28 November 2009

Perfected pitch

A female singing mate who I met at the Michelle Nicole gig wondered if Michelle had perfect pitch. I’d noticed just how pitch perfect she was, from the deepest growls to the highest of soprano tones. It was exquisite how she’d jump through fifths or octaves to these sky-high pitches, and still, to my ear, be spot on pitch. And it’s true, she did start tunes with no accompaniment, and they were on pitch when the backing band entered, so I guess she did have pp. It was not the only pleasure on the night. Michelle was playing with a trio that she’s long known, and the interaction and close responsiveness showed throughout the night. Lovely, intuitive responses; dynamics that moved instantly; tunes moving up and under and through the chords, led by Michelle or another player, but always sweet and accurate.

The tunes were also a joy. Singers add a special touch that instrumentalists can’t, given the stories they can tell and their use of language, which is perhaps the defining attribute of humanity. As I write, the songs seem corny, but they are mostly well known and Michelle gave them a rare humanity and personality. There will never be another you; You made me love you, I didn’t want to do it (sung in film by a teenage Judy Garland to a photo of Clark Gable); Dearly beloved; Hey you, you with the stars in your eyes; When you’re in love, it’s the loveliest night of the year; So in love; Lover. Standards from the early days that we might scoff at. They are certainly innocent, but there’s truth and wry humour there too. A new one on me was There’s a small hotel, which Michelle introduced as “risqué in its day”. I’m sure it was, but it was simple and open and a touching statement of desire. Subtle yet knowing and not at all in-your-face as we’d be now. There were a few jazz tunes, too. A surprisingly lyrical ballad by Ornette Coleman (?). I wondered if I’d heard this right; I didn’t catch the title just the name. I now think it was Lonely woman, a Horace Silver ballad that Ornette's famous for performing. And a Tadd Dameron tune called If you could see me now.

Back to the playing. Michelle was perfectly pitched and timed, involved, accurate. The band was similarly in touch, similarly accurate. Geoff toyed with volume and very moderate effects, but otherwise just played so stylishly and aptly, fast at times, but never brash. Ronny was similarly in touch and light and understated. I had trouble hearing Tom, with a soft tone and not the best mix, but he too was connected and restrained and took a nice solo or two. So, fabulous singing and a wonderfully in-touch band, and simple and touching tunes. A great night.

BTW, I should also mention the venue. Michelle played at The Q: the Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre. It’s new, comfortable and capable, and easy to access and park. Something like our own Street Theatre. They had had a launch of the theatrical calendar for 2010 before the concert, and it’s looking busy and interesting. I wish them luck. And special thanks for the gratis tickets they gave me for this show. I wasn’t expecting to go, but enjoyed it immensely when I did.

Michelle Nicolle (vocals) was backed by Geoff Hughes (guitar), Tom Lee (bass) and Ronny Ferella (drums) at the Q.

25 November 2009

Organic developments

It was a steamier style for Matt Thompson’s Organ Trio at the Trinity than I had previously heard at Moruya. Matt is not one to play screeds of notes or flourishes. It’s much more the deep, elusive interval or harmony that defines his approach to my ears, at least in the couple of outfits that I’ve seen him play with. At Moruya, his Organ Trio was particularly sparse. But Trinity’s a noisy venue, and there was a large group of people partying last night. Perhaps this brought out just a little of the mongrel in the trio.

I caught the first set. I think it was Wayne Shorter to start then another favourite melody, but I didn’t recall the titles. Then a lumbering organ blues and ballad Georgia and Softly as a morning sunrise. I heard it as hotter than previous outings, but there were still moody, floating passages that sat waiting for crepuscular melodies. Early on, I noticed a satisfyingly solid swing from John, rich with precise accents and snaps and rolls, which harkened to the hotter outing. But always there was Matt defining the cool, holding back on careless ebullience. Max is a good choice for such an outfit. He’s thoughtful and considered, working the chords steadily and comfortable with considerable dissonance. He plays faster and longer lines as the solo progresses, but they have an inevitability that speaks of solo development. But Matt is the master of the calm and considered. This is theory parsed to the n-th degree. The sparsest of lines, the most minimal of solos, the most tangential of intervals, but there’s hidden harmony that beguiles as you settle in. Melodies that weave through the structure, often distant or perpendicular, as they resolve to the tune that you knew was always there but shadowed in the minimalist soundscape. It’s elusive and inscrutable and a bit baffling. But it’s not unknowable and I’m still coming to grips with it. This is a mature player with a developed and personal style that doesn’t divulge its secrets lightly. Quite a challenge, not least to me.

Matt Thompson (keyboards) led his Organ Trio with Max Williams (tenor) and John Wilton (drums) at Trinity.

14 November 2009

Kind of blue

Miroslav Bukovsky and mates presented a tribute to Miles a few months ago. I missed because I was overseas, so I was happy to see that it was to be reprised at the Alliance Francaise. The tribute was called Kind of Blue, but it was more a celebration of the late-50s Miles by one of his many admirers, Miro. They played all the tracks from Kind of blue, with occasional transcriptions and the addition of intros as on the album. But they also played three tunes from the Louis Malle film, L’Ascenseur pour l’echafaud, and a tune called MDD (Miles Dewey Davis) that Miro had written on the day Miles died, along with Milestones, that early modal piece from Miles’ hard-bop, pre-cool era. And very satisfying it was, too.

Most of the tunes from KoB have become jazz standards, and we hear them regularly when jazzers are blowing: So what, Freddie Freeloader and All blues. Blue in green is less common, as is Flamenco sketches. These later are lovely, pensive pieces with Bill Evans harmonies and both were a joy. It was nice to remember that even the common tunes were actually fairly slow and cool in the originals, while they are often now performed up-tempo and with verve. The horns up front were lovely, with those simple, stark but effective melodies to start each of these minimally composed numbers. The soloing was good by all throughout. John’s powerhouse tone and showers of notes and a bible of substitutions. Miro with his Harmon mute for the gentler numbers, or rapidly running the changes with blaring trumpet volume. Sebastian more bluesy then dissolving into dissonant lines and honks and interval studies. Joe Lloyd ever the emotional, passionate downhill run across the whole range of the alto. The rhythm section was another batch of local stars. Luke’s comping was imaginative and responsive and leading but also understated. Ed was the sharp and precise across the dynamic range, constantly changing tones and sounds on his kit with different sticks of mallets or brushes. Hannah was regular and solid throughout long, fast hard-bop walks, up into thumb positions and down to the low E-string. The rhythm section soloed with panache, too. Hannah’s solos were well-formed little gems that were especially memorable on the gentle pieces like Blue in green . Ed’s solos were also short, but strong and clear in intent. Luke’s were rich plays with harmonies as only a pianist can do, right hand working busily up and down the keyboard.

The three tunes from L’Ascenseur pour l’echafaud were new to me. Miles extended a visit to Paris and recorded the soundtrack for this film for release in 1959. Three tunes: the first was a classic, plaintive Miles melody with Harmon mute. The second was a rolling swing. The third was a fast swing, light and slightly unstable, careening, which appeared in the film behind a car chase. The final tune of the night was an elegy to Miles by Miro. A lovely tune played with feeling and sometimes funereal drums from Ed. So, a satisfying night. A few transcriptions, but mostly original playing influenced by the master from this masterful period of the last 1950s. Much enjoyed.

Miroslav Bukovsky (trumpet) led a band with Joe Lloyd (alto sax), Sebastian McIntosh (tenor sax), Luke Sweeting (piano), Hannah James (bass) and Ed Rodrigues (drums). John Mackey (tenor sax) appeared as “+1”.

08 November 2009

Brendan finally

It was the Wine, Roses & all that Jazz festival weekend in Canberra where the local wineries book bands and everyone tours around for tastings. It was a gloriously sunny and warm day, and I chose the Brendan Drake Trio at Lambert Vineyards. I’ve known Brendan for many years but not heard him sing for ages. Brendan leads on vocals, somewhere in the baritone/tenor range, I’d guess. But such lovely tunes, the standards of the jazz era: The very thought of you, Angel eyes, Let’s fall in love, Lullaby of Birdland, Stardust, How deep is the ocean. All these tunes we know, with the words and seldom performed introductions that we don’t. And Brendan has a sense of that timing that Sinatra is famous for. It’s seldom that you hear male jazz vocals, and after today, I’m convinced it’s a shame. I loved his timing, but also the long and jagged intervals which seem to me the essence of this style. The deep voice, obviously deeper than the women, that makes those intervals ring with luxuriance. Brendan’s offsiders were stalwarts of the local scene that I’ve featured here often: James Luke and Paul dal Broi. The warmth was lovely as was the Pinot noir, but it was also Paul’s blissfully cool but richly and intelligently substituted playing that had me delighted. Bass doesn’t support the same level of harmonic adventurousness, but James played plenty of solos along with maintaining a rock-solid feel throughout. These are both capable players with stable grooves and flowing walks. What better for a Sunday afternoon at a winery? There was a sit-in too. One of Brendan’s ex-students, Alexa Miller, was there with a party group, and got up to sing Fever. The day was like that – eminently pleasant. And for those out of town, look at the scenery from the deck of the winery and drool.

Brendan Drake (vocals) led a trio with James Luke (bass) and Paul dal Broi (piano) at the Lambert Vineyard for Canberra’s annual Wine Roses and All that Jazz Festival. Alexa Miller sat in for one tune.

350th birthday? Not jazz!

Thanks to Purcell for his fine, dignified music. Thanks to the Canberra Choral Society for a wonderful performance last night for Purcell’s 350th Birthday at the Llewellyn Hall. And thanks to ArtSound for the tix I won during the afternoon radiothon. We’d been thinking of attending, but in the end it was the prize that got us there and I’m so glad we went.

I love choral music, but this was not Beethoven or Orff or even Bach. It was a night of a little baroque orchestra with a wonderful, moderately sized choral group. The music is superbly dignified. I continually imagined myself in castles and palaces, or perhaps Westminster Abbey for the famed Funeral Music for Queen Mary. I noticed the music often moving in little phrases that were progressively mirrored by different voices or instruments, often rising in pitch, sometimes seemingly indefinitely. They were simple phrases, but of melodic purity. The brass rings true to the era, and the strings get a minor and much simpler role. The words are in English. I could pick some, banal to our ears: “Sound the trumpet”, “Strike the viol”; but also the heart-rending “Remember me” from Aeneas to her lost love, Dido.

These were Purcell masterpieces, apparently, starting with the Birthday ode for Queen Mary, through Te Deum, King Arthur, some songs, and Dido and Aeneas, to finish with the Funeral march for Queen Mary. There were six soloists. I particularly noted Tobias Cole (countertenor) for his strength and purpose of vision, and Karen Fitz-Gibbon (sporano) for her similar purpose, but also for that soaring, crisp voice. It was not all perfect, but this is an non-profit group presumably with amateur chorists, if not instrumentalists and soloists. I noticed some uncomfortable spots: soloists rushing or occasional uncomfortable harmonies in the orchestra or choral balance (common problem: too few men in choirs). And I didn’t like that baroque organ hiding the so-important brass. (The poor brass have a hard time in fine music: they are forever waiting to play in classical, and when they get their opportunity in baroque, they are hidden). But I was stunned by the beauty and clarity of purpose and we were taken back to another era that truly felt different. Just listen to the dolorous dignity of the drum processional for the Funeral March, and the pained majesty of following brass march to feel this splendour. Wonderful!

The Canberra Choral Society presented Purcell” a 350th birthday tribute at the Llewellyn Hall. Peter Pocock coducted; soloists were Sonia Anfiloff, Karen Fitz-Gibbon, Tobias Cole, David Yardley, David Mackay and Benjamin Connor. There was an orchestra of 25 and a choir of 71.

07 November 2009

Heavy patter

The ArtSound Radiothon continued with a special edition of Friday Night Live featuring the Monsoon Trio. The name’s new, although the members are pretty well known to CJ: James LeFevre, Eric Ajaye and Chris Thwaite. James is a great front man, confidently calling for cash for support from subscribers, and there were some promises made during the concert. It verged on the challenging and unknown at times, and perhaps not the popular singalong standards that appear in a normal telethon (think variety stars) but that’s not the ArtSound way. But we like liked it in the control room, and the band had a great time. There were some standards in the first set and a bit more adventurousness in the second. The standards included Alone together and Stella, some from the master Monk, Friday the 13th and Misterioso, and the lovely Beatrice, which seems to have recently grown in popularity around Canberra. James provided his ode to CJ Dennis, Triantiwontigongolope, and they played Miroslav Bukovsky’s gloriously tuneful Wanderlust number, Delicatessence. I love the chord-free sound of a horn trio, and this was a good example, open and clear. You need strong players so the chordal structure remains clear, and Eric and James did that perfectly capably, and Chris rang the changes equally clearly. A nicely relaxed concert rather than tempestuous, with an open sound and a good mix of tunes, and for a good cause.

Monsoon Trio are James LeFevre (tenor), Eric Ajaye (bass) and Chris Thwaite (drums).


ArtSound lauched its Radiothon this weekend. Lounge suits were de rigueur, there were drinks and canapes and ArtSound’s patron and Viceregal consort, Michael Bryce, gave a few humourous words and formally opened the Radiothon.

Dave Rodriguez and Lachlan Coventry entertained in the background, and Tony Magee and Chris Deacon migrated to the Yamaha C6 grand in the studio for an impromptu concert. I hadn't heard Tony before, although he's well known around town. He's got an impressive memory. Firstly Gershwin and Cole Porter then on to Moonlight Sonata. The Beethoven was lovely romantic stuff, nicely played and not too protracted, and it was all pretty much on call. The Canberra Times social photographer, Lyn Mills, was also there and I managed a snap of she who is normally the other side of the lens.

Best of luck to ArtSound and their fund-raising. Feel free to ring and make a donation to a good cause or even just finally do the right thing and become a paying member. They do great work for jazz and all the arts in Canberra.

04 November 2009

Vibes (Wangaratta 2009)

There are vibes around a few players at every festival. Linda Oh gained vibes during the festival, but Ari Hoenig and his offsider, Gilad Hekselman, arrived with them and didn’t disappoint. You could guess they’d be stars, given the support band as Australian heroes of their instruments, Jamie Oehlers and Sam Anning. I new the names but my jazz school mates were ecstatic in anticipation. Best soloist ever; best drummer. I could see from the start the best drummer, but I’m still considering the best soloist category for Gilad. But there’s no doubt these are guys at the highest levels. New Yorkers, both, of course. Ari is a powerhouse. He can set grooves that are confident and true to type: rock grooves, jazz grooves, funk grooves. These are not approximations, but the real thing: heavy and solid and determined, or light and lithe and delicate; whatever’s required, I’m convinced he can do. He communicates with his fellow players in a way that make you feel you are imposing on a relationship, it’s so true. I felt this with Gilad, where accents and changes of dynamics were instantaneous and perfectly in synch. Then those solos. He’d take a concept and dissect it in numerous, ever inventive ways, with the oddest of parts, perhaps 7 or 11 or just 8, and the cleverest of rudiments, but always with precision to die for and endlessly moving to the next. The precision showed up equally in dynamics. One minute, he’d worked up to intensity and rock punchiness, then from beat four to beat one it was ppp and the gentlest and most perfect of lullaby rhythms to put your baby to sleep by. His face expressed it all. Ever mobile and in touch with his fellow players and signalling one thing or another, or just observing. For Gilad and Ari observed, frequently, regularly, and you could see the result in their playing.

Gilad seemed firstly to me to be equally precise, but with a West Coast or ECM guitar clarity that I found too cool. And his early solos were tonal, fast but essentially folkish, I thought. My mates looked on in disbelief so I knew I had to think more on this. Through the next two concerts, there were solos that blew me away with complexity and speed and precision and alterations, so this was not just the simple melodies of folk, but I’m left still somehow unaffected. A master, of that there’s no doubt; but perhaps too cool, too precise. Strange, because I didn’t feel that with Ari.

The pair played with local heros, Jamie Oehlers and Sam Anning. Both are stars of the Australian jazz firmament. Jamie was flying up and down the octaves with mellifluous and lightly formed notes, and Sam was solid and in touch and capable in his soloing. But there seemed a disconnect somewhere, and I felt it in the last set when they played a blues. Gilad played a basic blues-guitar style, which was very different from a jazz blues. Think that folk simplicity that I’d heard on the first day. I thought, this is not a limitation of technique (none there!) but an exploration of style. Ari’s readiness to move styles – funk, blues, rock, jazz – fitted with this toying with styles. Jamie played his solo, and it remained in a jazz, post-Trane style. Gilad was playing these big, ugly chords in rabid contrast and I was wondering why. He probably hadn’t articulated it, but I thought these ugly intrusive chords were a demand to play the other, to put on a mask, to enter this ironic world of styles and fashions and relativities. Now, I’m not denying anyone’s capabilities here, but I felt here was a mismatch, and it was not around technique, but musical conception. On one side, the earnest modernism; on the other, the ironic post-modernism. Perhaps not conscious, in fact probably not conscious.

This evening before writing this piece, I looked at YouTube for a video of Ari. I found Ari and Gilad and a bassist, seemingly doing a workshop somewhere. The bassist was toying with his bass, spinning it, playing with it. Everything that an earnest jazz bassist doesn’t do. This was the giveaway to me. So, fabulous playing all around. Three eye-opening concerts, and drum solos to die for and to remember for posterity, and guitar lines that shred the octaves and harmonies. Similarly, sax solos of endless energy and capability. But essentially also a mismatch somewhere that limited the whole from being the great.

I’d like to hear what you think, if you were there… Just add your comments below.

Ari Hoenig (drums) led a quartet with Gilad Hekselman (guitar), Jamie Oehlers (tenor) and Sam Anning (bass).