10 December 2011

Eternal triangle

The eternal triangle of jazz has to be the piano trio.

Pen Island played the other night at the Loft and they are a piano trio, but they are exuberant and fun and virtuosic and iconoclastic, so they didn’t feel so eternal, except maybe when they played Tony Williams’ beautiful tune, PeeWee, or their own gentle, thoughtful tune called Gloria’s whole. Most of their originals were dissonant and hugely energetic and richly improvised so they felt far more transient. They played a few known tunes, too, in this style. Autumn leaves was one. Now we all know Autumn leaves: no jazz musician could pass his training without it. Pen Island played it, but I had no idea where the tune was or what were the chords or the melody. I asked Brett later, and apparently he had played the chords backwards (starting with the last chord and reading left and up), extending each chord to four bars, and Gerard had played the melody in inversion. Then they’d improvised over that. The first set had been one long improv. Brett confirmed: no key, no preconceptions, just big ears. They finished with Skylark which should be as identifiable as Autumn leaves to my (smaller) ears. This had Brett playing the melody (“fairly freely”) then a solo, then piano playing the tune over a flattened bass riff (b5, b9?). But again, all richly improvised and heavily substituted so I only caught hints of melody during the first bass chorus. Bad Plus came to mind with their knavish energy, and I heard their atonal clamour a few times, but this was more unconventional, more extreme, more challenging. I loved it but I didn’t always understand it. I could hear extensions on bass and sequences on piano and lots of rock-influenced drum grooves and even a few walks. They were clear enough. But the whole was far more enveloping. There was some real beauty at times that took you back amongst the delirious energy. There was a bass tone to die for: big and round and clear as day. There was harmonic cleverness and massed 20th century dissonance from piano. There was a wonderful drum solo at the end that developed on Miles’ coloured and sometimes disjunctive style. There was a precision in the rests and returns that surprised and pleased me. There was some tuneful playing with obvious skills, but that lyricism was a surprise. These were players searching the boundaries with only ears to survive by and doing it at breakneck speed. Exhilarating and devilish and daring.

Canberra has its Parliamentary Triangle, and Pen Island has its Eternal Triangle and looking at their album cover had not only me thinking of another eternal triangle. Pen Island was intellect and extremity and skills and a stretch for many, but it was fabulous. Pen Island is Gerard “Phantom Jazz” Masters (piano), Brett “Lumberjack” Hirst (bass) and Miles “Stallion” Thomas (drums).

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