18 November 2012

Giant steps are what we take

It’s the first line of the classic pop tune, Walking on the Moon by the Police, but with an obvious jazz reference. The Raf Jerjen Trio played Walking on the Moon and they didn’t play Giant steps. Raf’s swinging trio can seem somewhat out of time playing heavy, dug in swing like Ray Brown and NHOP while students are busily exploring the universe of rhythms and strange scales and Raf mentioned this. Maybe that apocryphal quote of Newton’s, that we stand on the shoulders of giants, is a better quote here. I clearly heard Bill Evans fluency and interplay and there was a raft of dissonance and Bill remains modern. This band recognises and values the past but it also had a modern awareness and a placement in history.

Raf’s bass was fat and growling and his playing was fast and supple and fluent. There were some stunningly fast runs in the low positions and lengthy thumb position scales but I was particularly taken by the lyricism of long intervals across strings through the middle of the neck. I’ve always admired Paul’s piano which I hear as deeply cool and personal but also as an intellectual treat of dissonance and changing harmony. Paul’s not forward in performance, but I find his piano is wonderfully expressive and inventive. Raf commented on Paul’s found harmonies. He also nicknamed Gary as the semitrailer, always ready to come on strong in the next bar. That was so right, and this format suited Gary to a tee, open, rhythmically clear and tonally precise and with an exuberant joy in unexpected explosiveness. This is a trio that spans the history of the jazz school. Raf formed the trio and is a recently graduated student; Paul studied there in the ‘80s, during the early years of the jazz school; Gary has taught at the School of Music for a decade or more. This was a unity of friends and long term colleagues, bouncing off each other in the best traditions of jazz. Raf volunteered their policy as “Swing hard and keep it real”. It’s an older conception but still profound and too good to be forgotten. This is music to bathe in.

So if not Giant steps, what did they play? Raf provided a few originals and Paul an original and several arrangements. They also played a few standards. All the things you are is ubiquitous and Wayne Shorter’s Black Nile and the Police have caché as modern and sophisticated. Bye Bye Blackbird and Raindrops keep falling on my head don’t, but they were also satisfying as vehicles for vibrant, responsive and often adventurous playing. These guys are each strong in their own right. They don’t need one another to lay out the tune or work their way through variations on it, but the totality is stronger than the sum of parts as they bounce off each other or explore paths in counterpoint. I particularly noticed Raf’s sophisticated job of laying down unexpected intervals and movements within the chordal structure while Paul was playing through a range of dissonances. Bass usually holds the structure together while the lead explores alternate harmonies. Raf did this but he didn’t resort to the obvious. Good. One original by Raf was a quirky number called Happy Ahmad. It aptly matched Ahmad Jamal’s playfulness with parts of light melodicism, bouncing swing and extended bass fills. Strange but effective. Another was a slow and sombre dedication to bassist George Mraz. Paul’s original was a dedication to his family. His arrangements that I know are of modern pop songs, and some have a degree of syrup (think Raindrops… or Tie a yellow ribbon round an old oak tree) but he moulds them as cool rhythms and worthy jazz vehicles. Paul’s Raindrops features a drop into Monk’s Well you needn’t. There’s quiet humour but also seriousness and cleverness here. It’s almost a throwback olden times to hear Bye Bye Blackbird, but when it’s played like this, it’s a treat. A growling bass in a swinging piano trio is a thing of wonder and just enhanced by stylish dissonance. I enjoyed this concert immensely. Raf Jerjen (bass) led his trio with Paul Dal Broi (piano) and Gary France (drums) at the CGS Gallery.

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