2 November 2008

Visiting Utopia

I went to Utopia last night. Well, not THE Utopia, but I heard Utopia Collective, which is the lively, well-named and entertaining large ensemble led by Greg Stott. Greg had promised for some time to write big band charts, and he’s finally come good. It’s a big project; it’s well done, interesting, very competent, and it’s recorded.

The night started with a small band, essentially GSB (Greg Stott Band). Greg (guitar) with John Mackey (tenor sax), Jason Varlet (bass), Mark Sutton (drums) and Sydney player fresh from touring with silverchair, Adam Sofo (keyboards). I’d heard this band several times with Wayne Kelly on keys before his departure for Macau. Adam was new (the band only formed at 4.30pm preceeding the gig) but performed with zest and capability on piano, organ and other keyboards. I liked the way the styles of playing changed with the different keyboard sounds. You can’t play a sustained organ tone like a percussive piano. He seemed to drop into whatever with comfort. John mostly led on melodies and took the emotional highs with some flaming jazz solos (we expect and get no less from John). Greg soloed with sheets of notes, clear and expressive, and edgier when he picked up his strat. Jason played some occasional slap and clearly intentioned solos on bass, but impressed mostly as solid, well-formed and ultimately reliable, as a bassist should be. But I was entranced by Mark this night. His playing was an object lesson in driving the band through different rhythmic feels, and his solos merged imperceptibly with his backing playing. Wonderful playing by Mark, and all round. The tunes were by Greg and John. Greg’s Body politics is a blues with a great funky jazz trio segment. John’s Shorter straw is a dedication to Wayne Shorter. Greg’s Grey sky is a slower 3/4 piece with cut-time country-style bass, which I had previously described as country ballad. It reminds me of Mark Knopfler and the Local Hero theme so I guess that’s country style. Greg joked of years working years to be a jazz nazi, but playing this and several other pop charts later in the night just convinced me of his maturity and catholicism of approach. I like John’s It’s the only thing to do, and they played several other original tunes too.

The second set was the Utopia Collective itself. UC is a platform for big band charts by Greg, but also an opportunity to play with a batch of excellent players, and to record and video and perhaps to tour. The charts were good, the tunes were mostly originals, and there was a pair of vocals tunes in there too. Campervan was a lively start, and a tongue-in-cheek reference to Caravan. Maybe tomorrow started with flute and continued as thoughtful, melodic and restrained. A beginner’s guide to brainwashing was a world premiere, as well as a hot funky piece that I particularly liked. The final piece was a down-home organ-based swing that gave the back line an opportunity for a blow. Gary France is a ring-in from the classical percussion school. He added layers of percussion and sound, using various instruments which he shook or hit, as well as the more substantial congas and vibes, and I enjoyed his display of virtuosity with a vibes solo at the end of the night. The large band also played two pop songs, a Donny Hathaway and another, with singer Imogen Spong sitting in. Imogen sang with an impassioned, inflected, soul style. It’s not jazz vocals, but in the style of the divas of current popular soul (perhaps now called R&B) world, think Christina Aguilera. She’s already well-developed stylistically, but I felt there’s loads of further strength and confidence to come. She’s clearly one to watch.

There were other aspects of this night that impressed. It was held at the CIT auditorium. CIT trains in music and audio and video production. The sound was great, with a timbered chamber and a powerful, big-binned PA run at moderate volume, presumably with masses of headroom giving unstrained clarity over the full frequency range. I really enjoy an unstressed PA; this was a pleasure. There was a mixing station at the back of the room, with video screens and audio mixers and various processing toys. There were several video people peppered around the room. The stage was well laid out with depth and height and well lit with vibrant colours. It really was a great presentation. And there was an audience of friends and family at café-style tables, which always makes for a friendly and relaxed atmosphere at a gig.

So a very nice outing, interesting and very well played charts, and it’s all recorded for posterity. Greg’s planning an annual outing for the Utopia Collective. I hope they can tour or perform more often. I certainly hope to be at the next local gig. This is intelligent, entertaining music which crosses boundaries. Congrats to all.

The Utopia Collective comprised Greg Stott (guitar and leader), John Mackey (tenor sax), Mark Sutton (drums), Jason Varlet (bass), Adam Sofo (keyboards), Imogen Spong (vocals), Gary France (vibes, congas, percussion), Graeme Reynolds, Dan McLean and Ben Marston (trumpets), Rod Harding and Rob Lee (trombones), Matt O’Keefe (bass clarinet, baritone sax), Niels Rosendahl (tenor sax, clarinet), Andrew Hackwell (sax, flute), Lina Andonovska (flutes)

1 comment:

Eric said...

Canberra is busy with jazz these days! I had to decide between two adventurous large ensembles that night. The Recording Ensemble was playing at the ANUSM Band Room, but I'd heard them only a few weeks before. A hard choice but a good sign. As is the weekend of jazz for the Wine & jazz Festival. I missed that too, because of family commitments and a wedding gig for one of my bands. How much jazz can one person get to? But all a good sign for a busy jazz life around Canberra. Eric