24 April 2008

Gone to ground

By Daniel Wild

With funky underpinnings, hard beats and soulful guitar, led by sax playing that used every register, the Subterraneans offer a fusion of styles that would not be out of place in front of 1500 people at WOMADelaide. Last night they entertained a fragmentary crowd at the Hippo Bar and surely deserved more listeners.

While it is expected that many people don’t arrive until the second set, it was not until the third that some “merry” stragglers boisterously reflected the intensity of the music with some flailing dancing. The second set was the fullest the venue got and no one was ever required to stand. When there’s only standing room jazz at the Hippo is really alive. Maybe everyone wanted to get up early for the Olympic torch relay.

The Subterraneans’ first set was the best as they made sure that first impressions last. James Ryan exchanged some atonal musings in rhythmic free form with Steve Hunter on bass by way of intro before the band launched into the full-blooded first tune, Portobello Blues.

Hunter puts his whole body into his playing: wrapped in a scarf to shield him from the onset of the Canberra winter, his dark and imposing electric bass swung with the momentum of his solid and inventive lines. He uses the full range and his solos sound like another seamless section of the music, rather than just a solo over accompaniment. Ryan and Flower added to this seamlessness by executing vamps that bolstered Hunter’s virtuosic playing.

There were elements of ska in this first piece, with chordal accompaniments solidly on the offbeat. Although one chord would be used for extended periods, the inventiveness of the soloing developed the thematic material of the head and intro. Both Ryan and Hunter showed their ability to play fast sixteenth note runs over quarter beats that were about 140bpm.

The second song continued the intense driving playing, with James Hauptmann on drums providing energetic straight-eights with furious hits on the snare that caused audience members to involuntarily blink. Along with his brother and sister, James studied at the Canberra Jazz School. He gets different sounds out of the steel rims of the drums by hitting them further up or down on the stick. The rims aren’t used solely for embellishment: at times they provide the actual beat. The force of his playing caused his bass drum to imperceptibly inch away due to the knocks it was taking, requiring Hauptmann to dexterously pull it back in between beats.

Apparently Aaron Flower prepared the second number over only two rehearsals. This should come as no surprise given his technical ability. He won the National Jazz Award for guitar at the Wangaratta Jazz Festival last year. He was also practising in between sets. His authoritative soloing interwove bluesy and chromatic jazz lines with punctuated power chords. Most noticeable is his ability to build a solo, starting with a few low key intervals expanded out to wavy melodic eighth notes. If he peaks early he pulls back and starts building again, unlike other players who just keep going or go off the boil. This gives his music greater narrative depth, meaning and refinement.

James Hauptmann did well to keep his rhythm during a 7/4 piece in the first set. I had several discussions as to the time-signature of this piece. CJ’s editor suggested it was 15/4 (8/4+7/4) against the head and 8x7/4+1x4/4 against the solos, but wasn’t too sure. The chord progression was built on minor third chords a minor third apart, giving a semblance of subterranean conspiracy.

The second set continued the frenetic pace of the first. First up was a piece called Rush. When one listener yelled out “Roxanne” (or perhaps “Roxette”: either way the chord and rhythmic progression was decidedly rock), James Ryan facetiously replied that that was for the third set. The pace slowed with the introspective Borders of Thought and the third set was decidedly more laid back. Perhaps fatigue, physical and mental, had taken its toll on the band. The sheer intensity was certainly demanding on the audience.

The best piece of the second set, and the climax of the gig, was a composition called Habitat. Drawing on a jungle setting, there were all the growls, cahoos and calls reminiscent of Dizzy Gillespie who made a Night in Tunisia the birth of modernism, only superseded by some efforts of Mingus’ big band. Hauptmann was in his element here with exuberant African patterns. Ryan imitated birds, elephants and other mysterious unidentified wildlife that conjured up the elusive closeness of being in the middle of a lively animal commune.

The final set settled into Weather Report beats and straighter playing. A sixteen bar blues with country/rock feel gave The Subterraneans a more straightforward template. Hauptmann’s drumming was still assertive and bold, while Hunter embellished his forthright bass with well-timed chords in the middle of the fret board.

This is the type of gig you tell your friends about (where were they?). It reaches the primal impulses inside (and out, if you’re inclined to tap your feet or nod your head, or can’t help yourself and have to get up and dance). If you’re a musician, you’ll be asking yourself why you can’t play like this and you’ll go home and practise. If you’re not a musician, you’ll be back for more, eager to contribute your “yeahs!” and “that’s great boys!” in between solos.

The Subterraneans were James Ryan (tenor sax), Aaron Flower (guitar), Steve Hunter (electric bass) and James Hauptmann (drums).

No comments: