01 September 2008

The number is 276

The Canberra tertiary institutions had their Open Day over the weekend, and that means Open Day for the School of Music. My Number One Son is now in Year 12 and I accompanied him to a few other venues around ANU (which were also very interesting), but I still managed a few stints at the School of Music. As I was driving in, I laughed at a natty Cole Porter tune on the radio called Friendship: “If you ever lose your teeth / when you dine / borrow mine.” Luckily, it didn’t set the tone for the day.

First up was an orchestra rehearsal in Llewelyn Hall. They were working on Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in D, Op.19 . I was too far back to hear instructions, but it was obviously nothing like Fellini’s typically odd movie (Prova d’orchestra = Orchestra rehearsal); this was much more congenial and chatty.

Next was John Mackey’s Improvisation Workshop. Lots of good ideas here, and some nice solo sax demonstrations. He started with 276, our magic number. It’s a scary number indicating the vocabulary of scales that an improvisor should practice daily. I can’t recreate the exact number, but it includes the modes of the scale families (major, harmonic minor, melodic minor, perhaps harmonic major), whole tones, diminished H-W and W-H, blues, major and minor pentatonics, major and minor bebop; perhaps more. Through all the keys, of course: daunting. John also spoke of using a practice diary, organising time, slow practice with metronomes, sound development and time studies, use of piano, ear training, moving conscious to unconscious, ear training, scalar cells and permutations, 4 hours minimum practice for maintenance. He demonstrated improvisation on a phrase, as in Sonny Rollins on the Williamsburg Bridge. Some quotes took may fancy: “please transcribe”, “turning maths into music”, “no yummy stuff on top” (meaning, a simple arpeggio without extensions), “[music] can’t be contrived”. And to finish, he told of playing 6 hours pd for 3 years, and only using 6 reeds. How? He keeps them permanently dunked in water when not in use. I imagine John’s a great teacher: all very friendly and easygoing, but with an underlying deadly seriousness. As serious as your life.

I only caught short snippets of a few other performances. The Commercial Ensemble started with Thieves in the temple, a Prince tune that Herbie Hancock had performed on his New Standards album. I had to go off, but the band was sounding lively and exciting and I got a few pics before leaving. Same thing for an ANU Marimba ensemble later in the day, when I heard just a few bars of an encore.

I returned again later to catch the last half of Eric Ajaye and Col Hoorweg’s rhythm masterclass. By the time I got there, it was mainly Eric and Col playing, and this was typically impressive, especially one sweet freejazz piece with Col’s unique soundscapes and Eric’s bass playing free. Eric said before he started that he knew his first note would be a G and otherwise it was unplanned, although I did hear one clear and lengthy quote from Stella by starlight. The day ended with the Big Band in Llewelyn Hall. I expect all that new timber makes for a beautifully reverberent and alive sound space for strings and softer classical instruments, but I found it edgy and unbalanced for the Big Band. The brass was strident and overbearing, and the rhythm section and saxes were wanting. They tell me, from onstage, that the snare snaps back from the back wall (admittedly there was only a small audience). There were several solos that took my fancy (I especially remember Marie LeBrun’s vocal solo on Moondance, and a dual trumpet improv) and the band was capable, but the sound made the concert less satisfying. The message is “horses for courses”, I guess: use Llewelyn for what it’s best at.

Our jazz-supporting mates from ArtSound were there for the day, and I’ve added one pic of their crew relaxing at the end of the day. They do a great job.

No comments: