13 September 2007

Masters not apprentices

Gerard Master’s Canberra launch for his new CD, Island, was eagerly awaited. The master didn’t disappoint. Hippo’s was home to two sets of ardent, intense, virtuosic and sometimes beautiful and tuneful music. The Trio is Gerard Masters (piano), Cameron Undy (bass) and Evan Mannell (drums). I'd heard this group at White Eagle about a year ago, but Gerard used the house upright with the abysmal tuning and the acoustics were not so tolerant. I noticed the sound last night was unusually satisfying. Hippo has put down carpets on the playing surface, perhaps just to protect the timber floors, but the sound has softened and clarified with the reduced echoes. It’s an improvement.

But back to the band. They started with a gentle, Euro-jazz style which grew from pensive to impassioned. I expected something like this style for the rest of the night, but was surprised by Bird bop appearing out of some very obscure piano references early in the second tune. But the bop remained strongly altered, even if the form and underlying harmony was evident. Thereafter, the music was mainly in the modern style, but included a touch of pop/R&B with an original dedicated to Ray Charles, a few ballads, and a hauntingly beautiful original tune by Cameron played mostly unison on piano and bass, and called Consolation. From the top, I was stunned by Cameron’s bass tone and rabid virtuosity. I’ve heard him several times, on double bass and this electric instrument, but this performance was clearer in intention and tonality than any other I’ve heard. He was firing: busy but always fitting. The tone was woody, richly low-mid, and plenty loud enough. The solos were stunning: finger and thumb picking, chords, thumb positions (not an electric bass technique), rapid movements up and down the fingerboard. Stunning stuff. This busy-ness worked in the context of Gerard’s style: open, not overly chordal. His also was rich playing, sometimes gentle, other times furious, with alterations and wide pitching. But despite his proficiency, he left considerable space for the others, and often enough sat out for solos and varied sounds. Evan also was minimal at times, both in kit and performance. His was a sparse style, but well in tune with the others, and exploratory. There were real chops, but one time when he dropped back to child-like drumming simplicity highlighted the artfulness of his playing. This was clever and studied playing. And there were some excellent, lyrical drum solos which quietened the audience, especially a long one late in the night. Overall, there was a feel of limited arrangements, but a very satisfying immediacy and improvisation in the playing. Like being admitted to the musos’ private space.

On the goss side, Gerard several times expounding his love for the audience (ironically, of course), and cheeckily allowed for himself to be called “the Master”. Cocky, yes, but acceptable given that this was a night of truly stunning and intriguing playing all round. Great stuff.

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