2 July 2009

Talking about the weather

It was cold and wet last night when I got to Hippo for Mark Lau and the Virculum Collective. Mark trained at the Sydney Con, and I understand the band was mostly made up of fellow students from times back. This was a tour back home for him: he’s been living and working in NY for the last 7 or 8 years. I was actually talking weather with Mark before the gig, but, unlike most weather discussions, this was interesting: humidity and the effect on an acoustic bass. Apparently, NY can get very dry, even down to 10% humidity, and this obviously has drastic effects on fragile timber instruments.

The unusually wet mid-winter Canberra weather probably kept the audience at home, because it wasn’t a big crowd. But they heard two sets of structured and capably played jazz. It’s a collective, so there were compositions by several members. I noticed long, sinuous, melody statements in several tunes, with space for improv, but not built simply for improvisation. I’ve heard Richard Maegraith’s latest CD, and the writing’s very much like this. Perhaps most standard jazz-wise was the reconception of Giant steps by Richard with recognisable changes and a single standout rhythm hit. The least standard, at least melodically, would have been the jig, which was reimagined as a jazz composition with head and solos. I felt it was a diverse set of players and instrumental styles, too. Tim Firth took the tunes and consistently built them in intensity and emotion, so they all seemed to end on a high. He played two memorable solos, too. Mark took a few solos too, but mostly held a position-based chordal accompaniment. I remember one walk, but it was mostly syncopated, rhythmic playing. I enjoyed his fat sound, although he told me he was not too comfortable returning to an electric bass he’d left behind in Australia and which he’d never settled into. Richard and Mike, up front on tenor and trumpet, formed a lovely front line. I really enjoyed the heads, perhaps with trumpet reading a chart, and tenor toying in harmony, or otherwise a straight melody in parallel harmony or perhaps unison. Mike also played some sweet accompaniment to Richard’s tenor solos at other times. Otherwise the styles of the two front-liners seemed very different but complimentary. Mike was more mainstream, seldom dissonant, clearly intoned, playing long eighth-note lines which could stop and start at unexpected times. Richard was more the modern saxist: plenty of altered notes, fast, contorted, tonally thinner, more dense and emotive. I felt the contrast worked a treat. I felt some reticence with the tunes but they were large charts and this is an early (first?) gig on Mark’s tour, so it’s not unexpected. But it was an involving concert with interesting charts and a diverse range of playing styles and a satisfying sound, so I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Virculum Collective was led by Mark Lau (bass), with Richard Maegraith (tenor), Mike Kenny (trumpet) and Tim Firth (drums).

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