17 June 2011

Masters, young and old (DHJF-2)

It was Ron Carter who brought me to Sydney for the Darling Harbour Jazz Festival this year, but I’m a bass player and I know that plenty of guitarists came for Kurt Rosenwinkel. These are very big names and they were accompanied by other big names. Quite spectacular.

Firstly, Ron Carter. I was lucky enough to catch him twice: in the rain at DHJF and at the Basement the following night. He’s an absolute legend, of course, and I was not surprised or disappointed by his identifiable playing. Large hands, very lank and bony, and a sound that’s so hard it’s like concrete. This was stunning and unique. He’s not young and everyone was suffering from the cold, so the Basement show was the more comfortable, but both shows were impressive. This was sweet, correct, solid mainstream playing. I felt he struggled with a few things he attempted, from age or the cold, but I’d still dream of playing just a part of it with his authority and deceptive simplicity. Fabulous and so easily swinging with the most clear of bass lines that always served the tune as master. I was not the only one to notice how solid was the groove despite the lack of a drummer. This man is a rhythm unit in one performer and beautifully undemonstrative at that: deceptively simple and easily embellished. His offsiders were no slouches, of course. Mulgrew Miller was a delight with easily lyrical and occasionally dissonant statements that were so sweet and unforced, sliding off the fingers with no strain of performance or thought. This was the key: easy, comfortable improv and melody with the most perfect of swings. Guitarist Russell Malone was the youngster with an evident respect for his elders, but he was no underling. Always a ready smile and with eyes that caught every nuance, sharp and choppy backing and bluesy solos that again were deceptive in their intuitiveness. Wonderful, sharp and satisfying playing from the seniors of our art. The Ron Carter Trio are RC (bass), Mulgrew Miller (piano) and Russell Malone (guitar).

Secondly, Kurt Rosenwinkel. I’ve noticed how my guitarist mates speak in awe when KR’s name is mentioned, and I met a female bassist who’d flown from New Zealand to hear him, so KR is seriously admired. I’d heard him at Wang but in unfortunate acoustics. This time, I heard clearly and understood some of the excitement. This was Kurt’s Standards Trio with Eric Revis and Justin Falkiner. A formidable group. I noticed KR’s easy fluency and knowledge of the fingerboard, but that’s to be expected, but I also noticed a chordal approach that blended chords and melody or solos easily. His sound had some obvious gentle echo or reverb and occasional mild distortion, but essentially this was clearly spoken fluency, not effects. And the fluency was devastating at times. Solo lines covering three or more octaves seemed to drop with ease, and those fingers shaped into delightful chords and resolved into single note work. An object lesson in technique and a delight with clear sound. Both his associates took significant roles, especially drums, but I did feel that the guitar was clear leader. Eric Revis had a surprisingly soft tone, but maybe highlighted after hearing Ron Carter’s solidity. I’d been thinking of the training of some of the US drummers I’ve heard recently, especially given their concentration on snare and rudiments, but Justin was more tom-centred and thus softly sounding. Again, drums were easily concordant with the others, but this is perhaps the essence of a standards trio. The standards were Monk’s Reflections, Invitation, Goodbye pork pie hat, Bud Powell’s Blue pearl and Wayne Shorter’s Fall. A lesson in technique and gentle interaction. The Kurt Rosenwinkel Standards Trio are KR (guitar), Eric Revis (bass) and Justin Faulkner (drums).

Lastly, a mention of some big local names. Katie Noonan’s Elixir was supporting Ron Carter on his Australian tour and appeared early in the long night at the Basement. To me, Elixir continue the song tradition that predates jazz. Not surprising, given that Katie has classical training. This is a beautiful, mobile, soprano voice and wonderfully expressive of very thoughtful and considered words. There were some original compositions, but also several songs with words from poet Thomas Shapcott. The lyrics were superb, earthy, purposefully repeated, of love and life (to a woman pregnant; of love remembered semi-naked on a beach) with well-timed rough-hewn sensuality. Steve Magnusson’s accompanying guitar was precise with a sense of independent time that was formidable. Zac Hurren’s soprano sax was admirably restrained (I’ve seen him in full flight, and he can be a challenge) with lyrical lines and up-turned endings, but he did inject just a touch of dissonance towards the end. To my ear, this was sublime song in the long song tradition with just a touch of jazz influence. Elixir are Katie Noonan (vocals), Zac Hurren (soprano sax) and Steve Magnusson (guitar).

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