26 August 2007

A day at the Jazz School

It seems that yesterday was the Open Day for all manner of tertiary institutions in Canberra. I knew of the Open Day for the Music School, but not of the others; too bad. There would be lots to visit and check out around our several universities here in Canberra. My interests take in more than just jazz. I missed a classical double bass workshop, an open rehearsal for the Magic Flute (the upcoming ANUSM student-staged opera for this year – not one to be missed), a fortepiano recital, a samba presentation and more at the classical school. Presumably there would have been physics and astronomy and philosophy and literature and photography and geology and much more to visit. It’s all fascinating, but jazz it was. In fact, the sessions were so interesting that I hardly left the Band Room, the main performance space at the Jazz School, for 5 hours.

I heard performances by the Faculty band, ie, the teachers: too short - only two tunes - but impressively competent. Also the Commercial Band and the Big Band. I love these larger ensembles for the chords that ring out from the collected horns, so this is always a highlight. The Commercial Band is spunky and funky with tunes by the Yellowjackets and Matt Harris. They also played a great version of Footprints. The lushness of the horns, original lyrics written and sung by Sophie Leslie, and the subtle moves from the Footprints riff to walks and back again were a thing of genuine beauty and a good bit of emotion. A stunning performance of this true classic. The Big Band is bigger and more mainstream. On the day, it featured several Jenna Cave and Bob Mintzer charts and a great version of Moondance. Not a favourite of mine, but Madeleine Hawke sang it with edgy voice and a dissonant scat solo. There were many satisfying solos between the two bands. I especially remember a subtle keyboard solo by Ben Foster in Footprints, several solos by James LeFevre and Carl “Nuke” Morgan, a fluid drum intro by Evan Dorian, and a tasteful bass solo by Bill Williams. All notable players.

The rest of the day was taken by three workshops. The first was Matt Thompson on piano. There was a good deal of chat on school entry, but particularly interesting was a demonstration by Ben Foster of his advanced studies topic: self-accompaniment styles of several jazz pianists. He talked and gave short demonstrations of the solo styles of Kenny Barron, Oscar Peterson, Fred Hirsch, Bill Evans and Harry Connick Jr. The move was from stride and walking bass lines, through more syncopated styles to a fugue-like style which combined right and left hands into a single, chord-implying whole. John Mackey (sax) followed with a session on jazz improvisation. There were lots of ideas to recount; here are just a few. Only 1-2% of material is new on stage, it’s mostly learnt in practice; turning maths into music; invest in a piano; studying with a piano; sounds of one note against multiple chords and levels of dissonance; 4 or even 15 hours a day to practice; setting objectives in practicing; visualising what you play; writing choruses as practice; learning the basics; sound projection; playing Giant steps as a ballad (!); how to learn 276 scales in a week (!!); and more. The last workshop was on rhythm sections, with Eric Ajaye (bass) and Col Horweg (drums). Some thoughts that hit me were: concurrent 3/4-4/4 feel as the great polyrhythm, the fundamental way to cross the bar, the DNA of African and Latin music; better to listen to 1 CD 1,000 times, than 1,000 CDs one time: you can listen to great CDs innumerable times and always learn something new; the best books about jazz have words (“Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation” [Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology Series] by Paul F. Berliner was recommended); play as yourself, don’t be defeated trying to play as someone else, everyone has creativity to expose (music is a confidence game). There were also some anecdotes: Freddie Hubbard was mentioned; Miles apparently didn’t know All Blues would be in three when he entered the studio (!) and the subsequent observation that All Blues is in 6 in the Real Book; or the comment that when people refer to their experience in playing with Miles, they just nod and say “ah, ha”. There was some lovely playing during these workshops: Eric and Col on bass and minimal kit displaying all manner of styles and approaches on All the things you are; Matt playing some stylish piano duos with students; John demonstrating Coltrane changes, in and out playing and some pretty explosive blues.

In all, it was a dense inundation of jazz over several hours. If you missed this one, try to get there next year – it’s an annual event.

18 August 2007

White Eagle on target again

White Eagle is always an anticipated outing. Usually, it’s a local band and an import. Both are interesting, often in vastly different ways. But they are always interesting. So, before I proceed, let me make a plug for WE. Don’t let the music die. Support White Eagle. It was not a big turnout last night. WE needs audience. Be there.

The local band for this latest event was one I’ve been awaiting, the Sally Greenaway Septet. It’s made up of very capable Jazz School graduates, but it was not this so much that interested me. What was interesting was the potential for original, richly orchestrated music, rather than hot blowing. We got quite a bit of blowing, too, but the sounds of a largish front line was the attraction. I was thinking of bands like Carla Bley’s or Dave Brubeck’s Octet. This is a band with multiple composers and comprises 7 players including a decent front line. Promising! We got Sally Greenaway and Jenna Cave, composers who impressed last year with their “Take it in colour” CD. Added to this were an original composition by Rob Lee and some covers of Stefon Harris, a favourite of Sally's.

On the night, the Septet comprised: Sally Greenaway (piano), Phill Jenkins (bass), Ben Braithwaite (drums), Jono Apps (trumpet, flugelhorn), Jenna Cave (alto, soprano sax), Alistair Clarke and Rob Lee (trombones). As you’d expect, the sound was frequently luscious. The clear, bell-like brass tones were bliss, most notably when the troms played with the softer flugel. The sounds were highlighted particularly on Sally’s compostion, Take a break, which featured the four horns twisting conterpoint lines with no rhythm backing. The tunes were mostly modern styles, but a final number used cut-time and sounded of early jazz. In all, 5 of 7 tunes were originals.

Solos were played all around. I was especially taken by Jonno, who just seems to improve his soloing with each performance that I hear. Both the troms did highly capable solos, but I must highlight Alistair’s playing on the night. He replaced Valdis Thoman at short notice, but you wouldn’t have known it. His reading was exceptional, and his solos lively and true. There were impressive solos from Sally and Phill, and I especially liked Ben's effort with unison backing.

The import for the night was Arrow out of Sydney. They seemed to be missing one member (vibes) but the remaining players performed brilliantly. I understood why when I noted the names, well known in the JazzGroove scene. Unusually, Arrow is led by a drummer. But this is a drummer who composes, so he’s a more musical style of player. His compositions were cryptic in titling, modern and quite melodic in style, and often displayed rhythmic changes or twists which we should expect in a drummer’s charts. Just for the record, the tunes included titles like: The Russian, Obtuse, Solipsism, Big C reprise and the like. Wayland was clearer in its dedication to Sean Wayland, the Sydney pianist now resident in NY.

Arrow was Paul Derricott (drums), Mike Majkowski (bass), Simon Ferenci (trumpet) and Hugh Barrett (Rhodes/piano). Missing on the night was Dale Gorfinkel (vibes). Every player performed with excellence, and the band itself displayed that energy, commitment and passion that I’ll put down to a big city buzz. Whatever, it was hard and inspired from the top. I loved Simon’s long, sinuous and always correct solo lines. Great playing! Paul played with power and grace, pushing the tunes but also playing with considerable but subtle chops. A perfect match for Mike. Mike’s visited Canberra frequently over recent months. He’s always hugely committed and perfectly capable: an excellent rhythmic support, but also a capable soloist. Amusing at times too, as he strums or whacks or drums the bass. It’s not done for humour, of course, and often it forms a perfect, unexpected climax to his solos, but you can’t deny a certain tongue in cheek aspect. Hugh performed well too, variously octave solos or more mainstream, in our out of the harmony. This was occasionally quirky but mostly hard and committed modern jazz with an attractive melodic component. Very nice stuff.

So, another night that hits the mark at White Eagle. Let’s keep it going. Keep music live. Make a date with each White Eagle.

10 August 2007

All the way from Belgium

Right from the top it was a concert of great joy. Kristen and her hubby were back from Belgium, presumably to catch up with family and friends. They’d picked up old mates for just two concerts in Oz while they were here. We were lucky that one was in Canberra at Hippo. Not surprising, given that Kristen is a Jazz School graduate, and a renowned one at that. I don’t know, but I guess the family’s here in Canberra. I overheard talk of Bungendore, and, let’s face it, you have to be a local to talk seriously of jazz in Bungendore! The band might not have been overly comfortable with all the charts (evident only from the level of concentration; not from the performances), but they were having a great time together, and we were included in the good times.

I seldom get to report on voice here at CJ. It’s a love of mine, but it’s too often tame, standard-ised. This was nothing of the sort. This was joyful, ecstatic, lively, richly improvised. There was some scat, some fabulous vocalese, latin, standards. There was even pop, but done with jazz sublety and sophistication and competence that’s missing in its original inception. I was blown out by melody with subtle inflections, improvisations over a full vocal range, slides, glissandos, wide and controlled vibrato, accurate pitching, massively complex patterns and runs. Each syllable was intoned with care: held notes dissolving in broad, controlled vibrato was wonderful, but just par for the course. It was a fabulous display of vocal control. But the whole band was unified and expressive, and strikingly rich for only few players. They often dropped to two or three players during a tune, say, guitar and drums, or sax trio. But then they’d explode together into solos, collapse to vocals, often with well-heard harmonies on sax, then rise again to a peak, and so it goes. Busy, true, unified, and so much fun.

We expect personality from singers: more than from other players. And Kristen was an engaging personality, too. She’d drop jokey lines, mark out pitch with hand movements, busily concern herself with stage matters. This was intimacy, but with a respectful distance. Not mawkish; not intrusive. She was obviously disappointed with the chatter against a few ballads, commenting “That’s OK, just keep talking” and the like, but she was too professional to miss a step, and subtle enough that it didn’t offend. (But then it didn’t do too much good, either).

The band was: Kristen Cornwell (vocals), Sandy Evans (soprano, tenor sax), Fabian Hevia (drums), Jeremy Sawkins (guitar) and Belgian husband Christophe Devisscher (bass). The music was a mix of styles, but all done with irrepressible energy. There were standards and latin and bluesy and funky styles. There were lots of capable originals penned by Kristen. (Her “Billygoat” was dedicated to her cat, and it was a perfect feline incarnation: a hot bop starter, followed by slinky, improvised midsection). There was vocalese by Joni Mitchell (Dry cleaner from Des Moines) and Kurt Elling and funky electric music from Chick Corea. There was even Suzanne Vega and Alan Parsons (!). Quite a mix. It was all great, but I have to vote for the sheer expertise of vocalese. The Elling and Joni Mitchell tunes were knockouts!

As for the other players, Sandy Evans was her concentrated best, as she layered on harmonies with the vocals, or awaited gaps for expressive little fills, or just soloed so intelligently and responsively. Jeremy Sawkins did great chordal backing, and fusion-styles, dirty solos. I sometimes lost Christophe in the mix, but he was busy and so relevant. You could sense a different culture in his playing and presentation. Modern Euro is not downtown Australia. There was an interesting contrast of styles here. But his solos were fast and furious. The inevitable quip that “I married my bass player because I’d lost too many bassists in the past” added an intimate jokiness to the occasion. I leave the last for Fabian Hevia. I believe Fabian’s a holder of several qualifications from the Sydney Con, but he also provides a different cultural twist. His South American earthiness and sensibility is a favourite of mine. I’ve heard him on percussion several times, but it’s on drums that I particularly love his playing. Technically, he’s hugely but subtly skilled (hear these hyperfast, supercontrolled one stick drum rolls) but he’s also so, so expressive. This guy slinks around a kit, interpreting and countering the playing of the others in the band. He’s earthy and liquid: drum heaven.

So you’ve probably got the drift. This was fun, engaging, energetic and highly skilled. Nice one; thanks to Kristen and her top mates.
  • Kristen Cornwell on MySpace | Web
  • 09 August 2007

    Sylvie's sidekicks

    This time a photo essay. The Sylvia Mitchell Trio appeared at The Gods Cafe as Sylvie & the Sidekicks. A beautiful, considered performance, with intense grooves, on standards and originals by all members. An intimate, cerebral experience. Sylvia Mitchell (alto sax), Jess Green (guitar), Zoe Hauptmann (bass).

    The review fromt his concert was entered in the National Jazz Writing Competition, and is now belatedly published as Sylvie's sidekicks (NJWC3). Ed. 10 Nov 2006