22 November 2008

Memorable French session

Text and pics by Brenton Holmes

Watch out world. Here comes the Austin Benjamin Trio.

Jazz nights at the Alliance Francaise are invariably enjoyable - good bands and an audience that is there for the music. But the latest outing was especially memorable. Austin Benjamin (piano) Chris Pound (bass) and Evan Dorrian (drums) were joined by Matt Lustri (guitar) and Max Williams (tenor sax) and delivered the most thrilling and interesting music I've heard for a long time.

The chops go without saying. Each player's technical facility is first rate. But it's their sheer individual musicality and the strength of their rapport that makes their ensemble playing outstanding.

The trio largely worked their way through material on their Amalgama album (recorded at ArtSound) along with a couple of standards that went way beyond standard. I wouldn't have thought it possible that All Blue could sound anything but familiar and cosy. These guys breathed new life into it - not by being remotely excessive, but by being exquisitely inventive. Benjamin delivered the tonal colours for the band to work off, and Lustri's solo was a mischievous treat. Pound and Dorrian seasoned it perfectly. Another standard, In a Sentimental Mood, was a joy.

But it was Benjamin's own compositions that really gave the night its highs. Typically he establishes a motif and rhythm into which he invites Dorrian and Pound, and the weave really starts to happen. Its edgy and fascinating stuff. From the first few notes of Benjamin's Overture the hairs were standing up on my neck. And as each tune unrolled - Cicada, Solal the Cat, The Magnus Effect and the rest - I couldn't wipe the smile off my face.

Evan Dorrian is to drumming like Fred Astaire is to dancing or Roger Federer to tennis. Poetry, sheer artistry. He skitters across the skins. Cymbals glow or flash. He's dazzlingly fast and dreamily slow, perfect in timing and touch. His dynamics are flawless. A drummer's drummer. A musician's drummer. Lucky trio.

Chris Pound, too, has a great touch. Even when he walks he wanders just right. His solos are beautifully structured and his interaction with both drums and keyboard is superb.

Austin Benjamin is a gifted composer and player. He can taunt a melody, Rubix-cube a chord, stretch a rhythm and it all sounds like it could be no other way. He knows exactly what he's trying to achieve musically and consistently pulls it off. And it seems to come out of a genuine, humble devotion to his muse. No smart arse. Just good art.

The Austin Benjamin Trio is a blessing from the jazz gods for which we should all be truly grateful.

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