4 April 2008

Splendid six stringer

Every now and then you attend a concert that gives you real pleasure, leaves you wishing for more. Stephen Magnusson at the Jazz School Band Room last night was one of those. A good concert requires great competency, of course, but that’s not enough. It may be a mixture of many things: the environment, the audience, a compelling repertoire, the band clicking, the mood you’re in. I’d only seen Steve at Wangaratta for a short time in the local Cathedral. I could hear the capability of the performance, but the pews and paraphernalia didn’t appeal, and I only caught a few minutes anyway. But the Band Room is more purposeful and the performers are closer and more intimate. The result was a stunner.

Stephen had come up from Melbourne for an afternoon workshop and this performance. He played with a select group of students from the Jazz School on tunes they had presumably first heard on the day, on a borrowed guitar, and with John Mackey and Miroslav Bukovsky sitting in for a few tunes.

Stephen played with a light, airy, open approach. His fingerwork and resultant tonality was mostly clipped, so each note was individually articulated. It’s not an uncommon style, although totally another thing from the smooth, furbished styles of many guitarists. I hear a similar approach in some masters who seem to have tired of sleek and smooth, and seek expression and substance. He ranged widely and freely over the fingerboard, as you’d expect: up and down and across. The lines were lovely: wide and narrow intervals; flowing and long and strong; diatonic, but occasionally and strongly dissonant. He switched neck positions freely and formed fingers constantly around the shapes of arpeggios and chords. Solos often sounded of ragged valve distortion, perhaps from his Fender amp, but he also played with a (volume?) pedal for smoothed attacks, and for one tune used a pedal called a Memory Man for what seemed like looped but reversed backing. When comping, he was variously chordal or contrapuntal or soloistic, but always busy and responsive. His chords featured many richly coloured extensions. His solos retained interest and variation for multiple repeats of choruses. They were fast but not usually blistering, although there were some lines that left the room holding its breath. And always clear and melodic in intention.

Obviously, I was transfixed by Stephen’s playing, but I did catch some of his band. Bill continues to play wonderfully; a few very apt solos, and solid, interesting backing. I enjoyed his take on Rhythm changes, where he played obvious notes, but with lots of unexpected gaps, making for a modern and interesting sound while still clearly defining the rapid but prosaic changes. Austin made me take note with some stunning lines dropped in neatly through the night. He concentrated strongly, often enough dropped out to leave space for others to comp, returned with strong chordal work; very nice playing. Evan can look a little ungraceful, but close your eyes and you’ll hear he’s actually responsive and intense and smooth where it matters, in his playing. James played some very satisfying solos in his bluesy style, with occasional screams and stutters. Matt Lustri was restrained on the night but supported capably. The band members came and went for different tunes, with only Steve resident through the night. The end of each set featured a blow with John Mackey and Miroslav Bukovsky, both local staff and respected senior players. This brought different styles and sounds: lively and exciting approaches to standard tunes on the blues and rhythm changes.

There were some interesting tunes. The first was light and airy, mostly with a simple descending 4 chord, 4 bar structure. There was a hick, hillbilly tune that would have been crass if not so well performed. Stephen composed this to express the initial boredom and slow awakening to the beauty (and creepiness) of the outback during a 10hr drive. The looped guitar mentioned above was accompanied with brushes, and was based on Peter Gabriel’s Don’t give it up. There was a version of Somewhere over the rainbow by Steve and Miro. Stephen introduced it as “a bit daggy” but it was performed in a captivating modern style with the melody well hidden and only appearing well into the performance. There was a tune dedicated to Gary Costello, that I felt I‘d heard somewhere before. Gary was obviously a much respected bassist in the Melbourne scene.

It was all over too soon, as is common with these gigs at the Band Room. The early start and finish times makes them very comfortable mid-week outings. We all departed for an early night after a wonderfully satisfying few sets of jazz from someone who’s clearly an Australian master.

Stephen Magnusson (guitar) played with Evan Dorrian (drums), Matt Lustri (guitar), James LeFevre (tenor sax), Bill Williams (bass), Austin Benjamin (piano), John Mackey (tenor sax), Miroslav Bukovsky (trumpet).

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