20 August 2009

Some like it hot

Hot and cool was the subject of a discussion I had with someone last night, and I guess it was prompted by a band that started hot and hard from the top. Sean Coffin was leading a long-standing (17-year) band with brother Greg, Simon Barker and our local Eric Ajaye sitting in for the bass seat. Later, another local, John Mackey, sat in for several tunes and a distinct change of tenor. But more on that later.

It was a night of unrelentingly driving sax and piano solos, deliciously organic and mellifluous drums, and a solid, steady, clear bass line driving the band. I commented on this, especially some unison syncopated phrasings, and Eric said it was all dots rather than chords except behind the solos. Eric handled it all with aplomb and garnered obvious respect from the other players. There’s a family resemblance in the playing of the Coffin Brothers: hard blown, constant, not overly dissonant, although moving through phrasings of alternate chords and dissonant turnarounds. It was a big sound on both piano and sax. The piano was busy and the left hand chords were big and full. I felt if Sean could play chords, he’d be big and busy like his brother. A tenor mate suggested Joe Lovano as a clear influence, and he dedicated a tune to Michael Brecker. This was somewhat in contrast to Simon who seemed strangely dignified in his detailed and bodily-expressive playing, but easily up for the ride. There was a mention of a Korean drum pattern from Sean (I’m sure I heard about Simon Barker’s Korean drum history on ABC radio recently) and I felt his solos sounded of Asian drums: solos that were dense in sound and richly complex in battering, incessant crossing rhythms. The music was original, modern post bop in style, with plenty of space for solos, but also unison lines and syncopated melodies. I particularly liked some unusual combinations when some of the players dropped out: leaving sax & bass or sax & drums.

The tenor changed a little when John Mackey sat in during the second set. Firstly, because they played some standards: All the things you are and Straight no chaser. But especially because it’s interesting to hear several capable players of the same instrument together and to observe the different styles. John was screeds of notes, indelible substitution, and a more metallic tone. His alterations are so complete and challenging as he clinically explores the dissonances in extensions. Clinical as in rational, not as in soulless, because his playing is emotionally intense and honest, too. Suffice to say I like his playing! In this company, Sean seemed gentler, more earthy and meaty, more of this solar system than other universes. His dissonances seemed to express underlying harmonies and turnarounds and chordal movements. John seemed to be the other way around, so he’d select a dissonant pitch then explore its internal logic, its own related modes. You could hear Sean move through chordal patterns; you could hear John select a pitch and dissect it. Both expressed melodies, both were raw and intense and imploring at times, both used the full range of the instrument, both clearly spoke to the underlying tune. How would I say it? Sean was perhaps more sustained while John was enigmatic. Suffice to say a lovely exposition by two capable tenorists.

So it was an intellectual and musical experience for me on the night. Thanks, guys. Sean Coffin (tenor) led a quartet at Hippo with brother Greg Coffin (piano), Eric Ajaye (bass) and Simon Barker (drums). John Mackey (tenor) sat in for most of the second set.

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