29 August 2009

Just one corner of one school

It was Universities Open Day today. No. 2 son visited ANU, but I just lurked at the Music School (which is also ANU, of course). There were masses of events there. I caught much of the jazz, and just touched the classical. It’s invigorating to realise just how much was available. This is just one university (although a renowned one), and I was overwhelmed with just one corner of one school. We live in such a time of richness, if only people will go out and find it. Here’s just a quick visit. Excuse the pics, but I dropped my normal camera today, and I’m back to a very, very basic model for the interim.

I caught all three of the large jazz ensembles: Recording Ensemble, Commercial Band and Big Band. The BB was an earlier jazz style, less challenging and a bit less exciting than the others, perhaps more of a training ensemble with newer students (although there’s a batch of mature students there too) but entertaining. The Recording Ensemble features original compositions by members. This is interesting and often blissful with varied tempos and rich harmonies and complex orchestrations. Interesting also for the double drum seats that are featuring this year. The Commercials are the funky outfit: lively, exciting, variety. They have some student arrangements, but mainly professional-level charts from the best arrangers. This is hot and sweaty grooves and just plain fun.

The Open Days also feature workshops by faculty. I missed the bass & drums workshop this year, but managed the piano trio workshop. Actually, this was a first performance of a new trio of Matt Thompson (piano), Eric Ajaye (bass) and Mark Sutton (drums) with some chats and Q&As between tunes. It’s in its very earliest days, but it’s quite a cerebral outfit. Eric spoke of refraining from dropping into swing. Mark talked of playing colours rather than his normal grooves. I imagine it’s especially demanding with eminently swingable tunes like Nardis, Solar and All the things you are. On the other hand, I felt this cool was Matt’s natural approach (given the limited times I’ve hear him play). Matt was sparse, single note right hand solos developing into considerable melodic complexity, and few, or long delayed, chords. Mark expressed some discomfort maintaining this colours role, feeling a desire to drop into something more clearly swung. Eric seemed to enjoy it, with bass chord comping, or repeated rapid accompaniment riffs, or solos alone or in conjunction with the others. It will be interesting to watch developments here.

I actually got drawn away from this trio by the siren song of a soprano wafting from Llewellyn Hall. Some highly pitched, plaintive, vibratoed notes with orchestral backing, and I was Odysseus unbound. Typical of sirens, though, the soprano had departed by the time I got there. The replacement was a good humoured rehearsal of the ANUSM Orchestra playing Bizet. They were playing a bouncing waltz as I entered, and some booming chords a little later. There were so many players on stage, so informal. In fact, the brass players seemed quite underemployed as they counted out the bars until they came in again. (I wondered if the Productivity Commission would see this as unproductive, inefficient? Probably not. I expect they attend). It was a lovely interlude, and evidence that there’s life beyond jazz.

But back to jazz, and John Mackey’s improvisation masterclass. It was more a chat and workshop, and an awareness-raiser for anyone who was considering the commitment that is jazz. John enjoys his practice, and it shows in great technique, incredible fluidity and huge tone. John takes a rational approach to learning the instrument, in order to “forget it all and just play” (Charlie Parker). Indications of his approach: any four notes can be played (without repeating a note) in 24 patterns; there are thousands of scales, but his students should practice 276 scales every day (23 scales in 12 keys); transcriptions are essential and his students are required to learn their chosen solos in 6 keys (he used to expect 12 keys, but he’s relented!). You get the message. He demonstrated several times: playing solos against an Aebersold recording of Have you met Miss Jones; later playing a transcribed solo, then playing the same, identical solo. A few quotes will give the feel: “If you have to think about the notes in a chord sequence, it’s over”, “Perfect your craft”, “Practice slowly all the time”. John represents intellect and commitment combined to support true and expansive expression: always inspiring.

I also visited the ANUSM Recording studio and mixing/mastering suite. Nevin Stines had recorded a Jazz School band earlier, and was doing a rough mix. Great gear, wonderful chatter about recording matters, and some hugely clear recorded sounds in the studio. Lastly, I caught John Burgess playing a solo EUB (Electric Upright Bass) set in the ANUSM Level 5 Café. This was loops and delays and tunes including Stella by starlight. Solo bass – nice one.

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