5 July 2008

Ugly beauty

By Daniel Wild

An evening with Bernie McGann and his Canberra friends, who are As Famous as the Moon, is to be savoured. This was a collaboration of joviality and affirmation.

McGann was recently inducted into the Graeme Bell Hall of Fame – entirely apt, considering that Bell is considered “the Father of Australian Jazz” and like Bell, McGann has done much to keep quintessential jazz movements like bebop fresh. He has imbued it with vitality and an originality that makes jazz players reassess their approach.

The Hippo Bar can be atmospheric, and with Wednesday’s live jazz, makes for a relaxed midweek outing. McGann, understandably, has mixed feelings playing here. Unless the music is full-blown hard bop or acid jazz, the crowd continually chatters and ironically, it is often those closest to the band who chat the loudest and longest. It’s great they’re having a good time, but if they’re going to indulge in riotous laughter, perhaps they shouldn’t do this under the collective noses of the band.

If you want to see Bernie McGann, sans bavarder, catch him at the ANU as part of the Jazz at the Gods series. Perhaps the cool jazz approach of Bernie and his cohorts lends itself to some idle background chatter, but it’s the chatter that should be in the background, not the music. Those in the know sat on the edge of their stools, musing over McGann’s distinct and personal statements.

As Paul Desmond inherited Charlie Parker’s advances on alto sax, so McGann has expanded Desmond’s. How do you describe McGann’s musical language? There are whimsical outbursts, sharp interjections, rapid machine gun flurries, tender reproaches, resigned expressions of love, primal mumbles, guttural conjectures and jocular yelps. And the music remains hauntingly melodic and human. Bernie establishes an intimate dialogue with the listener that makes the audience seem much smaller. He always keeps his audience in mind. His wealth of experience means he has much to offer his listeners and he can condense many years of life experience in a single solo.

Tonight McGann and jazzmen played three songs per set. Each one lasted about 15 minutes and everyone in the quartet had ample time to build thoughtful, rich and satisfying solos. They all took utterances from each other, built on them and offered contrasting ideas. The interweaving of the textures and their varying density meant the music was always morphing, sometimes abruptly, sometimes seamlessly.

The opening number, Tenor Madness, set the tone for the evening: exploration, dionysian celebration and humanism. Dirk Zeylmans offered interesting scalar passages and the spaces he leaves in between statements gives the listener time to work out where he is in the chorus. His style has connections with both Stan Getz and Warne Marsh. He likes to use the bebop device known as … “the bebop”, where a soloist ends a phrase on an offbeat. It is more common today to end phrases on the beat, but back in the forties and fifties, “the bebop” was all the rage.

Zeylmans shows just how different a tenor is from an alto sax. As well has having different registers, the embouchure required on tenor gives the player opportunities to phrase differently and use sound effects, especially on the lower end of the register, that the alto can’t achieve. Likewise, the alto can emit a range of effects that are less feasible on the tenor, such as greater pitch bend. McGann and Zeylmans amply demonstrated the contrasting possibilities of these instruments.

The second number, Little Suede Shoes, is a composition by Parker in Latin style. It was Parker who first brought Latin stylings to the attention of New York musicians. Getz later extended this project. Both McGann and Zeylmans explored the possibilities the seemingly simple head offered, then launched into more elaborate improvisations that reflected their own idiosyncratic approaches.

Both Chris Thwaite on drums and Lachlan Coventry on bass guitar provided a steady rhythm section when the horns were soloing, then were given ample time and space to build their own worlds when they were free to solo at the back-end of the tune. Thwaite’s solos were always engrossing. He never attempts to dazzle the audience with explosive drum riffs, but builds coherence by developing rhythmical motifs.

Coventry’s bass sounded warm and provided an ideal underpinning for McGann and Zeylmans. When Thwaite was soloing, Coventry’s soft and spacious basso continuos were subtle and intriguing. Like Thwaite, his solos sought to build and develop rhythmic motifs, rather than endlessly running up and down scales.

Other songs played on the night were St Thomas, Softly and other Latin tunes. I left before the third set, when the chatter dies down and the musicians have warmed up. I was told by a reliable source that it only got better, but I’d already left as a satisfied and fulfilled listener.

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