28 September 2008

More harps, many more

It’s a harp weekend in Canberra for the Third Australian Harp Festival. I’ve written of Mary Doumany elsewhere, and I managed to attend the Harp Ensembles Concert today. I was expecting to be impressed with the number of instruments on stage: fifty harps, or thereabouts. It was much more than that. I got taken in by the elegance and civility of the Handel (Concerto in Bb Opus 4 no. 6) played by the 3AHF Grand Harp Orchestra. It prepared me for the stunner of the day. The Seven Harp Ensemble played music of Larry Sitsky and Martin Wesley-Smith: both Australian composers. The Sitsky was rich with complex chords, altered extensions, modern harmonies: challenging and contemporary. The MW-S piece was sublime. It was difficult to catch the intent at first: one main female vocal and a harmonising voice. Then a male voice appeared from the dress circle above the audience. I listened more carefully. Still not too clear but seemingly women singing of lost husbands, presumably in war. The title was Seven widows at the gates of Sugamo. Touching, plaintive, even excruciating. This is goose-bumps stuff: fabulous. There was a break, and several other ensembles. Some Scott Joplin rags (not really strong on the jazz groove). A hugely popular and well-known piece, Pavane, by that hugely prolific composer, Anonymous, played very beautifully. A traditional Welsh piece which I knew well, but have never known the name of, the Ash Grove. It just had me thinking of Robyn Archer singing risqué lyrics in an Adelaide University Law Review in the ‘70s – she was just a law student at the time. A world premiere of two tunes written for the AHF, ex-Post-Facto I & II; they were written by Jim Cotter, who was there to receive a bottle in appreciation. Some lovely tunes (a tango and a dance) by a Salzedo, who I understand was a key player of the harp over the last century. Harp. I never expected this, but it was beautiful and entrancing and enriching. A lovely concert, and even profound at times.

From the sublime to something very different, I’ve included a pic of a Chinese Tiger drum group that was playing outside the Llewelyn Hall. Don’t know that they relate too well, but they were impressive and much louder than the harps.

PS. Thanks to Liena, Natalya and Vince for the invitation to the Festival and the pleasant company.

Elegantly sassy

Elegantly sassy is how Mary Doumany described the tunes she was playing last night at the Gods. It suited her performance, as well. Harp is not an instrument I immediately think of in the jazz context, but the Australian Harp Festival was in town for its third biennial get together, and there seemed to be a real strength of jazz and folk interest to supplement the obvious classical bent. I met Mary before the concert and she spoke of playing with the likes of Jeremy Alsop, Paul Grabowski and David Jones. That’s an impressive CV for any player, jazz or otherwise. Also, I’d noticed she was giving a workshop in jazz harp the following day (along with our local Sally Greenaway). She told me it would be mainly concerned with the blues, and given her accompanying vocals, this woman obviously had a broad palette to draw from.

Elegantly sassy was a perfect description. Mary played an alternating mix of instrumental tunes, presumably from her solo harp CD, Elemental, and American popular song, mainly Cole Porter (I get a kick out of you, Let’s fall in love, Night and day, I concentrate on you, Anything goes). The popular song was presented seriously, thoughtfully, perhaps more earnestly than Cole Porter himself may have done, but the cleverness of the lyrics and the composition supported this rendering. I enjoyed the Cole Porter tunes: they are masterpieces, and delightfully tuneful. The instrumentals were presumably more true to the harp repertoire. They seemed variously moody and inventive. A MD original called Spirit seemed to move from mystically floating five time to rapidly arpeggiated six. Another MD original, Fire, sounded of Spain and Arabic harmonies. As times, I thought of films of the 50s or thereabouts, which seemed to commonly feature harp washes in their soundtracks. But I particularly liked a ring-in, the country ballad, Miss Otis regrets. Mary pared this down to a bass pedal accompanied by a sensitively improvised vocal melody line that expressed a jazz sensibility. I also heard this jazz sensibility elsewhere, in some intriguing scales on this most delicate of instruments, in a rendering of blues chords, and in a story of a classical listener who observed that she didn’t play exactly as written in her published charts. But there was still that approach which we know and love from the harp: fast, repeating scalar fragments or arpeggiated runs, sometimes with an embedded melody, other times with a sharp and clear melody overlaid and ringing like a classical guitar. Mary was sassy enough to finish with requests: that memorable ballad, Smoke gets in your eyes, and that quintessentially common jazz number, Summertime. Someone likened her to Blossom Dearie after the concert, but I’d been thinking Patricia Barber. Either way, these are worthy references.

And I learnt various things about the harp. The red strings are Cs and the brown strings are Fs, and the strings are like the white notes on a piano. There are lots of coloured strings, so it’s got a large range. Apparently, it extends over 4 octaves below middle C. Strings are variously nylon, gut or wound. There are seven pedals, one each for a note, each allowing sharp, natural or flat settings for that note. Mary had to tune up during the session, so it’s obviously a sensitive instrument, although she said it’s solid (“like a piece of furniture”). I now find a pedal harp weighs 34kg.

So, it was a new experience for me. Pleasant and mellifluous, as you’d expect, with nostalgic reminiscences and a satisfying, romantic, even hypnotic atmosphere. A very nice twist on the jazz idiom.

27 September 2008

Flavours over layers and a nice march

I’ve noticed that student music has been wonderfully varied recently. Not to say I don’t like standards; I do. But it’s exciting to hear new music, and doubly so when it’s so unpredictable and in such varying styles.

Matt Sykes presented his largish band, The Melds, last night as a Friday Night Live concert on ArtSound. Just the makeup of the band told you this was different: nine players, three guitars. Sounds interesting before you hear a note. Then it all starts with pedal bass, polyrhythmic drums, layers of guitar colours, organ pads, then a recursive melody on the horns, references to sustained grooves a la Bitches Brew. The band continued without a stop into another harmonically simple tune with repetitive trombone melody; again richly layered with complex tonalities, again with crossing rhythms from various instruments. I’m wondering, who’s conducting this? I’m also wondering why it is that trombone players are so often so simply and perfectly melodic. Continuing into thin, effected guitar chords with other guitar sounds layered over, and another simple, pensive, recursive melody and some sweet horn harmonies. A wonderful solo on trumpet; a stunning response on alto. Wailing un-guitar tones reminiscent of Scofield synth play and a ‘bone solo. Still no break; now three tunes running a long medley; perhaps 25 minutes. Hypnotic, soothing, emollient. A break for a Hymn for leaving; balladic, developing into a relatively bouncy two feel, and a blissful alto solo. And that organ again. But there’s no keyboard; just guitars. The other guitars are effected, but Matt Lustri’s more bizarre, toying with Mike Price’s Roland guitar synth on loan: pads, organs; unreal tones or tones only too real like Hammonds and even steel drums.

After the break, a bass solo intro, and those steel drums just making the lightly swinging Caribbean tune sound the part. This is where we noticed the good humour. Lots of guys jumping and laughing. This is a group of students, after all. Prime of life stuff. Mates having a ball but musically serious despite the jocularity. Then something that verged on the more mainstream, and another searing alto solo from Joe Lloyd. Then a bouncing European march, a complex piece reminiscent of the great Carla Bley: Simon Milman’s Explorations in clown music. The concert ended with a seemingly free improvisation of reversed sounds and cacophonies. I was in the studio at this time. Simon was conductor and guide; Valdis was the stentorian voice calling the end … to considerble mirth! The end to a fabulously entertaining and category-challenging concert. Great work, guys. A blowout! Loved it.

The Melds are led by Matt Sykes (drums) with Simon Milman (bass), Matt Lustri (synthesiser guitar), Adam Guzowski (guitar and effects), Andy Campbell (guitar and effects), Valdis Thomann (trombone), Reuben Lewis (trumpet), Joe Lloyd (alto saxophone) and guest Hugh Deacon (percussion).

26 September 2008

Aron amongst the tulips

Pics by Susan Smith

The Aron Lyon Trio is playing for several nights at Floriade Nightfest. Nightfest is primarily a short film festival, but there's some jazz intersperced through the night. Aron Lyon (guitar) is playing with Bill Williams (bass) and Sam Young (drums). Thanks to Sue for the pics.

23 September 2008

Saxessions (Too much on, 3)

John Mackey was the common element in his Saxessions evening at Street Theatre. What a mammoth event. An evening of John playing with three different groups was enough to make for a special event. But a live broadcast to ArtSound and a possible triple live CD just adds to the uniqueness of the night. I dread missing it, but I did manage to hear some snippets on ArtSound FM during the night. There were three sets, with the Austin Benjamin Trio, with Eric Ajaye and Mark Sutton, and with the Greg Stott Band (GSB). These all displayed obviously different characteristics. There were originals peppered through the night. The middle set had a freely improvised medley of four standards (Blue bossa, Footprints, Solar and Invitation). They had no idea how this was to happen, but as John said, with guys like Eric and Mark you can feel confident. The GSB set was a fusion style, with fast guitar and bluesier sax. Hearing it on radio made for a more dispassionate listen and I enjoyed everything I caught. It must have been an entrancing event for those in the theatre. There were listeners who were interviewed at the end, who talked of coming in, unplanned, on the strength of the broadcast. It was a marathon for John, but also for ArtSound who put together the recording and broadcast. Both John and Chris Deacon sounded wrung out at the end, but also buoyed by the achievement. I’m looking forward to hearing the totality when released.

John Mackey (tenor sax) played the full session. He played set 1 with Austin Benjamin (piano), Chris Pound (bass) and Evan Dorrian (drums). Set 2 featured John with Eric Ajaye (bass) and Mark Sutton (drums). John played set 3 as the fourth member of the GSB comprising Greg Stott (guitar), Jason Varlet (bass) and Mark Sutton (drums).

Feel free to add your comments below.

22 September 2008

Folkus (Too much on, 2)

Dirk Zeylmans and Graham Monger seem to have been playing in their band, As Famous as the Moon (AFATM), forever. I catch them at the oddest times. I’ve heard them playing on the sidewalk around Woden. I’ve heard them three times calming the bidders in my street before house auctions. I’ve heard them once at Hippo with Bernie McGann. Dirk works on Bernie’s sax so he seems to take the opportunity to organise a gig when he visits.

AFATM advertises as a smooth jazz trio (tenor, guitar, bass), but their jazz performances usually add a drummer and a piano is also common. Dirk uses lots of capable local players, so the band is strong, and his love of people like Joe Henderson and Gene Ammons promises hard swing on interesting standards and jazz tunes and tasteful playing. This day he started with Homestretch and Blue bossa from Joe Henderson’s Page One album, then into Hank Mobley’s Greasin’ easy, and a series of standards: Have you met Miss Jones, Body & soul, Triste and Straight no chaser. Dirk’s tenor was smooth and lyrical with a wonderful tone. Graham Monger on guitar played swinging, sweet-sounding solos on an authentic jazz Gibson. Hugh Deacon appeared on drums, and showed strong concentration and capable playing. Lachlan Coventry played a jazz bass. I know him more as a guitarist, and his electric bass is certainly influenced by this: fast and fluid and positional and picked. I’ve recently been studying double bass after playing electric for many years, and have been stunned by the difference that the size, the fingering technique and the limited range (without thumb positions) imposes on the playing style and performance. I’ve found my walking lines on electric have changed, and they just seem more true to jazz after time on an acoustic. Lachlan is also taking up acoustic, so it will be interesting to see how his electric playing changes over time. I enjoyed AFATM for the tunes and the era and the playing and the sound.

The Yass High School Stage Band appeared next at Jazz@Folkus, led by their music teacher Dave Greenwood. They ran through a series of nice charts, ending on a high with some lively tunes including Weather Report’s Birdland. The ensemble playing was pretty tight, and this bodes well for their musical future. They are young players, so their individual skills (soloing, intonation) are still developing, but it was a great show, and Birdland just made it for me. Congrats to Daniel and his band.

That said, being young was no limit for the next band. M’or Faz appeared as a quartet and displayed some very strong playing on three jazz-funk standards: Footprints, My funny valentine (mostly played funky) and Summertime (also played funky). Jordan Tarento raised eyebrows when he started the gig with an impressive bass solo, and proceeded to play a very mature and strong funk style. I was stunned by some rapid fire triplet slap. I congratulated him after the gig and he just said it takes lots of practice. Don’t we know! Sam Andrews on tenor was also notable with similarly mature playing that belied his age. The other members were Thomas McLachlan on guitar and Josh Andrews (presumably Sam’s brother) on drums, but pianist Dominic Weiller was absent overseas. Funk can get a bit samey after a while, and I felt that by the end, but the playing was certainly impressive. BTW, Sam is in Year 12, and the others in Year 10: there’s future printed in spades in this outfit.

The day ended with the requisite line of horns for an all in blow on Tenor madness, All blues, Watermelon man and Chameleon. Same old same old, but no problems with everyone knowing the tunes!

21 September 2008

Floriade (Too much on, 1)

There’s been so much jazz on recently it’s impossible to hear everything. If you have broader interests (film, theatre, poetry, politics), it’s literally impossible. Yesterday I managed a visit to my luthier, then catch James Morrison at Floriade, and AFATM at Folkus, and missed John Mackey’s Saxessions at the Street Theatre due to a family booking. It’s been like that all this week and looks like continuing for some time. Blame it on Spring and our prolific Jazz School, but also on our intelligent and surprisingly prolific little city, Canberra.

James Morrison was playing for Floriade, and it was a magnificent, sunny day. Floriade is a mass of colour in people and flowers, and it’s featuring plenty of jazz through the weeks. Today was James Morrison and band with Emma Pask at Stage88. I hadn’t heard JM for decades, so I was interested. When I arrived I found a huge PA and a fabulous band comprising some of the best musos in Australia. This is not challenging music, so they seemed a bit underutilised. But it’s always good to hear this quality, even if they’re playing Bye bye blackbird or Route 66 or (I shudder) Tea for two. They even took requests at one stage. At least I liked Shadow of your smile: it really is very beautiful. Blaine Whittaker is a favourite of mine, and he played some lovely bop-influenced solos on Cherokee and elsewhere. James Muller never looks interested (even in artful contexts like Mothership Orchestra) but he was continually throwing in little blissbomb fills, as is his way. He never seems to take long solos, but you just melt when you hear his lines: lithe, smooth, inevitable, chromatic, dissonant, he’s truly international. Phil Stack is a great player, and did a wonderful job on everything, although rather tamer than the session with Zac Hurren recently at Hippo. Emma Pask sang strongly, was a pleasant character, and did some very good Ella-style scat. James Morrison was excellent of course as the multi-instrumentalist (trumpet, trombone, piano on the day) with Dizzy-ingly fast (and authentic) bop lines and high notes. John, his brother, played drums. Emma and James had a droll patter going for the masses, and it gets them good work. Overall, it was pretty soft, but wonderfully played. Just the thing for people who don’t really follow jazz. They certainly went down well on the day. So, madly professional and capable, but tame.

James Morrison wasn’t the only music in the park. On the way in, I heard Dan and Debbie playing a sugu from Mali on various African drums. Sounded great, as African drum patterns do. They were obviously enjoying their performance. Presumably, the sugu is a pretty complex rhythm to maintain, because they beamed when they finished it. I also caught that lovely Australia Fair Street Organ that appears in Canberra each year for Floriade. It’s an antique bellow-driven organ with tunes controlled by complex paper rolls very much like big pianola rolls. It’s uber-cute, and it has a fabulous repertoire of show tunes stacked away in shelves. Catch it if you can, or perhaps buy the CD! You can only fall in love with this puffy blast from the past.