6 August 2008

Urbanity, out of tragedy

The Mocambo Jazz Quartet fought fire and storms and chemical spills to bring us snippets of the history of Sydney jazz, and a little peek at the history of world jazz, when they played at the Gods last night. The Sydney history was a visit to the jazz clubs of 1958 through to the ‘70s when there was rivalry between the Mocambo Jazz Club of Newtown and the El Rocco of Kings Cross. The El Rocco is a famous name, and I think it still exists; the Mocambo is well gone, but apparently the neon sign is still visible if unlit. MJQ was also reminiscent of world jazz history: this was a tribute to its alter-ago, Modern Jazz Quartet that included others reminders of the era. I was chatting with our local Ross Clarke about how musicians grow to know and perform a certain style, about how it becomes part of the musical personality and usually remains fairly constant. In this respect, it was also a visit to musical personas of an earlier era. This was not a performance you’d expect from the current young guns, but a mature presentation of popular sounds, rhythms and harmonies of the 50s/60s.

The band arrived from Sydney, rushed and flustered after long delays due to a chemical spill at Marulan. Dave Levy almost played in trackies, but made it onto the bandstand with shirt and tie at the last minute. The first set had a resultant edginess but this settled down and the second set seemed to me to express the cool, sophisticated MJQ style more truly. I’ve always preferred a hotter style, or at least my cool more Miles-ian, but it grew on me over the night and I came to understand its subtlety and comfort, and even to enjoy big chordal soloing a la George Shearing. This style is more diatonic and cycle-sounding, with chords stated clearly in the bass and little substitution. But it can display lovely melodic playing within these limits, clear statements of the composer’s intentions, and subtle, dynamic playing within a largely percussive sound.

Interestingly, the band started with Ornette Coleman’s When will the blues leave, but retitled on the night as “God help Marulan blues”. The solos were treated diatonically rather than harmolodically (whatever that means) and this seemed a little strange to me. But then we entered home territory, with tunes by MJQ/John Lewis (2 Degrees East 3 Degrees West and Afternoon in Paris) and George Shearing (Out of nowhere and Nothing but the best), and I renewed my respect for these stylists. Dave Levy also presented a quizzical range of original tunes: one based on a sea shanty; another called “There’s a whole lot of fuguing going on” which started formal and baroque but incongruously ended in an extended Sunshine of your love riff (isn’t it always extended?); a funk that he’d played at London’s Marquee Club supporting The Who, and called Fink funk; a sweetie dedicated to Joe Sample, and called Samplin’. I particularly liked an original latin that he wrote for his children, Bookabucka samba (Bookabucka as in Kookaburra). I found it complex and satisfying and the chordal and melodic movements were true to form. Sid Edwards also provided a laid back blues and a dedication, Waltz for Joan.

The whole band was smooth and correct and tonal. Jim, on bass, clearly and consistently defined the chordal structure. I got thinking of dance styles, from the days when jazz was a popular music. Jim moved freely over the neck and into thumb positions, although there were occasional lapses in intonation. I also enjoyed Ron’s drums; they were dynamic and expressive, from clipped rolls to sizzling cymbals, and with a very sharp snare. Sid’s vibes were well played, often while he was reading charts with four mallets working away. The solos were swinging, but also the unison heads with piano seemed to define to the sound of the era. Dave’s chordal solo on Out of nowhere was an eye-opener - truly satisfying although softly spoken - and I got taken aback by a lovely chromatic chordal passage in Afternoon in Paris that was so right. In summary, I really enjoyed the smooth and elegant sounds of the band. The realisation hit me, as I was listening to Afternoon in Paris played as languid and relaxed instead of boppy and up, that this was probably how it was intended. So, to me the concert gave me a new awareness of the beauty inherent in the smooth styles of MJQ and Shearing and the like. Nice one.

The Mocambo Jazz Quartet comprised Dave Levy (piano), Sid Edwards (vibraphone), Jim Mitchell (bass) and Ron Lemke (drums).

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