14 November 2012

From Paris via Bermagui

I sat back awed by Alex Stuart’s band. There was some seriously hot playing here on some complex charts with odd times and contorted melodies and chunky grooves and lots of time for speedy solos. I chatted to Brendan in the break and mentioned this. He said it was a pleasure to do a few gigs in a row, as this band has done. He’d got some mp3s and charts to prepare - as is normal practice - but often there’s just one gig, maybe two, and you are struggling with more complex pieces. This band had played twice at the Wangaratta Festival, as well as Bennett’s Lane in Melbourne and Zephyr’s at Bermagui, so the music was comfortable. It was clear with the settled grooves and the eyes that weren’t stuck in the music stands. And these are such good players and this was such a decent, unusually mature, audience. I guess it’s family and friends, as both Alex and Brendan studied here in Canberra. But all four have reputations and Julien and Ben are masters that would have brought in a few others. Suffice to say it was a hot band and one I was particularly looking forward to.

The grooves were wonderfully strong. Ben is all over them, occasionally laying a beat, but otherwise idiosyncratically laying counter-rhythms, strong and hard, sometimes moving around the beat, but always so strong and fluent and easy, and with a left foot unconventionally working an extra pedal striking a cymbal or whatever. Brendan was equally fluid but also stout and solid on bass. He’s got a wonderfully formed left hand, strong with first finger pointed, playing mostly in the lower registers, but straying to thumb positions and almost above the fingerboard for one solo. But it was his right hand, fingers and arms working, that mostly impressed me and that’s where the groove comes from. There were smiles from Ben and returned chuckles from Brendan showed they were having a good time. I’ve seen Julien in more restrained situations but this was anything but. I didn’t always catch his playing from where I was sitting (I’m told he was louder on the other side of the stage) but when I did he was quite softly toned but fast although not frantic and what seemed to be mostly tonal and reliably structured. This was lyrical but at speed: very nice. Alex led from the guitar with his own compositions. There were devilishly fast heads, often against changing times and bar lengths, leading to repeating grooves, sometimes in odd times. I think I counted a 12 and an 11 and a 9 but the band was fluid and barlines were treated with apt disrespect, so it was none too obvious and often difficult to count. I thought I heard Mahavishnu in some of Alex’s accompaniment and I thought of fusion, but the heads weren’t like that. The players were all strong and all led the others at times, but I could feel Alex leading often enough from his comping seat. I didn’t particularly hear Mahavishnu in his solos although they were sometimes rabidly fast (guitars usually are). I felt this was mature and idiosyncratic and stylistically developed playing. I felt an influence of rock in chunky chord solos and effective use of repetition, but also slinky jazz guitar and what I guess were various alt or Arabic scales in both solos and composition. And a soft but lengthy echo that showed itself at the end of solos. I particularly liked the way the band members would drop out: maybe just drums and guitar, or bass and sax, then come back in, one by one, with rising excitement. And the strength of these duos were remarkable! I was taken aback at one time when I realised just how strong was a groove that was just bass and tenor: stunning strength and independence of playing. Local altoist Matt Handel sat in for a few tunes, too, so the front line got fatter in melodies and there were solos to compare and a sax summit of the two horns.

I’d expected a good night and this was more mature and settled than I’d hoped for. What good players are these, and what an impressive and well practised outing. At this level, it just takes five gigs. I shouldn’t be surprised: these guys are good. Alex Stuart (guitar, compositions) is back from Paris for a visit and touring with Julien Wilson (tenor), Brendan Clarke (bass) and Ben Vanderwal (drums). Matt Handel (alto) sat in for several tunes.

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