4 February 2009

Products of our times

I was listening to Errol Buddle and his quartet last night at the first night of Geoff Page’s Gods Café series for 2009 when I thought of irony and the post-modern. This was a night of standards, including ones that went way back. So it felt like a visit to a sweeter, more honest past. Thoughts of girls with hair like the Andrews Sisters or perhaps beatnikettes; fatter, rounder sax tones with breath; and a time when you could still invest all your time and energy in those beautiful American tunes. It felt like something that we’ve lost after R&R and the post-modern: a humility before the American songbook. An authentic and, significantly, a non-ironic approach: another era, when we could think of considerable beauty without fashionable mockery.

Bye bye blackbird and Swinging shepherd blues and Baubles, bangles and beads and Sweet Georgia Brown strike me this way: as tunes I can’t take too seriously. I don’t feel quite the same about Take the A-train or Don’t get around much anymore or Mood indigo and less so for Night in Tunisia, but I’m sure some people do. I’m somewhere in between on Georgia. So the repertoire was of another era, but that’s not to denigrate it, just to place it. We are in many ways products of our times, so it’s not a surprise that a senior of the Australian jazz craft should present from an earlier era.

The sounds also matched the choices of tunes. Rhythms were steadier and more restrained. Substitutions were rarer and less extreme. Tones were more traditional, with the sax more airy and less steely. It felt like an era before Coltrane, such were the harmonies and approaches and tones, although there was a clear awareness of bop, with frequent quotes and shaggy lines and flattened fifth tags. There was genuine fluency within these norms which suggested that Errol must have been a ripper in his younger days. One friend commented he’d heard him in the seventies, and that’s just what he was. He’s still impressive. Errol is noted as a multi-instrumentalist. The flute and the tenor and alto and soprano saxes were no particular surprise, other than that I really enjoyed the flute, and I don’t usually. But the oboe on Night in Tunisia had me leaving my seat to see what that sound was (I couldn’t see the stage where I sat). It fitted beautifully. Errol played with real fluency and I clearly imagined snake charmers in the local souk. Similarly, Marée on piano took me aback with a pleasantly sweet voice which was clearly reminiscent of Blossom Dearie, and with a similarly mock-romantic theme. I wanted to hear more, but she only sang one song on the night. Bob played a steady drum part, with brushes or sticks and hi-hat, and very sparse accents on kick drum, with a few solos here and there. Our own Eric Ajaye is wonderfully reliable in picking a sustained and appropriate accompaniment. He did it this night, too, where a sweet bass line was required: all glissery and fluid and smooth and expressive, and doubly so on some truly sublime solos.

But thinking back on all my musings, I wonder: Was this really a more innocent era that justifies a lofty irony in our times? Theirs was a time following the greatest conflagration of the most ideological century, after death camps and in the middle of nuclear-threats of cold war. Now just who are the innocents here, and who are the simply comfortable and fashionable?

Errol Buddle (soprano, alto, tenor saxes, flute, oboe) played with Marée Steinway (piano), Eric Ajaye (bass) and Bob Baird (drums).

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