12 July 2008

Blissful textures

I’m a sucker for the textures and richness of a large ensemble, and so it was bliss when the Mace Francis Orchestra played last night at the Folkus Room. It’s a group of 13 players with Mace himself out the front conducting. They are from Perth and are currently touring the Eastern states. The frequent performances show in the sharpness and intonation of the ensemble. And the mateship shows in the good natured banter, particularly impressive given the time spent travelling in a bus up and down the Eastern seaboard.

The orchestra presented two lengthy sets of mostly original charts. The originals were written by Mace, tenor player Dan Thorne, and bass trombonist Tilman Robinson (hope I haven’t missed anyone). The first and second sets started with swing tunes, mostly penned or arranged by Bill Holman in the 50s. Holman seems to be a major influence on the band, and presumably Mace. These were hard, swinging numbers in the big band tradition. They showcased some capable solos and warmed up each set for the more complex, considered works to follow. First impressions were of a steady swing, and some satisfying drum fills, sharp comping by the horns and capable soloing.

As the sets continued, we got into richer, more complex territory. Colourful and moving harmonies, consonant or otherwise. Shifting tonal textures and layered horn lines echoing amongst the various parts of the band. Large dynamic shifts with sudden hits or gradual de/crescendos. The whole resonantly greater than the sum of the parts. Tight, well intoned; more modern, more composed; orchestral. The solos became part of the texture, rather than individualist expressions. They were capable and often very well played; more a conversation between the backing horns and soloist. I sat back at times in wonder. Wonder lust. Some tunes displayed fairly simple underpinnings, perhaps descending scalar lines or edgy dissonance or baroque turbulence. I heard chamber music and Sketches of Spain. Then it all finished with an unplanned encore of Moanin’ and Mingus’ blast furnace emotions. Overwhelming.

What’s more to say? The players were consistently good, but I noticed especially guitarist Tim Jago (a finalist in the recent National Jazz Awards), Callum G’Froerer (winner of a Stan Getz/Clifford Brown scholarship), baritone saxist Mark Sprogowski who blew a storm on Moanin’, and drummer Greg Brenton who just seemed to fit the tunes so neatly. But the whole band played wonderfully, so perhaps I shouldn't highlight names within such a collaborative activity. Mace was selling CDs, but also thumb drives containing pics, links and two live concert recordings in mp3. Not something I‘d seen before, but small and neat, quick to burn and popular.

The Folkus Room did a great job, too. Host Bill introduced the band; he was obviously out of his native folk world and learning the jazz mores. Soundman Kevin ran a quality PA, and his mixing and processing suited the style: not washed out; not loud. I like a PA when you forget it’s there. That’s how it should be, at least for jazz. And I heard band members commenting on $4 pints, so the reasonable prices went down well too. Finally, thanks to a good sized audience that braved a strangely unpleasant Canberra winter night.

In summary, an excellent and inspiring night of improvised and composed music at a high quality level. Catch them if you can.

The Mace Francis Orchestra varies slightly on different CDs and tours, but for this tour it was: Mace Francis (composer, conductor), Ben Collins, Dan Thorne, Alistair McEvoy, Mark Sprogowski (saxophones), Ricki Malet, Callum G'Froerer, Brendan Baker (trumpets), Percy Landers, Robin Murray, Tilman Robinson (trombones), Tim Jago (guitar), Wayne Slater (bass), Greg Brenton (drums)

No comments: