2 July 2008

Indie songster

Gian Slater’s concert last night at the Gods seemed to me a hugely sophisticated indie-pop concert just as much as a jazz concert. But that’s as much a statement of the breadth of jazz these days as it is of the concert itself. Why? Firstly, it was sung, and that’s not very common in the jazz I hear. Secondly, the lyrics were passionate and personal, and that’s not common in the vocal jazz I hear. Thirdly, the musicality was a fusion of styles, and not strictly in the jazz tradition, although there were obvious jazz sensibilities all round. Gian was playing with Andrea Keller and Chris Hale. Interestingly, I read an article where Andrea is quoted as describing herself as a “contemporary pianist and composer”*. It was apt for both Andrea’s playing, and for the music on the night, for there were numerous ways in which this night escaped the confines of a style. Let me count the ways.

Gian sings with a soprano voice, often in her upper registers, so there’s a certain whispiness to her voice. I mentioned Blossom Dearie and she said it’s a common comparison. It was with some profundity that we could enter into Gian’s experiences, in the lyrics themselves and the introductions to the tunes. As a male, it was at times an eye-opener to the experiences of women, although we hear suggestions often enough. Musically, Gian sang plenty of complex melodies and some exploratory scat-style lines in improvisation. I found it clearly exposed instrumental jazz lines, but in a less frantic style. It was a pleasure to follow the scalar, chromatic or arpeggiated lines, and guess the underlying scales. To me it was something revelatory to hear in her voice that longer interval that defines the harmonic minor scale. Gian also played with sound, having a little Yamaha mixer and what seemed to be an echo unit on steroids (Korg Kaoss Pad) close at hand. This was enticing, and gave a feel of the studio to the live gig.

I mentioned above that Andrea described herself as other than a jazz player. In fact, the quote continues "I was never comfortable with the term ‘jazz' … I never felt I fitted into that box, because I'm a woman, because I'm an Australian. I didn't grow up listening to jazz but grew up listening to Bach. I didn't have that sound."* This disturbed me somewhat. Admittedly women are not so prominent in jazz, but there are many very good ones. Also I see jazz as a broad, international art-form these days, and we seem to have some great jazz around Australia. Her approach is not in the mainstream of comping/RH bop lines; it’s more expressionist, romantic. She’s classically trained, so there’s another fusion, although there were occasional visits to the jazz mainstream, too. I felt Andrea gave textures and colouration as much as solos, even though solos abounded in the tunes. And she provided several of the original tunes on the night. It was also lovely to see the women on stage. There was something more interactive, responsive in the way they communicated. Gian and Andrea have experience in working together, so there’s a musical closeness, but there was also a personal warmth on stage.

As for Chris, well I told him (jokingly and admiringly, of course) that he did everything wrong! He plays a semi-acoustic bass guitar; it’s 6-string; he plays with a pick; he’s got effects pedals; he fingerpicks and even strums (!). And I loved his lightning fast runs and melodic solos across the full range: very nice playing although quite guitaristic. He also played lap steel guitar for one tune. Strange combinations all round! His tone was middy, but fret-buzzy too. I thought it was chosen, but he explained the neck hadn’t settled after the flight from Melbourne. When I felt the guitar, I could see he must have been fighting it all night. Nonetheless, it was a tuneful, melodic display and welcomed by the audience.

There are other things to note. Gian is a local Canberra girl now resident in Melbourne, so it was also a family and friends gathering. I like them for their intimacy, and we have them fairly frequently in Canberra. It was even a school reunion: there were connections with Narrabundah College (Gians’s school) and the Jazz School (where she did some jazz studies). The tunes were all originals, mostly by Gian, but also by Andrea and one by Chris, so again this made it unique.

So, indie-pop? What’s in a name? It was emotionally and intellectually satisfying music, both lyrically and musically; it was complex and well played, and crossed boundaries freely yet wisely; and it had rhythm and improvisation which, to me, defines the jazz form. In all, I loved it; it was very satisfying and also quite different.

* Improvisations: Jazz pianist Andrea Keller, in The Monthly, No. 32, March 2008, p.?. It’s behind a paywall, but you can read the full text in Google's cache.

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