12 May 2008

Masterly & with integrity

By Daniel Wild

I have had the pleasure of seeing Gerard Masters three times now. A few years ago at the Winebanq in Sydney he accompanied Chico Freeman in what became a coming of age gig, although even then there wasn’t much room for improvement. I also saw him as part of SIMA’s program at the Sound Lounge in the Seymour centre. Inexplicably there were only about ten people present. This certainly affected the intensity of his playing. Masters thrives on intensity, atmosphere and occasion.

The Hippo Bar makes up for the lack of a piano with ambience, closeness and an underground feel (despite it being upstairs). Carl Dewhurst exploited this intimacy by opening with a solo set of experimental and blues guitar. The Hippo is an ideal venue for short solo performances. It is relaxed and allowed Dewhurst to play with the audience dynamic by sometimes musing in the background and then building up his presence with more adventurous guitar riffs.

One piece was decidedly atonal and freeform, making it initially hard listening. But it grew on you and when it finished the listener had begun to adjust to its parameters. Dewhurst made use of an array of pedal effects for this composition. He certainly enjoyed exploring the distorting, bending, shimmering permutations of the strange chords and their relationships. This music is sometimes more safely performed in the privacy of the musician’s home.

Dewhurst finished with a straight ahead blues that became increasingly rhythmically varied and witty. Gerard Masters, who had been watching from various vantage points, appeared after a brief break and began heating things up with Stockton Shuffle. The head has an interesting rhythm and explores minor tonalities before a three beat rhythm asserts itself for Masters’ solo. Evan Manell provides exciting support as Masters builds his ideas patiently, inviting the listener to share in the unfolding harmonic possibilities and melodic fragments that could go down various pathways.

The second piece, Pendulum, borrowed a motif from Chopin’s Nocturne in A flat major. Masters ingeniously incorporates this light, faery motif as a frame around a daring post bop middle section. The original Chopin Nocturne also had an emotionally charged and harmonically challenging B section and Masters expands the romantic depths with some inspiring descents and parallel chromatic chords that define dark and moody tonal centres. Tonality is less important here – it is implied and not stated and engulfed by neighbouring chords which pull and shift the tonality like a gravity-well.

A slower, more relaxed pace, suited for visions looking forward to the horizon and back upon reminiscences, is the setting for Message to My Girl, dedicated to the band’s better halves. The incorporation of classical elements, fourths and rock riffs makes this an accessible trio piece. The Keith Jarrett influence can be seen and again Masters shows admirable patience in building his solo both in volume and intensity. He never overplays and displays his sensitivity and integrity to context. Masters passes the litmus test of the complete pianist by playing thoughtfully and introspectively in this ballad. Many other jazz players who are known for their chops don’t execute as well on ballads.

Cameron Undy’s bass playing is perfect and unobtrusive. The trio complement each other well but both Manell and Undy must be commended for ably supporting Masters’ musical aesthetic. Carl Dewhurst introduced Masters as one of “Australia’s and the world’s best pianists”. I second that. If you are a fringe dweller of jazz, or someone who appreciates classy adventurous playing you have to see a Gerard Masters gig. He is still young and could well be Australia’s answer to Chick Corea, Brad Meldhau and other modern jazz pianists willing to push the envelope and not compromise on musical integrity. Masters’ incorporation of classical riffs, blues, rich harmonies and singing and soaring melodic lines may well convert people indifferent to jazz to this modern and thoughtful music.

Pics coming soon, with any luck

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