10 November 2007

Sylvie's sidekicks (NJWC3)

The third of CJ's three reviews for the National Jazz Writing Competition

Gig review
Sylvia Mitchell Trio
Sylvia Mitchell (alto sax), Jess Green (guitar), Zoe Hauptmann (bass)
Jazz at the Gods Café, ANU, Canberra
7 August 2007
537 words

Canberra is a hidden gem in jazz in Australia. This was a night to savour the influence of the national capital, and especially of Canberra’s Jazz School, on the life of jazz in Australia. For these were three significant women of Australian jazz who played for a homecoming crowd at Geoff Page’s annual Jazz at the Gods series. They were billed as the Sylvia Mitchell Trio, but appeared on the night as Sylvie & the Sidekicks: Sylvia Mitchell (alto sax), Jess Green (guitar) and Zoe Hauptmann (bass). They are from slightly different eras in the life of the Jazz School: Sylvia followed her sidekicks by a few years. They are dispersed now: Jess and Zoe to Sydney; Sylvia moving from Melbourne to Sydney. Two (Jess and Zoe) have already released CDs of mirth and considerable compositional originality on the JazzGroove label, and now Sylvia is planning a release. So these are competent players, with educational connections and female pride to boot.

From the top, it was smooth, melodically rich, harmonically complex and always rooted in the groove. Zoe’s the essence of the bassist: harmonically clear, driving grooves, fitting fills and falls. There were some solos, but her strength is in laying down that beat. In this, she’s a master. But the rhythm was greatly enriched by counterpoint from Jess’ guitar: small dissonant chords and note clumps, syncopated across Zoe’s backbeats. A rich tapestry of rhythm, and a full harmonic underlay for solos. So full and interpretive with just two players. On this bedrock was Sylvia’s horn. She’s younger than Zoe or Jess, and the lesser experience is evident, but there’s a full range, considerable chops to take on Bird bop, a good ear for musos like Dave Holland, wide experience, and compositional skills as well. In addition, Jess’ solos were wonderful, restrained explorations of consonant and frequently dissonant melody: truly beautiful and thoughtful. And she added the pleasure of a surprisingly satisfying voice: unexpected but gladly received. Voice is truly a messenger of the gods.

The performance ranged widely. There were standards. Jess sang “What is this thing called love”. There was a guitar/bass duet on “Willow weep for me” featuring a Mingus-inspired gliss-full bass solo, and hard swing and fast unison lines on Monk’s “I mean you”. Sylvia selected Bird’s “Au privave” and “Confirmation”, but also “Four winds” and “African Lullaby” from Dave Holland. And there were some wonderfully capable original compositions. Jess provided several from her CD, “Singing fish”. Zoe gave us a riff-based tune called “Guts for garters” (“think of pirates and ghost ships”) with a dissonant, chromatic, Djangoesque cut time accompaniment by Jess. There were several tunes by Sylvia from her music to Geoff Page’s poetic theatre piece, “Drumming on water”.

But perhaps the sound was the surprise for me for the night. Without drums, Zoe’s bass displayed its clear, sharp attack, and soft decay. Jess’ Fender thinline seduced with its woody throated tone filtered through Fender valve distortion. A perfect match for her Scofield sensibility. And Sylvia’s tone and range was equally discernable above the understory.

Like their respectful presentation, this was not a manifest display of virtuosity. There was far more sincerity than that. That’s why it was so, so satisfying.
  • Previous photo-essay for this concert

  • BTW, the second place winner in the NJWC, Keith Penhallow, is a Canberran and also reviewed this concert. Read it on the NJWC site

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