27 November 2008

Worldly Westies

Text by Daniel Wild, pics borrowed from WOW

Ascend the steps to the Hippo Bar and meet Way Out West – an eclectic sextet that’s hard to pigeonhole. The fact that they appeared on Wednesday night at the Hippo indicates they have some relation to jazz, but this is music for music’s sake. Leading the band is Peter Knight on trumpet, who keeps the band in groove with his towering presence, sure-fire gestures and glances that tell the band a modulation is at hand. Playing the saxophones is Adam Simmons – mainly on tenor, but he did pull out some type of soprano sax for some evocative melodic flights. A cursory look at the two horns might suggest this is another Hancock-esque or Art Blakey like jazz combo, designed to get the party moving and present the audience with familiar tunes or catchy riffs done with verve. But, even accounting for the absence of a piano, this is fresh and different.

Way Out West are based in Melbourne’s inner west, although are increasingly spending less time there due to the demands of touring. This is their third time in Canberra. As a Sydneysider I’m not familiar with the cultural melting pot of Melbourne’s inner suburbs, although after hearing this band, I consider myself an aspiring Melburnian and deduce that Melbourne’s inner west must be at least as good as Sydney’s.

Ray Pereira on percussion and Rajiv Jayaweera on drums were the rhythmic heart of this gig. Rajiv has an economical kit – high hat, crash and ride cymbals, snare, bass drum and a cute little “utility drum” just above the snare. There are no toms and his playing is far from cute. While Pereira lays down Afro-cuban rhythms on his congas Jayaweera keeps a steady, supposedly conventional jazz rhythm that lays the temporal groundwork for the music. On closer listening, Jayaweera’s “world” influences – Indian and Latin – are apparent. He will play his kit with hands, set up cross rhythms between the high hat and snare and interject a well timed cymbal crash that splashes like a smooth basketball-sized stone falling into a running stream. Rajiv’s solo in the second set was particular inspiring – the absence of floor toms ruled out the possibility of stomach-rumbling to rolls. Instead, he resourcefully crafted a compelling solo with his snare and cymbals, reminiscent of early Tony Williams. The texture of the solo went from transparent to dense and forceful. All the while Pereira provided him with driving support on the congas.

The rapport between Jayaweera and Pereira is an important feature of the band. Pereira opened the first set with a solo intro on what looked like a small tambourine and sounded like a miniature tabla. Pereira obtained quite a range of sound by applying pressure on the drum skin as he tapped it. By varying the pressure point he could bend the sound by almost a fifth.

Pereira and Dung Nguyen combined at the end of the first set to play one of their own compositions, perhaps written during a jam while the other musicians were taking tea. This type of music is always free, open and unpredictable. Nguyen is perhaps the chief stylist of Way Out West. He plays the guitar and some traditional Vietnamese instruments: the dan bau and dan tranh. His playing allows Way Out West to achieve their distinctive blend of jazz-fusion and world music.

The dan bau appears to be related to the Chinese erhu, but is plucked rather than bowed. A lever operated by Dung’s left hand changes the pitch. He can bend notes to his heart’s content, taking us to the jungle in the night or conjuring the mystery of a western ghost town.

Adam Simmons is particularly idiosyncratic on tenor sax. He lulls you into a false sense of security, beginning his solos with conventional bluesy lines. Then just when you think, cool – this is funky tenor stuff – he launches into bellicose squeals, heartfelt yelps, frogs in your throat growls, offhanded utterances and tones so high up the register only a dog could hear them. Simmons gets a really dirty sound out of his instrument; the type of tone that many believe is the only way a tenor should be played. Rather than the “here I am, let me seduce you with the straight talking sax” approach, Simmons employs the “hey you – you think this rocks? Well what about this eeeeee; or this awwgg; or check this out – yarnk yrank, cahhoooeee grisle grisle.” At other times Simmons backs up Peter Knight’s trumpet musings with underlying “harmonic Persian carpet notes” or lays out and smiles and dances with the upper part of his body.

Although the structure of many of the pieces is modal, Knight’s arranging allows for modulations, time shifts, texture variations and interaction. He has lots of colour to draw upon in this sextet and makes full use of it, turning his combo into a mini-big band.

Don’t let Way Out West surprise you. It’s easy to be lulled by the exotic eastern melodies and coaxed into a false sense of security as if you were a shepherd on the hills of Kashmir with your back turned towards the Himalayas. Then, like a resounding avalanche, Rajiv will smack the snare as loud as possible, your whole frame will shake, and you will awake – excited, curious and apprehensive.

Wednesday’s gig coincided with the launch of their latest album, Old Grooves for New Streets. Way Out West shouldn’t be compared to anyone, but if you like Waiting for Guinness, Monsieur Camembert or Arabesque and are looking for something with a more streetwise, worldly flavour, you’ll do yourself no disservice by buying this album.

Oh, and did I mention the bass player? It seems that by providing the very foundation on which the rest of a band builds lavish musical sallies, by being inconspicuous yet powerful, bass players frequently are taken for granted as just doing their job. If you focus your attention on Howard Cairns’ bass lines you will be amply rewarded. Cairns variation of the bass on beats three and four is particularly notable. Composers, bass players and solo pianists can derive much useful instruction by listening to how Cairns keeps momentum going and maintains interest with his subtle rhythmic and pedal point variations.

Last word has to go to Ray Pereira, who taught the bar how to properly shake a cocktail during a moody piece that climaxed with some almost free and very adventurous jazz. These episodes were always used sparingly and to release and express the growing latent tension. During one of these spells Pereira began furiously shaking what looked like some type of maraca, although it may indeed have been a cocktail shaker filled with cardamon pods.

Way Out West are Peter Knight (trumpet), Adam Simmons (tenor sax), Dung Nguyen (modified electric guitar, dan tranh (Vietnamese zither), dan bau (single string plucked instrument), dan nhi (Vietnamese violin)), Ray Pereira (percussion), Howard Cairns (acoustic bass), Rajiv Jayaweera (drums).

No comments: