, but it’s probably unfair to mark them out. Both Steve Newcomb on keys and James Sherlock offered complex and mobile accompaniment. James seemed unusually fluent on chordal accompaniment, and Steve was just plainly inventive, sometimes with synth-like sounds from his red Nord, and other times busily but subtly accompanying and guiding the outfit. These two played a lovely little duo at one stage with solo guitar over keys that was everything a big band isn’t. That’s how it was. An inventive approach and a modern sound; a wry voice with traditional horn harmonies and modern rhythms and a personal approach to composition. This is a little big band with a big sound that suits the times. Fabulous.

    Alas, that’s what you missed if you weren’t there. And probably you weren’t.

    West End Composers Collective comprised Steve Newcomb (piano), Rafael Karlen (tenor sax), Hannah Macklin (voice), James Sherlock (guitar), Gerard McFadden (bass), Joe Marchisella (drums), Mark Spencer (alto sax), Graeme Norris (baritone sax), Mikael Strand (trombone), Shannon Marshall (trumpet). They played at the Folkus Room, and toured with the support of Arts Queensland, Sound Travellers and Griffith University.

    15 July 2009

    Of families and tentacles

    Canberra may be a small hub in the world of jazz, but Canberra jazz and its jazz school puts out tentacles: in Melbourne and Sydney, where there are influential groups of players, but also outside Australia, to Europe, Asia, the Americas. We occasionally get jazz tourists from NY and far afield, often with Australian or Canberra connections. Look at the Canberra Jazz group on Facebook, and you’ll find members throughout the world keeping in touch with their roots. I bought my double bass from an ex-Canberran who’s now in Shanghai. The world is massively smaller now than it was only 20 years ago. Money moves instantaneously with just a card; air travel is much cheaper in real terms; communications are trivially easy; we share so much with similarly wealthy people around the world. We also share jazz.

    Last night at Trinity was just an example. Daniel Hunter is temporarily returned from Geneva. He led a quartet with some strong locals including Niels Rosendahl, who has also recently spent several years in London/Europe. The band played originals and a few standards including uber-standard All the things you are. Daniel’s originals were in a few different styles: guitar-styled and chordally rich arrangements, some funky blues rhythms, a clear post-bop walking number. I noticed Phill Jenkins here, with a joyous and heavily swinging walking bass. Phill strikes me as a very competent and reliable working player (high praise). He confirmed it this night with rock solid playing and a lovely sound that cut through clearly: strong on midrange but with no honk or harsh edge. Ed, of course, was his masterly, dynamic, expressive self that I’ve been writing about for just about every gig recently, given I’ve heard him so often. He’s fabulously controlled and impressively responsive; like when he stunned me by instantly morphing from loud and emphatic to the softest and most precise cymbal work. Niels struck me first with his strong and ringing tone up and down the range, then those pleading high notes that give the sax such emotional effect. He’d play simple and obvious lines (Niels understands the beauty in simplicity) but then unexpectedly fall into long, sustained lines of chromatic extravangance. One of these had me wondering if he would ever end it; so much startling contrast, but not a thought of it being out of place. Daniel’s approach was very different. He uses a clear, percussive, ringing jazz guitar tone that doesn’t lend itself to wallowing in seductive tonality. So he’s fast and busy, expressing harmony with showers of notes rather than counterpoint, sometimes with a big-city feel of enthusiasm and some little disjointedness despite some pretty cool original tunes. So, cool in composition and accompaniment, but more vivid in solos.

    Canberra jazz is somewhat like a family. Pretty small, with cousins passing through town, kids off to test themselves in the big, wide world, always someone keeping the hearth warm. Octopi and families are contrasting metaphors, but they both fit to some degree. Daniel Hunter (guitar) led a quartet at Trinity with Niels Rosendahl (tenor, soprano sax), Phill Jenkins (bass) and Ed Rodrigues (drums).

    12 July 2009

    Being human

    Just the other day I read an essay by Lera Boroditsky where she observes that language “is so fundamental to our experience, so deeply a part of being human, that it's hard to imagine life without it” (ref below). I agree. To me, words are more powerful than vague vision (why I tire of so many movies) or even seductive sound (despite my love of jazz). I listen to lots of instrumentalists and enjoy their invention and skills, but this truth comes to me when I hear vocals, words, direct and unmediated communication, sound without the machines: when I hear the voice.

    It all came home to me again this evening while I was listening to three talented and very different singers in what was dubbed as a “Female Vocal Extravaganza”. Disregarding the spin, it was deep and fascinating and human and very, very diverse. I was particularly hoping to observe the differences and this was a wonderful opportunity. Matilda and Rachael and Marie were worlds apart, but all were communicating directly and intimately and so were a joy. And they shared one fabulously intuitive piano trio in support, so it was a concert to remember. They were each humble and wary to perform after the other, as is so often the way of performers, but each was superb in her own individual way. Matilda went first. Lower voice, perhaps alto; calm, pure, full but unadorned. Rachel told me another time that she admired Nina Simone. There’s that same simplicity and rich vocalisation, and restrained jazz freedom. She sang well aged standards, Polkadots and moonbeams, Moonlight in Vermont, and a few originals, like Spirals with its insinuative lyrics: “Hideaway … she will sing, she will try”. Rachael was second with such a different set. There were still standards, Alone together, Dindi, and originals in 3/4. She spoke of giving “a twist” to My funny valentine, but this was more a reimagining. Richly changed, a new work with hints of the original, quotes of the melody, snippets of the harmony. Improvised over with a high, presumably soprano voice, and intimately connected to the band. These were reworkings rather than re-performances. Taking standards and moving into big contemporary sound stages. Marie was last, and paid respect to her precedents. Again, the standards, although a different repertoire, and the originals: Afro Blue rearranged by Marie in 5/4 and with lyrics borrowed from Dianne Reeves; Wayne Shorter’s Fee fi fo fum with her own lyrics but a refusal to say who she’d written them for; Blue skies in memory of Eva Cassidy. Marie always seems to me so well trained: perfect intonation, richly inventive scat, a singer’s singer. I haven’t mentioned the band: Luke, Bill and Ed. Suffice to say a stunningly communicative and responsive trio that plays standards with ease but great inventiveness. See my other posts; they did wonders tonight. And Alex Raupach sat in for some tunes in Marie’s set.

    James LeFevre is planning monthly extravanganzas like this at Minque: three guitars, three tenors, etc. and they will no doubt be intriguing. It’s an opportunity to explore an instrument in depth; to compare styles and approaches. But voice is something special, and this was special: three wonderful singers, with very different approaches and with a fabulous, but common, accompaniment. An absolute stunner.

    The singers were Matilda Abraham, Rachael Thoms and Marie Le Brun. The accompaniment was by Luke Sweeting (piano), Bill Williams (bass) and Ed Rodrigues (drums). Alex Raupach (flugelhorn) sat in for some tunes with Marie.

  • How does our language shape the way we think? / Lera Boroditsky (viewed 11 July 2009)
  • 6 July 2009

    Portraits in jazz

    Adnoisiam. It’s a punny name, but the music was anything but. Miro presented a beautifully subtle and intimate quartet in the foyer of the National Portrait Gallery. I didn’t recognise many tunes until we got to the end of the second set and Miro brought out some stalwarts from the Wanderlust catalogue including that hauntingly beautiful “Peace please”. I love the music of Wanderlust for honesty and perception and exhuberance, and this was just icing on the cake. But this band was less worldly, more internalised, more impressionistic. Luke played fewer discordances than when he plays post-bop, and his rhythmic conception was more classical turn of the (20th) century sprays of notes rather than sustained 8th note jazz lines. Ed had few solos but his accompaniment was closely felt and richly dynamic; lovely playing and nothing unusual for Ed. Bill accompanied with concentrated, thoughtful restraint, and soloed frequently and with a rich sense of melody. I particularly enjoyed Miro's style in this meditative context. That purity of trumpet tone (I see wave forms when processing the recordings I make; the trumpets have a unique and pure signature) with unadorned and simple melodies, intersperced with long notes or hectic legato outpourings. Nothing was extraneous in this band; nothing forced. It was music for a Sunday afternoon, but intelligent and deeply felt, never just smooth. From the back of the foyer, the sound was very live and piano and bass were a bit indistinct. But closer in, it was clearer and more richly textured and Miro’s trumpet took on a delightfully rich tonality, courtesy of reverberations from the hard surfaces. There was a small but appreciative listening audience, and most visitors to the gallery stopped and appreciated the intellectual clarity and purpose of the music. There was even a Vanity Fair portrait of Louis Armstrong looking in on the proceedings. How apt!

    Adnoisiam were Miroslav Bukovsky (trumpet and leader), Luke Sweeting (piano), Bill Williams (bass) and Ed Rodrigues (drums). BTW, the NPG is staging Sunday afternoon jazz for the next few weeks to accompany its visiting exhibition of Vanity Fair portraits. It’s well worth a visit: for the jazz, but also for the Vanity Fair portraits, the permanent collection, and the recently-awarded architecture.