29 August 2009

Just one corner of one school

It was Universities Open Day today. No. 2 son visited ANU, but I just lurked at the Music School (which is also ANU, of course). There were masses of events there. I caught much of the jazz, and just touched the classical. It’s invigorating to realise just how much was available. This is just one university (although a renowned one), and I was overwhelmed with just one corner of one school. We live in such a time of richness, if only people will go out and find it. Here’s just a quick visit. Excuse the pics, but I dropped my normal camera today, and I’m back to a very, very basic model for the interim.

I caught all three of the large jazz ensembles: Recording Ensemble, Commercial Band and Big Band. The BB was an earlier jazz style, less challenging and a bit less exciting than the others, perhaps more of a training ensemble with newer students (although there’s a batch of mature students there too) but entertaining. The Recording Ensemble features original compositions by members. This is interesting and often blissful with varied tempos and rich harmonies and complex orchestrations. Interesting also for the double drum seats that are featuring this year. The Commercials are the funky outfit: lively, exciting, variety. They have some student arrangements, but mainly professional-level charts from the best arrangers. This is hot and sweaty grooves and just plain fun.

The Open Days also feature workshops by faculty. I missed the bass & drums workshop this year, but managed the piano trio workshop. Actually, this was a first performance of a new trio of Matt Thompson (piano), Eric Ajaye (bass) and Mark Sutton (drums) with some chats and Q&As between tunes. It’s in its very earliest days, but it’s quite a cerebral outfit. Eric spoke of refraining from dropping into swing. Mark talked of playing colours rather than his normal grooves. I imagine it’s especially demanding with eminently swingable tunes like Nardis, Solar and All the things you are. On the other hand, I felt this cool was Matt’s natural approach (given the limited times I’ve hear him play). Matt was sparse, single note right hand solos developing into considerable melodic complexity, and few, or long delayed, chords. Mark expressed some discomfort maintaining this colours role, feeling a desire to drop into something more clearly swung. Eric seemed to enjoy it, with bass chord comping, or repeated rapid accompaniment riffs, or solos alone or in conjunction with the others. It will be interesting to watch developments here.

I actually got drawn away from this trio by the siren song of a soprano wafting from Llewellyn Hall. Some highly pitched, plaintive, vibratoed notes with orchestral backing, and I was Odysseus unbound. Typical of sirens, though, the soprano had departed by the time I got there. The replacement was a good humoured rehearsal of the ANUSM Orchestra playing Bizet. They were playing a bouncing waltz as I entered, and some booming chords a little later. There were so many players on stage, so informal. In fact, the brass players seemed quite underemployed as they counted out the bars until they came in again. (I wondered if the Productivity Commission would see this as unproductive, inefficient? Probably not. I expect they attend). It was a lovely interlude, and evidence that there’s life beyond jazz.

But back to jazz, and John Mackey’s improvisation masterclass. It was more a chat and workshop, and an awareness-raiser for anyone who was considering the commitment that is jazz. John enjoys his practice, and it shows in great technique, incredible fluidity and huge tone. John takes a rational approach to learning the instrument, in order to “forget it all and just play” (Charlie Parker). Indications of his approach: any four notes can be played (without repeating a note) in 24 patterns; there are thousands of scales, but his students should practice 276 scales every day (23 scales in 12 keys); transcriptions are essential and his students are required to learn their chosen solos in 6 keys (he used to expect 12 keys, but he’s relented!). You get the message. He demonstrated several times: playing solos against an Aebersold recording of Have you met Miss Jones; later playing a transcribed solo, then playing the same, identical solo. A few quotes will give the feel: “If you have to think about the notes in a chord sequence, it’s over”, “Perfect your craft”, “Practice slowly all the time”. John represents intellect and commitment combined to support true and expansive expression: always inspiring.

I also visited the ANUSM Recording studio and mixing/mastering suite. Nevin Stines had recorded a Jazz School band earlier, and was doing a rough mix. Great gear, wonderful chatter about recording matters, and some hugely clear recorded sounds in the studio. Lastly, I caught John Burgess playing a solo EUB (Electric Upright Bass) set in the ANUSM Level 5 Café. This was loops and delays and tunes including Stella by starlight. Solo bass – nice one.

26 August 2009

Big city urgency

The pace of the big city showed through last night when New Yorkian Andrew Swift was playing with Brendan Clarke and Mike Price. This is no sleepy playing. It’s intense, determined, disciplined. There’s a commitment that says American culture and competition; failure everpresent as threat and incentive. This is individualism writ large. Most survive; some win the big purse, sometimes deservedly; a significant few fail and fall, despairing, misunderstanding their failure as totally, individually their responsibility. It’s a hard culture, but it’s also invigorating and excelling. It’s harder than here, although we’ve always had a foot in that camp as an Anglo-American economy and we’ve been moving increasingly in that direction over recent decades. I remember the issue arising years ago when singer/pianist Ben Sidran visited Adelaide. I attended a workshop and then a bar gig. The gig was drab and unfulfilling. Ben complained about his local support players who were uninvolved, lacking energy, purposeless. He was right; they were dull. Ben couldn’t understand why they even bothered to play. It was not a pleasant scene. Last night wasn’t like that: this gig was good, very good.

I didn’t pay attention to the tunes they played, although they were obviously standards with cycles and a sense of swing. There was Invitation alternating between a 12/8 latin and a swing, a lovely gentle In a sentimental mood and hard swinging Misty. Many of the other tunes were more disguised; not too easily recognisable. I’d say this jazz was smooth, but nothing like the saccharine radio-style called “smooth jazz”. It wasn’t chordally challenging but it was richly improvised, responsive and deeply cool. Brendan settled the beat with his low, full tone, steady and richly expressive both in accompaniment and long, fluent solos. Andrew was busy, aware, responsive, cutting the groove and pushing the complexity and excitement. The pair were comfortable together, revisiting old times when they studied together at the local Jazz School. It was an effective base for Mike’s unadulterated jazz guitar tone with sustained double time lines exploring harmony with diatonics, diverse intervals, atonal sequences and symmetrical scales. It was an intriguing and intellectually satisfying guitar trio set. I heard it as smooth and mainstream, so swinging, but a mainstream that was richly embellished with the sounds of modern harmonic and melodic indeterminacy. Very much enjoyed.

A flock of Swifts: Sherine, Andrew, Trish, John

Andrew Swift (drums) played with Mike Price (guitar) and Brendan Clarke (bass) at Trinity.

23 August 2009

Earthy and with a history

I’ve been writing up James LeFevre quite a bit lately, what with his Minque gig and his graduation, so just a short note and some pics. James led his new Quintet for an ArtSound broadcast last Friday. It was a mix of old and new. Old like the Gary Bartz tune, Eastern blues, that they’ve been playing forever. It’s a favourite arrangement of mine, with a line that insinuates with earthy simplicity but unexpected , oddly truncated repeats. This bluesy feel and some funk and grooves are standard for the band. James observed that their first CD, Point A, didn’t have any II-IV-I turnarounds and not even any swing passages. The band’s like that. Kay Chinnery is new on drums, and introduces a “dirty”, down-home feel. Guitar also replaces keyboards, with Matt Lustri playing funky and sometimes spacey. Chris Pound was not the first bassist, but he’s been around a while. He’s always reliable and sweetly toned and grooves well. Rob Lee is the perennial, along with James. Trombone seems such a popular instrument with musos, despite its low awareness for many listeners. It’s fat and brassy-clear and honey-like and seems to complement other instruments so well. I enjoyed watching over Rob’s shoulder as he played written lines, observing how he dropped some notes and interpreted quavers and triplets with considerable flexibility and personality. This is the jazz approach, of course, but it’s interesting to be watching it in real time. A nice, earthy outing of a band with local history.

The James LeFevre Quintet featured James LeFevre (tenor), Rob Lee (trombone), Matt Lustri (guitar), Chris Pound (bass) and Kay Chinnery (drums).

20 August 2009

Some like it hot

Hot and cool was the subject of a discussion I had with someone last night, and I guess it was prompted by a band that started hot and hard from the top. Sean Coffin was leading a long-standing (17-year) band with brother Greg, Simon Barker and our local Eric Ajaye sitting in for the bass seat. Later, another local, John Mackey, sat in for several tunes and a distinct change of tenor. But more on that later.

It was a night of unrelentingly driving sax and piano solos, deliciously organic and mellifluous drums, and a solid, steady, clear bass line driving the band. I commented on this, especially some unison syncopated phrasings, and Eric said it was all dots rather than chords except behind the solos. Eric handled it all with aplomb and garnered obvious respect from the other players. There’s a family resemblance in the playing of the Coffin Brothers: hard blown, constant, not overly dissonant, although moving through phrasings of alternate chords and dissonant turnarounds. It was a big sound on both piano and sax. The piano was busy and the left hand chords were big and full. I felt if Sean could play chords, he’d be big and busy like his brother. A tenor mate suggested Joe Lovano as a clear influence, and he dedicated a tune to Michael Brecker. This was somewhat in contrast to Simon who seemed strangely dignified in his detailed and bodily-expressive playing, but easily up for the ride. There was a mention of a Korean drum pattern from Sean (I’m sure I heard about Simon Barker’s Korean drum history on ABC radio recently) and I felt his solos sounded of Asian drums: solos that were dense in sound and richly complex in battering, incessant crossing rhythms. The music was original, modern post bop in style, with plenty of space for solos, but also unison lines and syncopated melodies. I particularly liked some unusual combinations when some of the players dropped out: leaving sax & bass or sax & drums.

The tenor changed a little when John Mackey sat in during the second set. Firstly, because they played some standards: All the things you are and Straight no chaser. But especially because it’s interesting to hear several capable players of the same instrument together and to observe the different styles. John was screeds of notes, indelible substitution, and a more metallic tone. His alterations are so complete and challenging as he clinically explores the dissonances in extensions. Clinical as in rational, not as in soulless, because his playing is emotionally intense and honest, too. Suffice to say I like his playing! In this company, Sean seemed gentler, more earthy and meaty, more of this solar system than other universes. His dissonances seemed to express underlying harmonies and turnarounds and chordal movements. John seemed to be the other way around, so he’d select a dissonant pitch then explore its internal logic, its own related modes. You could hear Sean move through chordal patterns; you could hear John select a pitch and dissect it. Both expressed melodies, both were raw and intense and imploring at times, both used the full range of the instrument, both clearly spoke to the underlying tune. How would I say it? Sean was perhaps more sustained while John was enigmatic. Suffice to say a lovely exposition by two capable tenorists.

So it was an intellectual and musical experience for me on the night. Thanks, guys. Sean Coffin (tenor) led a quartet at Hippo with brother Greg Coffin (piano), Eric Ajaye (bass) and Simon Barker (drums). John Mackey (tenor) sat in for most of the second set.

16 August 2009

RIP Minque

Rachael, Lachlan and James played the final Minque gig yesterday. I’ll miss the Minque Saturday afternoon gigs. It’s local for me, and was a nice way to while away an afternoon. But no more. Minque always seemed to me to be uninviting, at least for afternoon audiences: dark, heavy doors, TVs. I’d see numerous people peeking in at the jazz, but few entered. It’s got the vibe of a night-time venue for DJs and R&B and drinks. But it was pleasant enough inside, and it supported jazz on weekend afternoons and that was very good, so I’ll miss it.

It was a relaxed and gentle gig, and sadly lacking in an audience for the wake. Lachlan was the core of the band, concurrently playing both simple and effective bass lines and lithe chords on guitar. Clear and reliable and indispensable. Rachael and James toyed over this base. Rachael sang fluent and high. She stunned me with her improvised melody lines over Have you met Miss Jones, taking the written line and embellishing it freely and richly. This is jazz singing to me: richly improvised throughout. There was at least on scat solo, too, but I prefer the improvised melodies. James also improvised with panache. I’ve watched him over his years at the School, and it’s impressive to see/hear the change. James has just finished his Honours year. I’ve noticed recently that the senior students talk of the opportunity for more practice after their courses. Perhaps it’s a matter of the more you know, the more you know there is to know. Whatever, James is playing very satisfying and quite adventurous solos in a comfortable spot between consonant mainstream and dissonant modern. It’s an eminently listenable place to be, and I enjoy it immensely. I caught about half the gig, and the tunes were from the popular standards repertoire: The nearness of you, Secret love, Doodlin’, Have you met Miss Jones, I’ve never been in love before, Dindi, Stella by starlight. All common enough and all impressive tunes with a pedigree.

So, RIP Minque. It was good while it lasted. Rachael Thoms (vocals) sang with Lachlan Coventry (guitar) and James LeFevre (tenor).

14 August 2009

Annualities

A string of things happen in music on an annual basis: festivals, recitals, Christmas bookings, Wedding season. One that I watch religiously is the coming out concert for the Jazz School’s large ensembles each year. There are three at the school: Recording and Commercial Ensembles and the Big Band. Two of three open the performance season with a gig around this time. This year, Miro’s Recording Ensemble and Eric’s Commercial Ensemble played for the debutante gig.

It was a major coming out this year as there seems to have been a generational change with a string of new faces and a few of the older, wiser stalwarts. New, too, were the repertoires, especially for the Recording Ensemble. They are as much a compositional as a performance vehicle, so it always impresses me when we hear new and complex works, and doubly so when the composition skills are spread throughout the band. There was no letup this year. Nick Combes provided two tunes: Ssh…, a pensive ballad, and Once is enough, another gentle and thoughtful piece using rich chords and honest melody. Reuben penned a modern fusion piece which was eminently good for blowing, and Alex Raupach presented a different style scored for a much smaller ensemble (flugelhorn, alto, tenor, trombone, guitar, bass) and led by Alex on flugelhorn. I have a thing about the piano as the king of all instruments, and Luke Sweeting’s “Sound canvas” just confirmed the piano as an orchestra in a box. Miro introduced the tune as the hardest the Ensemble had played, and I’d accept that. Rich, complex harmonies and varied voicings, syncopated unison lines on unexpected and changing combinations of instruments, plenty of counterpoint, all against a falling harmonic movement, with dynamics and sweet harmonies and a clear Gil Evans influence. Great work. They finished with Frank Zappa’s Cruising for purpose, with a threatening intro, a challenging bass line for Chris Pound and an appropriately overdriven Zappa-esque guitar solo by Andy Campbell. Typical, wonderful Zappa sleaze. Also for mention are Rachael Thoms for her expressive vocals, Hugh Deacon and Aidan Lowe on twin drums (that’s a challenge), and good horn solos from several players that I’ve not particularly noted, Max Williams and others.

The Commercial Ensemble followed. This is a smaller, tighter, funkier outfit presenting charts and some original arrangements, but not committed to composing like the Recording Ensemble. These are hot charts, slap bass, 16th note grooves, hints of Letterman and variety TV. Short, hard hitting, exciting. You can just imagine the band called to a sudden halt as some comedian or presenter takes centre stage and waves his over-paid arm. These are the test pilots of musicians. Their charts were demanding and professional, arranged by the likes of Bert Ligon, Bill Liston, Matt Harris, Vince Mendoza and Marcus Miller/Dave Sanborn. There were two reconceptions of well known tunes, Footprints and Round midnight, and some originals. Round midnight especially displayed some demanding harmonies that stretched the front line. Marcus Miller’s tune was heavy drums and slap bass (no surprise) with a slow, bluesy melody. Stevie played the blues was a Texas shuffle by Bert Ligon, obviously dedicated to Stevie Ray Vaughan. Andy had big shoes to fill here, but grabbed the spotlight admirably with authority and a just that hint of guitarist arrogance (as he should!). This is the fun set, leaving you rocking in your chair. Funk as a staple of modern life.

So, the first outing of the new generation of these two large and satisfying ensembles. Catch them as they play around Canberra over the coming months. Luxuriate in the funk, the lush chords, and the sheer fun of a large ensemble. Great stuff.

The Recording Ensemble comprised Rachael Thoms (vocals), Alex Raupach, Alex Ross and Reuben Lewis (trumpets), Josh Hart (trombone), Andrew Fedorovich and Stephanie Badman (alto), Max Williams and Neveen Byrnes (tenor), Nick Combe (baritone sax), Andy Campbell (guitar), Hugh Deacon and Aidan Lowe (drums), Chris Pound (bass), Luke Sweeting (piano) and was led by Miroslav Bukovsky. The Commercial Ensemble comprised Rachel Thoms (vocals), Alex Raupach (trumpet, flugelhorn), Reuben Lewis (trumpet, cornet), Josh Hart (trombone), Oisin Smith-Coburn (tenor), Jo Lloyd (tenor), Andy Campbell (guitar), “Huge” Hugh Deacon (drums), Raf Jerjen (bass), Olivia Henderson (piano) and was led by Eric Ajaye.

5 August 2009

Visiting Gods

Dale Barlow played at the Gods last night. He’s not divinity, but he’s definitely a classic of Australian modern jazz. He’s not a frequent visitor to Canberra, but you get a night of hard swinging post-bop when he does visit. Showers of notes, flurries and effusions of phrases that play around the harmony. An ability to maintain lines, move phrases in and out of dissonance, cut the beat into smaller parts, and hold lines based on those parts for long, sinuous passages. Simply, a hot player in that hot post-bop mould. And with such a lovely big fat tone. He was playing a King Super 20, the same instrument that Cannonball Adderley played. The quality of the tone was obvious. Also occasional flute and alto flute. The selection was somewhat improvised, with the band stopping between tunes to discuss what to play next. But, as Dale said, these guys had been playing together over the years it was all perfectly comfortable. They are professionals of a high calibre, and this is stock of trade.

For our local pride, it was a Canberra rhythm section: Ben Hauptmann and Brendan Clarke, both Sydney-based but Canberra-bred and -trained, and Mark Sutton who is Canberra-based. Ben always blows me out with exciting guitar lines weaving through dissonances and across the full range into searing high notes; finger picking that imparts extra complexity to his chordal playing; a wonderfully rich and hot sound from an old Fender valve amp. Brendan is a renowned bassist for good reason. Fluently and busily exploring the fingerboard, up into thumb positions (did he reach to two octaves? I think so), variously moving across or up and down the neck, some lengthy chromatic lines in solo fills, or beautifully evident and simple chordal playing that stated the tune with elemental clarity. His sound was pretty soft, but listening back to a recording, it’s neat and present and thumpy with those Velvet strings. Mark Sutton is a popular choice for visiting jazz performers given his national experience and respect. There’s a seriousness to his playing, a busy-ness and responsiveness that’s demanding, and also a conception that ranges from early drum styles, so you can hear band music and marching rudiments interspersed with modern. So all round, it was masterly control that we heard.

They played 10 tunes with plenty of time for play and more than a few choruses for each solo. There were a few originals by Dale in a classic post-bop tradition. There were several well known standards done with power and ballads with subtlety: Chelsea Bridge, Willow weep for me, a sprinting Rhythm changes, Tad Dameron’s lovely On a misty night, Round midnight, Out of nowhere, a rollicking end on (Once I had a) Secret love. And there was one that seemed oddly different but nonetheless very satisfying, a dreamy tune that started with droning guitar and wailing tenor and sounding of the Scottish Highlands, and that moved into a Wanderlust-style groove.

It’s always great to hear such capable musicians doing flat-out post-bop styles: generous swing, hard blowing solos, memorable tunes. It’s what jazz is all about, at least for the boppers and their descendents. Dale Barlow (tenor, flute, alto flute) led a quartet with Ben Hauptmann (guitar), Brendan Clarke (bass) and Mark Sutton (drums).

2 August 2009

Nitya plays pop!

My mate Nitya studied at the Jazz School years back, but his interests are really outside that sphere. He played a solo set today at the Beyond Q Bookshop this afternoon, and I went along for a listen. I expected Indian flutes and scales, but mostly got singer-songwriter fare, but it was well chosen and expressed Nitya’s serious and personal side. There was a poetic Leonard Cohen tune that I didn’t recognise, Louis Armstrong’s What a wonderful world, Carole King's You've got a friend, and the like, all played with conviction and sentiment. This was a selection of the more profound end of the pop spectrum, and they are decent tunes and ones that I enjoy. I hadn’t expected a set with Nitya singing with an acoustic guitar. I had expected flutes, Indian scales and the like. Nitya played a raga on guitar and vocals that displayed those Indian tonalities, then another on Southern Indian bamboo flute as a request. Apparently the flute is pitched in E with a modified pentatonic scale (1-2-3-5-7 with various alterations?), and he played with the ornaments and drone accompaniment and conception of this style. These two Indian tunes were my favourites for the session.

I used to play with Nitya in a band that I like to think of as M.E.N.S (Michael, Eric, Nitya and Scott appearing as … M.E.N.S.). (This was the name I liked; we mostly appeared as The Project.) I doubt I’ll never get the fortuitous opportunity to use such a band name in future. Here’s an old pic of our (perhaps motley) outfit. Great to see you about, Nitya.

Nitya Bernard Parker played at the Beyond Q Bookshop.