14 April 2012

Tradition in the craft

Adrian Cunningham and his trio had me again thinking of history. You hear a certain defensiveness in players of older styles relative to the “modern” or “contemporary”, but as I listen more, I get increasingly intrigued by the connections, the developments, the presence of the past in the present. We talked of Jason Moran who melds stride with free and lots besides; of the authenticity and beauty of melody; of the clarinet as a primary instrument. They played a deliciously lithe version of Dream a little dream of me with a sweetly melodic bass solo and a gentle, soothing swing and Adrian’s slithering clarinet but there were also touches of modern throughout the performance. Piano and wind both dropped substitutions and dissonance amongst rolling chordal features and solo lines that were richly stated but otherwise with limited alterations. I was talking to pianist Gordon after the gig and he spoke of languages as a metaphor for stylistic eras, and that multiple languages expand how you think about things as well as giving you other ways to say things. Choosing your main language, but learning and being influenced by other languages, is a large part of developing a musical personality. It was interesting having this discussion in the Canberra Grammar School gallery surrounded by photos by Aimee Fitzgerald that I had reported on CJ. She also experiments with history, this time by photographing herself dressed as actors in great art of other eras. If “clothes maketh the (wo-)man”, then changing clothes is not just “dress-ups” but changes your presence and understanding and places you in history. It’s a different way of thinking and I think it’s more expansive and interesting than our urgent, a-historical, consumerist presentism. But I digress.

These are three New York-resident players, so they are eminently capable. Adrian is Sydney-sourced, Gordon from Canada and bassist Rob is a US native. When asked about Australians in NYC, Adrian said he lived there for the chance to play with good musicians. That was clearly the case. These guys swung really easily and positively, as a drumless trio or as a piano/bass duo when Adrian dropped out. Adrian was richly emotive and easily fluent with his lines on flute, tenor or his preferred instrument, clarinet. Gordon spoke in older languages, but also with modern accents. Players like this excite me with rich expression within the defines of tonality. They were not so much melodic as expansive within tonal boundaries. Rob was more essentially melodic in his solos. Bass is clumsier and less chordal and has less support in solos, so tends to clearer statements of harmony. What else did they play? Gone with the wind, Irving Berlin’s Just in time, Johnny Mandel’s Emily, that classic bossa Manha da Carneval / Black Orpheus / Day in the life of a fool. What I can't take with me, an original by Adrian. Also Janelle by Cold Chisel. Cold Chisel? It sounded to me distinctly of St James Infirmary, but Adrian said it was off CC’s Last Stand concert. So be it. These guys speak a historical language with modern accents to swing dancers, but they know and are influenced by the whole range of their craft: Cold Chisel, Meshell Ndegeocello (Adrian recounted that she unpretentiously did sound for him at a gig), Michael Jackson, Jason Moran were all mentioned on the night. This night was amiable and refreshing and more swing that trad, but a pointer to the Gotham City Trad Jazz renaissance that Gordon also mentioned.

Adrian Cunningham (clarinet, flute, tenor sax) performed with Gordon Webster (piano) and Rob Adkins (bass) at the Canberra Grammar School Gallery.

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