27 April 2008

To CGGS & the nation

John Mackey’s quintet played for ABCFM today for a live to air broadcast on ABCFM. It was the last of four weekly concerts out of Canberra, and the one jazz outing amongst them. There was a keen crowd; family and friends, I’d guess, along with a smattering of local ABCFM listeners. The band has otherwise appeared as the Greg Stott band. Today it was the John Mackey Quintet.

These are top players around town, and they played mostly original charts, so it was an interesting outing. And well controlled to fit within the allowed 55 mins of the program. John was in good form, amusingly welcoming applause between tunes, and offering praise for jazz in Canberra. It annoys me that it is even an issue, but it always is. The big towns expect they rule the roost, and so they do, but that’s not to say there are not capable and interesting alternatives in the localities, and doubly so when we have a quality Jazz School like the local one at ANU.

The band played original music for all but the last tune, Elllington’s unmatchable In a sentimental mood. I’ve heard John play this solo sax intro at other times, and it’s always an impassioned and expressive piece. It’s truly lovely: every bit the lone saxist hanging from a loft window in NY. The originals were penned by John and Greg. John also talked of integrating tunes from the other members. I know that at least Wayne writes some capable compositions, so there’s more opportunity there. The tunes we heard were clearly identifiable with the different members. John’s were relatively simple and impulsive, a la Trane. Greg’s were more West Coast US, with images of Hollywood and soundtracks, and Pat Metheny came to mind. These are very different eras; both were entertaining and interesting, although maybe the mix was a little incongruous. It will be interesting to hear Wayne’s charts added to the mix.

The Canberra Grammar Girls’ School (CGGS) has a fabulous auditorium, with plenty of room for a large orchestra (I’ve seen several hundred on stage there for a performance of Polovtsian Dances, what with musicians and choirs), and a little phased array PA to boot. The sound on the day was very wet with reverb and some delay, and quite unbalanced, but I guess the techo was concentrating on the broadcast feed rather than the live mix. [See my italics below - apparently the PA wasn't even in use!] I lost much of the piano solos along with the guitar; the bass/drums combo was huge, and the sax was strong and rich. Listening to the more fusion-style tunes, I realised the power and richness of John’s tenor tone. I know he practices for tone and his accomplishment was evident with these more simple melodies. His tone was to die for: big and rounded, tight and clear.

I’ve since got an email from Andre, a music producer at the ABC. Apparently, the PA was only used for announcements on the day, so the sound which I heard as “wet with reverb” was a product of the room, or at least something other than the PA. I rechecked with some musos I know who were there. We had discussed poor sound on the day, and one had a good memory of it, so there was something wrong. One suggested a large door left open at the back of the stage and which opened onto a concrete storage area may have sucked in the sound and allowed it to reverberate. My apologies to the ABC. I am a constant listener to ABCRN and to me it’s a key civilising institution in Australia, so I’m fully in support. It leaves me wondering what the problem was, though. It’s a mystery as I can’t imagine the room itself isn’t well designed for audio. But again, my apologies to ABCFM. Eric, 7 July 2008

I enjoyed Wayne’s piano, especially fourths playing against some of the more straight-ahead jazz tunes. He mostly played grand piano, but it was often lost in the live mix. I also missed most of his synth solo on a nice fusion tune given the lack of balance, but it seemed promising from the snippets I heard. Perhaps I should have taken my radio! Greg played some lovely, comfortable and complex jazz solos. These were totally satisfying in the tradition of the guitar, but also displayed some of the newer styles, including some massive sweeps, which are themselves closely associated with Canberra. (The current international master of sweeping is Frank Gambale, who is Canberra born and bred. He’s the guitarist on about half a dozen Chick Corea albums: another secret of Canberra). I enjoyed Jason Varlet, a local bass player who is known and respected in the circles. He played some capable solos, some solid funk, and some interesting freer styles on his JB. Mark Sutton was the solid and reliable and ever capable drummer behind the whole event. He mostly took an involved but supportive role, but there were some hard snaps and lovely brush work in there too.

The tunes were originals, so the titles won’t mean much: Body Politics, Maybe tomorrow, and Grey sky by Greg; We’ll see what happens, It’s the only thing to do, and Contemplation by John. And In a sentimental mood by Ellington.

This was an interesting and very professional concert although just a little restrained. You have to be when you’re broadcasting to the millions (or thousands?) on ABC radio. Hopefully there were many more who got an earful of jazz on a Sunday afternoon out of Canberra.

The John Mackey Quintet were John Mackey (tenor sax), Greg Stott (guitar), Wayne Kelly (piano), Jason Varlet (electric bass) and Mark Sutton (drums).

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