14 August 2009


A string of things happen in music on an annual basis: festivals, recitals, Christmas bookings, Wedding season. One that I watch religiously is the coming out concert for the Jazz School’s large ensembles each year. There are three at the school: Recording and Commercial Ensembles and the Big Band. Two of three open the performance season with a gig around this time. This year, Miro’s Recording Ensemble and Eric’s Commercial Ensemble played for the debutante gig.

It was a major coming out this year as there seems to have been a generational change with a string of new faces and a few of the older, wiser stalwarts. New, too, were the repertoires, especially for the Recording Ensemble. They are as much a compositional as a performance vehicle, so it always impresses me when we hear new and complex works, and doubly so when the composition skills are spread throughout the band. There was no letup this year. Nick Combes provided two tunes: Ssh…, a pensive ballad, and Once is enough, another gentle and thoughtful piece using rich chords and honest melody. Reuben penned a modern fusion piece which was eminently good for blowing, and Alex Raupach presented a different style scored for a much smaller ensemble (flugelhorn, alto, tenor, trombone, guitar, bass) and led by Alex on flugelhorn. I have a thing about the piano as the king of all instruments, and Luke Sweeting’s “Sound canvas” just confirmed the piano as an orchestra in a box. Miro introduced the tune as the hardest the Ensemble had played, and I’d accept that. Rich, complex harmonies and varied voicings, syncopated unison lines on unexpected and changing combinations of instruments, plenty of counterpoint, all against a falling harmonic movement, with dynamics and sweet harmonies and a clear Gil Evans influence. Great work. They finished with Frank Zappa’s Cruising for purpose, with a threatening intro, a challenging bass line for Chris Pound and an appropriately overdriven Zappa-esque guitar solo by Andy Campbell. Typical, wonderful Zappa sleaze. Also for mention are Rachael Thoms for her expressive vocals, Hugh Deacon and Aidan Lowe on twin drums (that’s a challenge), and good horn solos from several players that I’ve not particularly noted, Max Williams and others.

The Commercial Ensemble followed. This is a smaller, tighter, funkier outfit presenting charts and some original arrangements, but not committed to composing like the Recording Ensemble. These are hot charts, slap bass, 16th note grooves, hints of Letterman and variety TV. Short, hard hitting, exciting. You can just imagine the band called to a sudden halt as some comedian or presenter takes centre stage and waves his over-paid arm. These are the test pilots of musicians. Their charts were demanding and professional, arranged by the likes of Bert Ligon, Bill Liston, Matt Harris, Vince Mendoza and Marcus Miller/Dave Sanborn. There were two reconceptions of well known tunes, Footprints and Round midnight, and some originals. Round midnight especially displayed some demanding harmonies that stretched the front line. Marcus Miller’s tune was heavy drums and slap bass (no surprise) with a slow, bluesy melody. Stevie played the blues was a Texas shuffle by Bert Ligon, obviously dedicated to Stevie Ray Vaughan. Andy had big shoes to fill here, but grabbed the spotlight admirably with authority and a just that hint of guitarist arrogance (as he should!). This is the fun set, leaving you rocking in your chair. Funk as a staple of modern life.

So, the first outing of the new generation of these two large and satisfying ensembles. Catch them as they play around Canberra over the coming months. Luxuriate in the funk, the lush chords, and the sheer fun of a large ensemble. Great stuff.

The Recording Ensemble comprised Rachael Thoms (vocals), Alex Raupach, Alex Ross and Reuben Lewis (trumpets), Josh Hart (trombone), Andrew Fedorovich and Stephanie Badman (alto), Max Williams and Neveen Byrnes (tenor), Nick Combe (baritone sax), Andy Campbell (guitar), Hugh Deacon and Aidan Lowe (drums), Chris Pound (bass), Luke Sweeting (piano) and was led by Miroslav Bukovsky. The Commercial Ensemble comprised Rachel Thoms (vocals), Alex Raupach (trumpet, flugelhorn), Reuben Lewis (trumpet, cornet), Josh Hart (trombone), Oisin Smith-Coburn (tenor), Jo Lloyd (tenor), Andy Campbell (guitar), “Huge” Hugh Deacon (drums), Raf Jerjen (bass), Olivia Henderson (piano) and was led by Eric Ajaye.

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