7 December 2006

Bernie McGann plays Hippo

Bernie McGann is a legend of Australian modern jazz, and his performance at Hippo’s was confirmation, if confirmation was needed. Bernie is now aged 69. His experience and history was evident in the honesty of his playing, and in the individuality of his style. His style is very much his own. He gets a mention in Stuart Nicholson’s excellent recent book on modern jazz, Is Jazz Dead?: (Or Has It Moved to a New Address), in a discussion of styles of music being different in different countries. He was given as an example of an Australian sound in jazz, that he was dry like the Australian bush (or something similar)**. I mentioned this to Bernie, and also to a few other musos on the night, and they could see the fit. Bernie seemed to take it as inevitable, given he is Australian. Others commented how unique his sound and style are. One sax player described his playing as like his voice: beyond thought of chord and structures; always responding to the other musicians; intimate and immediate like singing.

His alto has a sinuous quality: twisting, fluid. He plays with seemingly indeterminate pitch and time, moving phrases over the beat structure, and bending notes at will. There are lots of long, multi-octave scales and arpeggios at different levels of dissonance and different substitutions. There were simple lines, perhaps repeated with changing discordance. Always with loose rhythm and pitch which makes everything a personal and intense statement, and always honest. He’d be playful, toying with the underlying structures, but there was always a connection to the underlying tune, and always an intense, ongoing rhythm. After the gig, he mentioned that he’d be happy to see people up dancing. It was a confirmation of the centrality of swing to his jazz; there was always this intense beat amongst all this exploration.

Bernie was accompanied by Eric Ajaye (bass) and Chris Thwaite (drums), Graham Monger (guitar) and Dirk Zeylmans (tenor sax). They all played well and were thoughtful in how they responded to Bernie. I expect his unique style makes for a demanding outing for his band. I’ve written on them all here; this report is one for Bernie.

The tunes were bop and standards: My little suede shoes, Scrapple from the apple, Body and soul, Tenor madness, Night and day, and the like. There was no chat with the audience. Despite plenty of informed listeners, it was a noisy, chatty environment, so perhaps it didn’t lend itself to stage patter. Just two sets of intense jazz interpretation with a long, intense history behind it. Great stuff.

  • Bernie McGann at Wikipedia
  • Geoff Page's biography of Bernie McGann

    ** "His sound reminds me very much of the Australian landscape. Dry and brittle and almost Coocoboro-like [sic. I guess the transcriber meant "Kookaburra-like". ed.] about the way he plays ... if Jan Garbarek is a fjord man, Bernie is the opposite of that, he is dry, witty". Paul Grabowski on Bernie McGann in Is jazz dead? : or has it moved to a new address / Stuart Nicholson. NY : Routledge, 2005, p.188.
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