29 April 2010

For a good night out

The Snappers were plain good fun. They’d started when I arrived, and there were several people jiving in a small space in front of the band, and a lively scene happening. The musos were applying themselves with energy and humour to grooves and solos, but there was also a studied nonchalance as they would retire off stage to get a beer or just muse. Nicely presented, I thought. This is a band that’s aware of its presence, and playing up its job as entertainers. But they are professionals who have to make the dosh, and they’ve got experience behind them, so I was not surprised. Not surprised either that they might be working the festivals and Melbourne and even Iceland and Scandinavian circuits. This was entertainment.

I didn’t actually take too much notice of the individual players. What I did notice was the range of po-mo tongue-in-cheek period pieces, the boogooloo and R&B and swing from as early as the 1920s dance era that just oozed from the bandstand, and the slick arrangements and capable playing that carried all this off. All was well arranged with a veiled seriousness under the light-hearted surface. You could hear the work they’d done in rehearsal and also the slickness from regular performances (they are currently on tour) as they carried it off with ease and panache. There were neat little bass solos tucked between horn solos, or sharply harmonised melodies between guitar or drums solos, or tight harmony fills behind various solos. There were vocals that toyed with lyrics and the audience, presented with hoary gutbucket growls. I noticed a lovely unison vocal/horn melody at one time that made me laugh with pleasure. I liked the sounds, too. The bass was solid and present. The horns were out front and nicely consonant, and the guitar was clear, with a touch of more modern styled soloing. I didn’t recognise too many tunes, but I did know the feels: bluesy cut times and loping swings. All so neatly done and amusingly presented.

One mate said that Melbourne’s like that. I thought of a busy scene where professionals have to make a living and how this promotes entertainment value. I certainly enjoyed it, and it was interesting to note the different audience and those dancers early in the night. It’s art that makes the music, but it’s craft that ensures you get paid. The Snappers was a joyous mingling of the two.

The Snappers are a Melbourne band. They played at Trinity Bar as one stop on their NSW tour. The Snappers comprise Ben Gillespie (vocals, trombone), Carlo Barbaro (tenor), Richard Burns (trumpet), Craig Fermanis (guitar), Mark Elton (bass), Sam Bates (drums).

26 April 2010

A tale of two pubs

It was a long weekend so Megan and I took off to the Bowral. Nice hotel, romantic weekend: the sort of thing that’s sold in tourist guides and supported by mega-industries and booked by wives. Actually, it was quite nice: swank, superb gardens with statues and fountains and box hedges and mature trees, Victorian artwork and older antiques, a car park full of Mercs and Porches, and dutiful but not obsequious servants. But we’ve got a bit of the worker in our genes, so we got off to the pub in the neighbouring town, Mittagong, and it was a wonderfully entertaining, friendly and authentic evening.

The Mittagong Pub is locally called the Top Pub. It’s an earthy affair: footy, horses, the TAB, but also courteous barmen and women who respond to a smile and give a bit of Aussie cheek, a bistro that serves an unexpected mix of foods: steaks, Chinese, tapas, and a piano man in the corner. Jim Wallett plays weekly at the pub, and also around town at clubs and weddings and the like. He ranges in style from Scott Joplin through the standards to Billy Joel. My request was Stella by Starlight, and he jumped at the opportunity. Jim opined that there’s not much jazz around Mittagong, but I was pleased with Jim in the corner. Mostly ignored by the eaters, but happy to chat about jazz if interrupted.

Back to the business end of town, the dinners were more formal and the music was canned although of quality. I noticed some nicely arranged jazz, circa 1950s, perhaps Oliver Nelson, and a quartet with vibes, perhaps MJQ, and horn melodies and chamber music, and Edith Piaf over dinner. Nice stuff, but not live, not like the Jim at the Top Pub.

We live a rich life these days, with opportunities for all sorts of experiences, and some indulgent ones if you have the money. But it doesn’t take money to enjoy yourself, or even to hear some decent music from Jim or his ilk. Thanks to Jim Wallett at the Top. BTW, excuse the poor pic of Jim. I had to make do with a mobile phone camera.

23 April 2010

Andies

It’s been a quiet few weeks, but I got to Trinity for Andy Campbell‘s Quartet. It’s a comfy outing for these guys, especially given Andy C’s role as Maitre d’ for the Trinity Wednesday jazz gigs. The jazz students are out for their weekly hangout so the audience is informed and interested, and the vibes are friendly and just a little professionally critical. All round, a good environment for lovers of the art.

Andy played his mix of originals and a few interesting standards starting with Out of nowhere (which seems to have recently come from out of nowhere to be a popular local standard). I was chatting for most of the night, but I noticed a very settled, relaxed feel and an expansive openness that was right for lengthy and slightly indulgent solos. It’s that type of gig. Andy C threw in some chordal solo segments, but mostly played his fairly rapid but sustained single note runs. Andy B presented a similar approach, although I particularly noticed some bebop triplet phrasing contrasting with his long phrasing. Chris was on electric this night: a very deep and thumpy jazz bass. He’s an interesting proposition. I asked about his strings: he’d had the JB for 2 years and hadn’t changed them. Were they flatwounds? Nah, just ordinary. He displays a similar nonchalance about his double bass and even about his practicing: not too concerned with his gear or outward appearances. Someone once described him to me as “having a big ear”. He certainly sets some luscious grooves despite, or maybe because of, a very relaxed approach. Luke Keanan Brown was on drums. I noticed a trademark Jazz School concern with substance. He had nice technique and looks comfortable on the instrument, but there was thought and ears in his playing, too, and some quite obtuse and contrary rhythms. It fitted. In fact, I noticed both the Andys challenging the groove often enough in their solos. The degree to which they feel comfortable in breaking away is a measure of their improvisational playfulness, and these long, relaxed solos benefit from the contrast and unexpectedness.

So, a pleasant outing, a friendly environment and relaxed music with an edge of challenge. Andy Campbell (guitar) led a quartet with Andy Butler (piano), Chris Pound (bass) and Luke Keanan-Brown (drums) at Trinity Dickson.

18 April 2010

Leery of Lear

Pic borrowed from Bell Shakespeare Company's website

King Lear is, of course, at the intellectual forefront of the western canon, so it was both a duty and a pleasure to see. John Bell is now of the appropriate age and is playing Lear for his third time. He talks of coming to a greater understanding of the play, given his experience and years. I felt comfortable with Bell as Lear. But it’s a complex plot, and even though I knew the basic plot and had seen several movie versions, I still found I was struggling to follow the details. My ears aren’t the best and I had to concentrate to just to catch the words, let alone think through their import in the first half. Sometimes there was percussion accompaniment; sometimes the enunciation or volume was difficult; at one time the voices were amplified over loud percussion, but they were distorting with a too-high gain setting. The second half was much better. Perhaps I’d settled into the middle English by then and the plot lines were resolving, so I knew what to expect. Whatever, the ending was easier, more like how I’ve found Bell Shakespeare to be in the past.

I left knowing that this was a great work but feeling somewhat unmoved. I’d eaten with some friends a few nights before who were iconoclastic enough to admit that they could take or leave the Parisian masterpieces, that visual arts just don’t do it for them, even the uberpop impressionists. I felt something like this. There’s obvious profundity there, but it’s distant from my experience. I couldn’t accept Lear’s anger with Cordelia in the first scene, and I equally couldn’t warm to Cordelia’s strangely punctilious and distant response to her father’s demands. OK, she was being true rather than obsequious, but too teenagerly literal in it all. Why not just humour him? Similarly, I found other responses were too extreme or unlikely. And then why the soppy characters winning in the end; how come the change in simple, honest Edgar to warrior superman; OK that the scheming sisters fell for the lithe and naughty Edmund, but would the honourable Albany really have been married to the tyro Goneril? 100 to 50 knights was OK but the drop to 25 and then 10,5,1 was too sudden. Cordelia just didn’t seem young and frail enough, and I didn’t quite catch the intent of the all-important letters. It’s a busy plot and nicely mirrored with the two misunderstanding fathers, but it takes considerable comprehension to follow the details. The plucking of Gloucester’s eyes was harrowing (but I’d seen worse in Titus Andronicus at Stratford on Avon). In the end, the stage was littered with three sisters and the bad son Edmund, and then Lear drops off, as becomes a tragedy, leaving a few admirable characters, Albany and Kent and Edgar.

Gigs can be lonely and distant for a band, and so I like to hoop it up a bit to show some involvement and support. Theatre isn’t quite like that, but at least a few chuckles for jokes or gasps for particularly distressing scenes can be expected. But the audience here was strangely quiet, as if they were having the problems I was. We value this great work, but we don’t particularly understand it or assimilate it. So in the end, Lear was a strangely truncated experience, not due to the play but rather to the audience and our distance from its world. Now, will I get any comments for this post???

14 April 2010

Mainstream jazzativity

By Daniel Wild
Pic borrowed from Experiment Street's FB site, with thanks

Nestled in between Kuletos and the Marlborough Hotel in Newtown is a new type of establishment popping up over Sydney since the relaxing of the licensing laws. The Corridor appears to be a slim terrace turned into several slick and intimate rooms, or rather a series of corridors on different levels, flanked by modern art with pop-culture references. In the top room are some comfy chesterfield chairs and sofas. I commandeered one of these to hear the jazz quartet Experiment Street play for a relaxed group who enjoyed the food (dips, antipasto), wine and chill jazz.

Lindsay Winkler and Mike Walder entered the room on sax and bass to give us extended ruminations on Stella by Starlight, before Roman Pulati on guitar and Steve Lamante on drums casually added the rhythmic texture that brought the piece into full view. Pulati’s punctuated sharp nine chords and parallel work up the fret board provided underpinning and responses to Winkler’s silky sax tone.

Some straight ahead pieces followed, the four/four beat more pronounced, but that didn’t detract from the flow and rhythmic momentum of the group. It is becoming more common for jazz musicians to write straight eight compositions and arrange older standards into the straight eight format. The lack of triplet swing figures was more than made up for by Lamante’s regular tapping on the high-hat, with an offbeat accent every four or so beats to add movement.

Does one need a constant dum-de-dum to be reminded that obviously that jazz is supposedly all about swing? Lamante has a sharp attack and his snare attacks break the air with crisp sharp, yet nuanced thwacks. Even with brushes his dynamic range is large and his tone well defined. He supports the soloist well and knows when to add a couple of well-timed rolls to boost the impact of an evolving solo.

There are more subtle rhythmic shifts alive in jazz today, and the smooth jazz feel is increasingly sought after by audiences who don’t always want to be rocked to the core. Experiment Street choose their numbers wisely and play to the audience. When the pace gets more upbeat, Winkler adjusts his style accordingly. Like Pulati on guitar, he knows how to build a solo.

Winkler is very good at communicating with the rest of the band and it is a delight for the audience to bear witness to the spontaneous creation of confident, heartfelt music, where the musicians are definitely having fun.

Experiment Street finished with “You don’t know what love is”, a moving medium paced ballad that transported the listeners and had one man down on the floor praying for an encore. Experiment Street will regularly be performing at the Corridor so if you’re walking down King Street on a Tuesday night, why not drop in and discover the new faces of Sydney jazz. The Corridor is tapping into the speakeasy market, and Experiment Street knows that audiences are still keen to hear some no-nonsense, expressive main-stream jazzativity.

Experiment Street performed at The Corridor in Newtown, Sydney. ES comprises Lindsay Winkler (sax), Roman Pulati (guitar), Mike Walder (bass) and Steve Lamante (drums).

8 April 2010

Dolphin dancing

Carl Morgan came back from Sydney last night with a hot band for a well-attended gig at the Trinity. Carl was a finalist in the guitar National Jazz Awards at Wangaratta and each of his offsiders had also appeared for their respective instruments, so we awaited a hot night of playing. Carl seems to me to have settled to a personal style now: long sustained eighth-note runs with unexpected breaks; range extending to the guitar stratosphere; a crisp unsustained sound; mobile over the fretboard with well formed phrasings. I only stayed for the first set, which comprised five tunes. Two were originals by Carl. They were fusion style outings with regular bass, some unison lines and chordal segments between solos, some with odd bar lengths that were devilish to count, but basically platforms for solos. The soloing was great, as were the complex lines and rhythmic patterns of the bridges, but it always seems to me that fusion is strangely lacking in dynamics and oddly uninvolving for both performers and listeners. Greats like Corea manage interesting fusion, but even they don’t all the time. Anyway, that’s my opinion, but I liked the performers. Carl is wonderfully expressive with his phrasing and melodies and extended range, and clear as a bell. Hugh Barrett played similarly on Rhodes: long, contorted lines of considerable melodic invention. I enjoyed Alex Boneham’s bass which was always clearly present with a nice upper-mid edge, both in interesting solos and accompaniment, and James Waples who busied up the rhythms with clarity and ease. They also played a few standards, including Darn that dream as a moderately up swing. The favourite of my short night was the last of the set, Herbie Hancock’s Dolphin dance, with its infectious melody and swing. Here they played with tempos, going double time for guitar solos and variously finding a changing mood as the tune developed. I still have it mulling around in my head as I write this. Lovely.

Carl Morgan (guitar) led a quartet with Hugh Barrett (Rhodes), Alex Boneham (bass) and James Waples (drums).

7 April 2010

Cantorial crossover

You get a clear feeling that a musical outing with Mark Ginsburg is serious and informed. He presented his quartet this week at the Gods. It was the last night of their tour, so the band was comfortable with the tunes and their interpretations and somewhat unleashed in their improvisations. Mark has been researching the links of Jewish cantoral singing and jazz improvisation for his Masters thesis at the Sydney Conservatorium. His recent album, Generations, and this concert are products of this research. You can hear the depth of the tradition that infected the young Mark as a singer in a synagogue choir. He’s got a passion for carefully built melody with a touch of middle Eastern scales and phrasing. Several of the tunes were actually from the Jewish liturgy, so presumably just reimagined for jazz quartet. His tone also spoke of awareness and presence. I particularly noticed it on his soprano that sounded so full and rounded, but his tenor was similarly smooth and big. Mark clearly displays a passion for the music and a seriousness in that passion.

The band was satisfyingly in tune with Mark’s approach. Karl Dunnicliff played some wonderfully fluent and capable solos that seemed to bounce through positions, but mostly he laid down steady ostinato lines against a busy and ever-rising drum accompaniment from Tim Firth. I was sitting near Tim, and was fascinated by a seemingly relaxed performance on a basic kit that twisted into complex or extended fills or grew to busy statements that fell so easily from his sticks. Drums seem to often lead the level of excitement in modern jazz, and I felt it here: slick and relaxed in technique, but busy and complex in effect. Greg Coffin’s piano provided a harmonic backing, but I mostly noticed him when he soloed. These were strong and inventive and varied solos, both in chordal flows and in right hand improvisational lines. I asked him later if melody or chords led his solos. I wasn’t surprised he said chords; I thought I could hear an adventureousness with harmony. The overall effect of the band was often a big and full, well stated melody or solo line out front, and a busy shower of rhythms and fill behind, even one spot where the rhythm section broke into cacophony with Mark out front bravely holding the melody. Metaphorically, it might have been Mark speaking of a religious or cultural permanence against a disintegrating world, but it could just as easily have just been an effective and involving musical statement.

A few other observations: Mark’s friendly and intimate patter (and South African accent); plenty of comfortable medium tempos; some very open solo opportunities for sax and piano and bass; an unrushed and pensive approach. And some lovely solid, steady swings towards the end of the night, including a blues by Abdullah Ibrahim = Dollar Brand (a nod to Brendan).

ArtSound was recording, so listen in for this concert sometime on Friday Night Live. Mark Ginsburg (soprano, tenor sax) led a quartet with Greg Coffin (piano), Karl Dunnicliff (bass) and Tim Firth (drums) in an exploration of the crossover of Jewish musical traditions and jazz improvisation.

5 April 2010

Continuing a long choral history

Fifty years ago, Canberra was a town of just 15,000. But even that mini community could form a choir, and this choir continues today as the Canberra Choral Society. Even more amazing is that this amateur choir is now sophisticated enough to perform a range of choral works of high calibre and to justify a Sunday live broadcast to ABCFM. So it was this weekend: Easter weekend. I’ve written here about the wonderful Messiah I heard before Christmas from the CCS. This performance was a much less known and more varied program, with limited musical accompaniment, about 100 singers, and with up to 8-part harmony: two each of sopranos, alto, tenors and basses. Interestingly, with voices interspersed, rather than in blocks.

The performance lasted about 1 hour, and was formed of 4 brackets, each of two, three of four tunes, of radically different eras and styles. Bracket 1 was Britten and Bizet. Bracket 2 was Monteverdi and others of that era, along with a modern piece, Araluen, by Matthew Orlovich. This bracket was performed without organ accompaniment. Bracket 3 was disarmingly two songs in the American gospel tradition, also with virtually no accompaniment. Bracket 4 was Mascagni and Vaughan Williams. The recurrent theme was Easter, with two Te Deums (Britten to start the program and Vaughan Williams to end it).

It was not something I feel competent to comment much on. I noticed a good swing feel in the third bracket, which surprised me, but these are modern people so have inherited a feel for swing. I felt even 100 voices or thereabouts only just filled Llewellyn Hall, but it’s a big space. I liked the new electric organ that sounded big and true. I loved Karen Fitz-Gibbon’s solo soprano voice, which soared with incredible clarity and beauty, even if it got lost just once or twice. She’s an honours student at ANUSM, and looks like she has a future. And the music, although largely unknown to me, was a fascinating mix of eras and styles, and worthily presented by a surprisingly capable choir. Just another unexpected wonder of this little town, and not the only choir of note.

The Canberra Choral Society performed at Llewellyn Hall with Peter Pocock and Tobias Cole conducting and with Karen Fitz-Gibbon (soprano) and Peter Young (organ).

1 April 2010

ANUSM double header

Jazz was the style for the first evening of the ANU School of Music Premier Concert Series for 2010. The bands were the Mike Price Trio and Vertical, both led and largely composed of teachers at the Jazz School, and it was a diverse offering.

Mike played first. He leads a guitar trio in a mainstream-modern West Cost guitar style. It’s a blend of originals with a smattering of standards played in a diatonic and cool and fluent manner. There were some interesting themes. The set was bookended by Kenny Wheeler, starting with a tribute composed by Mike and ending with a KW tune that opened free and settled into a neat groove. The Gong was an unusual jazz workout that was heavily country-influenced, with Mike reminiscing on his home town Wollongong and the imposing local steel works of Port Kembla with strummed and picked chords against a rock drum beat. There was a beautiful ballad by Henry Mancini, Two for the road, that Mike advised was Mancini’s favourite composition. Also another ballad beauty, You don’t know what love is, played with an afro-latin groove and a pensive piece that was being called Newish in the absence of a final title. Mike’s playing was fluent and cool, sharp and unvarnished; Col’s was restrained with his minimal kit, but I especially noticed unusually extended passages of contrasting rhythms that held long tensions against the underlying groove; Eric is always primally smooth and flowing, but I was having some problems hearing him in this context. The hall was decked out with a nice looking PA (good on ANUSM), but work is ongoing to tune it to the Llewellyn acoustics that suit classical so well but seem problematic for amplified music. Eric’s sound over the PA improved during the night, but even if I couldn’t hear too well from the start, I could still feel his steady and confident grooves and subtle fills and improvisations. So, it was a cool and intelligent first set from Mike Price (guitar), Eric Ajaye (Bass) and Col Hoorweg (drums).

Eric led Vertical for the second set, and a very different set it was. Different in style from Mike’s trio, but also different from the expectations of the band and the program. Paul Dal Broi is Vertical’s normal pianist but he was unavailable due to sickness. Paul is a calm player who speaks with quiet but intense harmonic clarity and intelligence. On the night, he was replaced by Michael Azzopardi, who has played and recorded extensively with the rest of the group, so it was a different band, a somewhat different repertoire and a very different outing. Michael is rabidly and virtuosically explosive, and he showed his best this night. Vertical played a series of originals by all members. Eric’s Homeward opening the night with a drum solo using mallets that moved into a melody on soprano sax with piano fills and washes. Then a genuine post bop hard swinger, Monday night at BMH, composed by Niels. BMH is London’s Bar Music Hall where Niels performed during his London sojourn. This was exciting and everyone soloed, but Michael especially lifted the roof here. Then a ballad written by Michael, It’s in your eyes, starting with soprano sax against what I thought was a 14 beat rhythm (8-6) moving to 4/4. Then a bass solo intro into Realisations. Here I particularly noticed how effectively the band handled dynamics that rose and fell against the melody line, and the different sound of orchestral synthesiser washes against the otherwise acoustic sounds. Then Michael’s tune, Another year, with a rock rhythm, Eric’s From here to there to hear, with its long and tortuous boppy melody played on soprano sax against a fast walk. Then Niels’ ballad, Let me be, to end.

It was a wonderful modern-jazz set, not extreme in effect although harmonically interesting and sometimes virtuosic, varied in sounds and feels despite steady walks and grooves. You couldn’t help but notice Michael for the way his solos developed to explosive statements, through all manner of pianistic techniques: endlessly sustained lines, solos in octaves, contrasting left hand chords, easy harmonic alterations, the nerves to hold onto tensions. These were endless, excitable sprays of notes; a veritable emotional waterfall. Niels’ approach is more constrained but no less interesting or capable. He’d state melodies with the slightest of variation and solo phrases with ease and clarity, then readily drop into sustained double time lines that were articulated with precision and purpose. I noticed the slaps of pads in one quiet ballad passage. It’s an unconventional technique, but intimate and attractive, and I’m sure he must have been playing for it. I felt in many ways Chris defined the band’s sound on the night, with constantly changing colours and interpretive playing. These drums didn’t just set the groove or even state rhythmic contrasts, but rather coloured and echoed and mimicked the rest of the band: truly a constituent part of the dynamics. I felt it as a rock approach but with jazz chops and expertise. Eric was the elder of the tribe, underscoring and defining the grooves and harmonic flow, and making his own individual statements in solos. These were more intelligible than earlier in the night and mellifluous and flowing as always. A wonderfully original, capable and modern sounding outing for four mates with history. Vertical comprised Niels Rosendahl (soprano, tenor sax), Michael Azzopardi (piano, keyboard), Eric Ajaye (bass) and Chris Thwaite (drums).