16 July 2009

Fine and tragic

The West End Composers Collective visited Canberra last night on a national Sound Travellers tour. Fine was for the music: it was truly splendid. Sweet and precise harmonies, interesting tunes and complex arrangements, a sound that was beyond the 10-piece format, strong voice (this was a big band with frequent vocals) with playful lyrics, some great soloing. What more could you desire? Audience. That’s the tragic side. Up with the best gigs I’ve heard, and the band almost outnumbered the audience. Perhaps it didn’t help that jazz students are on holidays, or that Sound Travellers had a double booking with Trio Apoplectic at Hippo on the same night. But it’s a good path to being ignored. Watch footy; ignore the yartz.

I’ve been reading blogs about the resurgence of creative Brisbane. From a distance, there seems to be a vibrant, fresh, new injection of creative energy. WECC has to be part of this. It was lively and inventive, a glowing conception of the small big band format. The voice had much to do with it. Hannah Macklin was strong up front, with a powerful voice and great control to manage bop-like complexity, but she’s also a compositional wit. I didn’t catch all the lyrics (there were many and they rolled over each other with boppy urgency), but her Jack seemed a story of lost love built on an underlying parallel with of Jack and the Beanstalk. Clever. She had similar references in another tune, Starlight. They both harked back to the wry lyrics of standards jazz. This was faithful to tradition, but modernised and relevant to our current times. Fabulous singing but also clever writing. Not just by Hannah, but also by Rafael Karlin and an earlier band-member, Laura Karl. But it was not just the words and compositions that were clever. This band was slick, and playing a storm after touring together around Australia for the last week or so, and after a reportedly memorable performance at the Promethean in Adelaide the night before. Playing and touring together makes for tight, and this was. Despite busy arrangements, the whole sat together with real class and comfort. There were signals for planned changes; there were arranged hits and contrasts; there were feels that merged and twisted, or otherwise just sat behind solo or instrumental passages. I noticed Joe Marchisella on drums who massaged these rhythms with intelligence and feel. Mingus was never too concerned about how his bandsmen soloed as long as they interpreted his writings effectively. This band did that with panache, but there were some capable soloists, too. James Sherlock on guitar was frequent and outstanding. I took particular notice of solos by Graeme Norris on baritone sax and Mikael Strand on trombone, but it’s probably unfair to mark them out. Both Steve Newcomb on keys and James Sherlock offered complex and mobile accompaniment. James seemed unusually fluent on chordal accompaniment, and Steve was just plainly inventive, sometimes with synth-like sounds from his red Nord, and other times busily but subtly accompanying and guiding the outfit. These two played a lovely little duo at one stage with solo guitar over keys that was everything a big band isn’t. That’s how it was. An inventive approach and a modern sound; a wry voice with traditional horn harmonies and modern rhythms and a personal approach to composition. This is a little big band with a big sound that suits the times. Fabulous.

Alas, that’s what you missed if you weren’t there. And probably you weren’t.

West End Composers Collective comprised Steve Newcomb (piano), Rafael Karlen (tenor sax), Hannah Macklin (voice), James Sherlock (guitar), Gerard McFadden (bass), Joe Marchisella (drums), Mark Spencer (alto sax), Graeme Norris (baritone sax), Mikael Strand (trombone), Shannon Marshall (trumpet). They played at the Folkus Room, and toured with the support of Arts Queensland, Sound Travellers and Griffith University.

No comments: