12 July 2008

Bronte gumbo

By Daniel Wild

As soon as the music started, the patrons at the Hippo arrayed their square and circular stools to face the band. The avid listeners remained like this for the night, some nodding their heads, others with head on fist in contemplation. Couples whispered asides about a particular musical moment that had struck a personal chord.

The Miroslav Bukovsky Quintet opened the night with a high energy piece called Shuffle. Like many of the compositions on display tonight, this one opened with guitar, electric bass and drums setting a groove.

In his first solo Bukovsky announced himself like a bugler leading an infantry cohort. He then retreated behind a series of nuanced propositions, like a Greek philosopher enlightening his elect following with some seemingly matter-of-fact thoughts. Then he changed to more regular eight and quarter note lines, before building up the tension by combining regular rhythms with the freedom that had opened his solo. Bukovsky is an adventurous player. He’s not afraid to make occasional adjustments to his tuning valve in order to reach quarter tones and blues notes.

Bukovsky warmed up on his Harmon mute before the first piece began, but hardly used it for the rest of the evening. Not that he needed to. He has a full dynamic range, can play soft, assertive and sharp, wistful or robust. He also spends a lot of time playing the mellower flugelhorn.

Nor does Bukovksy limit himself to his two horns. Spurred on by Evan Dorrian’s gutsy drumming, Bukovsky keeps two percussion instruments on hand. One is a cowbell and the other some type of large maraca covered in beads. If anyone knows their exact names then please post as comments at the end of the article. Bukovsky doesn’t grab these instruments to have a bit of fun between solos – he gives the rhythm section that extra bit more vitality and encourages cross-rhythmic dialogues with Dorrian. With Bukovsky keeping a steady beat, Dorrian has extra space to extrapolate some slightly ‘out’ drum motifs.

The second piece offered a complete contrast to the high octane performance of the first. It was a slow ballad by Greg Stott. Bukovsky said it proves Stott to be a sensitive type. In other pieces Stott certainly shows that he has the chops of Charlie Christian or Tal Farlow, but he is more than just a semi-quaver machine. His produces a large range of tonal effects on his semi-acoustic guitar, along with quartal harmonies and rhythmic devices. This piece demonstrated that he can play ballads and craft convincing compositions.

John Mackey’s solo in the ballad was particularly refined. His use of space and choice of notes ensure his lines are melodic without being sentimental. The sixteenth-notes are not overdone, but rather ripple the waters. Dorrian’s astute interjections on the crash cymbal emphasise and heighten, rather than intrude. His tremolo on the ride at the end of Mackey’s solo signalled the end of a journey and the awakening of new planes of consciousness.

Only when this new level of awareness was reached did Dorrian break out into ecstatic cross-rhythms in a pseudo-drum solo, beneath the reiterated head played by sax and flugelhorn. We were returned to Earth by a ritardando when Dorrian struck the thicker ends of the drum-sticks on the rims of the toms and cymbals.

The ante was upped again with Dorrian opening the next number with African inspired drumming. The guitarists joined him, Jason Varlet on bass creating a steady ostinato which provided the foundation on which the horns built vast edifices. John Mackey’s solo exemplified hard bop tenor playing and really sparked the audience. Fresh from his Coltrane tribute last year, comparing him to the master is stating the obvious. The rich sound he achieves and his ability to conjure rapid runs at will has to be listened to and cannot be described. Sydney saxophonist David Theak has similar versatility. Mackey’s solo was fast and vigorous and went out like a candle burning to the end of its taper.

The settings on Varlet’s guitar and amp were just right – a hard, round lower tone with softness in the upper registers. His ability to sit on a single chord and imbue it with variety, quick passing notes and dramatic modulations inserted at the right moment makes him ideal bass player for hard modal jazz. It was late in the first set when he got his first solo and it had panache. Varlet communicates well with Dorrian and when either of them sense they’ve gone too for out, a nod and a smile reassures.

Greg Stott’s modal sliding doesn’t change the implied chord but alters the colour and can lend different slants and angles to the solo lines. Dorrian always provides a steady beat at the beginning, but as the tune progresses his underlying rhythms almost become compositions themselves. Great use of texture was made in the openings of these songs. The way Bukovsky’s group can enliven a progression based on a single chord or familiar blues progression should give bands an idea of how to compose simply yet effectively.

Although these were original compositions, executed with precision and vibrancy and played effortlessly, this is easier said than done. The second set displayed similar styling to the first, with added intensity. Compositions by Bukovsky, Stott and Mackey included Bronte Café, Maybe Tomorrow and Mambo Gumbo. There were forays into free jazz during the openings of tunes, rhythmic influences from electronic music, guitar comping reminiscent of seventies fusion. Whether Stott is comping or soloing, his playing is harmonically rich and without boundaries.

At one stage it appeared as if John Mackey had had a haircut and grown shorter, but it was Niels Rosendahl stepping in as guest. When Mackey returned from the shadows the tenors navigated a complex head in unison, note for note. Miroslav Bukovsky has assembled a fine entourage. If and when they tour Melbourne, Sydney (or the world) Canberra’s reputation for producing accomplished jazz musicians is in good hands.

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