14 September 2012

Hot and stormy

I forgot how much I like jazz in noisy, steamy bars. Last night was Hippo with a band pulled together by Rohan Moore and featuring the front line of John Mackey and Matt Handel with visitor Hugh Barrett and returnee Raf Jerjen. I’ve been hearing lots of music recently in quiet environments, often new compositions, all essential and purposeful. Hippo is not like that. It was once our major jazz venue and featured touring acts, then it had a break and it’s back to local performers for the Wednesday night jazz session. But it’s always been noisy and that annoyed many serious touring performers. It’s always been at heart a cocktail bar, so chatty, steamy, sexy, even if it featured serious jazz and accepted the listener audience. But it seems to me that vibrant jazz can thrive in this environment. Performers can let go, play hard or dangerously, make a few clunkers and it doesn’t matter. They can essentially play for themselves and enjoy it. It’s not for everyone all the time, but to let go on the modern standards with a set of admirable players, it’s a blast. So it was with Rohan and mates.

The repertoire’s one I know from many of John’s gigs: hard burning ‘50s/’60s Coltrane and the like. Sentimental mood, Miss Jones, Invitation, Giant steps and the like: all to be expected and all great foundations for letting go. There was one Miles fusion, too, which I recognised but couldn’t name, which changed the feel but was performed equally impressively. These are just great players. John and Matt were like brothers, although quite different in speech. John letting go with streams of 16th note passages teaming over the tune, not particularly dissonant, but disorienting in the extremity and profusion of his fat, tenor notes. He surprised me, too, with a few solos of open, three-note sequences and intervals that seemed something stylistically new and that I hadn’t heard from him before. Matt’s alto is voiced higher, of course. The tone suggests bop and I heard Bird in some, but this is essentially more modern. Still spelling out chords with licks and playing with sidesteps and sequences and dissolving into flourishes. But when the two horns spoke harmonies together, this was another experience. I laughed at a habit they had of tenor playing high and alto playing a lower voice: what a good sound. But how easily they chatted back and forth through their instruments! That’s why I say like brothers: different as brothers are, but essentially in tune. Powerful and fluent stuff. Amongst this, I heard Hugh taking a tempered and traditional path, running chords in long strings of eighth notes with an easy fluency consonant tonality. I was intrigued to hear this quintessential jazz piano style after Tate Sheridan’s richly chordal classical style of the night before. Both these styles exist in jazz these days, but they are worlds apart. To some extent, Raf also provided a jazz/classical comparison with Rohan Dasica (also the night before) but the difference was nowhere near so obvious. Since leaving the Jazz School and indulging in NYC and classes with the likes of Pattitucci and Mraz, he’s playing so, so strongly. There’s a real traditional solidity and confidence in this playing, good tone and presence, rock solid swing, constantly varied walking lines, funky fills and extensive thumb position solos. Really nice and really solid. And there’s sheer joy in his playing: open smiles, jokes with the band and the rest. I’ve noted this with several truly committed players after they’ve left the school. The best settle down to professional life and recognise just how much of a challenge this level is, and they settle in to a lifetime of ardent practice. My guess is Raf is doing that and it shows. Rohan was the one who gathered this band. I’ve heard him on several outings and was mightily impressed by his compositions in his Songbird project, where he moved well outside swing and standards. But he was comfortable and determined in this context, too: a calm and steely presence in the corner and one who could be explosive in accents. His presence reminded me of Art Blakey: eyes and awareness and determination.

Giant steps isn’t something new but it’s classic and overwhelming when well performed. That’s what this concert was like: old favourites, modern standards and a revelation. John Mackey (tenor), Matt Handel (alto), Hugh Barrett (piano), Rafael Jerjen (bass) and Rohan Moore (drums) blew a storm at Hippo.

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