28 February 2010

Going solo

I was interested in hearing Dave Rodriguez playing solo with loops. He’s got several gigs at the moment around town in bars and cafes. He’s only one player, so he’s cheap to employ, the sounds are modern and suit a café vibe, and there’s almost no organisation for the player himself. Even arranging a rehearsal is trivial. Perhaps it could be a bit lonely, and you are very public as a solo player, but they seem the only downsides. I really enjoyed what Dave was doing. There were standards, but he treats them in a modern way, with various effects, pitch shifts, echoes and the like. Even old tunes like Stardust take on a post-modern sizzle with this gear. The bundle of effects lends itself to grooves, and there’s a good bit of that, and it’s current and popular. Even the post-bop numbers, like Footprints or Impressions, seem to take on dance grooves, probably from the repetition and wide range of pitch. It was interesting to hear from David that it’s a new interest. He was a bit of an acoustic jazz purist (unaffected guitar, standards) but he’s enjoying the new approach and different sounds. Good for business, good for the ears, and good for the excuse to get out for a real coffee. Good combination all round.

Dave Rodriguez (guitar, loops) was playing at Kingston Grind Café.

26 February 2010

Underneath your spell

I don’t hear Tina Harrod as a jazz singer. Nina Simone is a major influence, and listening to her first CD, Worksongs, I can hear touches of Billy Holliday and Renée Geyer. I guess it’s called soul, but these labels mutate. It’s clearly rooted in a black American past, and its training is more in southern Baptist churches or blues clubs than in tertiary jazz courses. It’s not the high intellectual art of jazz, informed with complex scalar and harmonic knowledge, but the raw emotions of passion and personal truth. That’s not to say there isn’t wisdom in it. She chooses great songs by a range of singers and reinterprets them in her own way, and when she writes, which she does a little for Worksongs and comprehensively for her second CD, Imaginary people, the stories speak sparsely but tellingly of love and need and pain and the images are vivid. They cut to the heart, as they should. It might not work so well on a blog, but lines like these are incisive on stage and in context when poured out with Tina’s plaintive voice: “And I was beautiful underneath your spell”, “You’re so unsafe, just like my high healed shoes”, “What becomes of people / What becomes of people who meet and fall in love”. She has an ardent but doleful voice that makes you melt. There’s no pretence, just the words and their stories and their melodies, often flattened slightly in bluesy presentation, and perhaps with a falling figure at the end of a line. I loved it and was touched by it.

The band was just exquisite, too, as a sparse and distilled accompaniment. Matt McMahon seems to excel in this role. His piano is judicious and unassertive. He introduces lovely harmonic movement under the singing then solos in consonant styles that clearly follow the tunes. That’s appropriate, but I like a bit of dissonance, so I enjoyed his solo on Stevie Wonder’s Big brother, where he lets go some rapid runs through descending keys, and was floored by a solo late in the second set where piano descended into cacophony while drums exploded against a bass pedal. I thought it would end the set, but they pulled it back and returned to song. That was a stunner. Jonathan Zwartz was concentrated and contained, but there were spots of release where a quick line slipped in, or a rhythmic jog. He’s a big man, with hands to match. Big hands lend a comfort with the double bass that smaller hands can’t. I could feel his ease of playing, the way he could drop notes or lightly tease the strings with barely a touch: harmonics, sweet spots, the lightest of tones on call. He played a few solos but a particularly lovely one on the blues later in the night was very well received. I don’t know why, but bass solos tend to be well received. This one richly deserved it. I also enjoyed Hamish Stewart. His performance was the heart of discretion, underplayed and precise, so his release with an explosive fill, or his solos accompanied by a big smile and flailing sticks, or that cacophony I mentioned above seemed out of character and appealing. The band was like that. Restrained has to be the word, but there was tension and precision and an ability to fill spaces so aptly and subtly that was wonderful. The tonal palette expanded when Miro unexpectedly sat in on trumpet for two tunes. As I remember, the first was Comes love, but I particularly enjoyed the blues solo with mute which was soft and fluent and fitted the mood so well.

The repertoire was taken mostly from Tina’s two CDs. The originals were penned by Tina with a fellow composer, usually a bassist: Jackie Orszaczky and Jonathan Zwartz. Jackie Orszaczky is sadly missed, especially by Tina, but it’s interesting to see that Tina has developed an approach to writing with bass players. I noticed a comfort with funky, rocky rhythms and changing time signatures, and my guess is that it’s a product of writing with bassists. Other tunes were by Stevie Wonder and Bob Dylan and Nick Drake and others.

It was a disappointingly small crowd for Tina but the positive side was a supremely intimate performance for us. I loved it and was touched by it. She’s a wonderfully affecting singer and the band fitted like leggings. A memorable outing: very close to the CDs but so much more involving as a live performance.

Tina Harrod (vocals) performed with Matt McMahon (piano), Jonathan Zwartz (bass) and Hamish Stuart (drums). Miroslav Bukovsky (trumpet) sat in for two songs.

22 February 2010

Suburban collectivism

Collective is a descriptor that’s been used by a number of bands since the 60s. They are usually at the avant-garde and/or communal end of the spectrum, what we’d call the left in politics, and imply a more cooperative approach to composition and creation of the music that renunciates the “big man” concept of a leader. A few mates and I have borrowed the term for our informal musical gatherings. It’s useful when you don’t know who might be available on any one day. We get different combinations of instruments and it’s so much easier to organise amongst otherwise busy lives. Maybe one day we’ll venture into composition and new musics, but for now it’s just a means to more easily arrange sessions. We meet at Quiros Street, so we are the Quiros Street Collective or QSC.

QSC did a gig yesterday as a piano trio playing standards, and with a singer/guitarist sitting in for a few tunes. Hardly avant-garde, but enjoyable nonetheless. It was a beautiful day, warm with a gentle breeze, and we were outside but under cover. The gig was for Adore Tea, a venue which is currently supporting local jazz with Sunday afternoon concerts. The trio sets were more indulgent, as instrumentals are, with longer solos and a more challenging take on the tunes. The vocals sets took the pace down a little but got more audience response, as vocals are wont to do. I found it interesting to hear words to jazz tunes, like Miles’ Four, and even some standards and latins that I know as instrumentals. We played a range of ballads and swing and latins: nothing unusual but beautifully written tunes that are tuneful and classic and always interesting to play. Thanks to Peter, Brenton and John for the outing.

Just an aside about voice. I was reading Bass Player mag the other day on Slam Stewart and Major Holley. They are early bass players who sang while playing bass. The article accompanied a transcription of Close your eyes, a number they recorded together, singing scat with two basses, accompanied by drums and piano. There was a comment from bassist Lynn Seaton saying that “singing while playing has helped me hear … instead of just letting my fingers play digital patterns” and perhaps more interestingly “having to take a breath forces me to leave space and improve the phrasing. It also helps my ability to play in tune” (Bass player, v.21, no.3, March 2010, p.51). Vocals really do introduce a humanity that instruments can lack. I tried to sing and solo and there was something different. Just to show how valuable is a voice.

Quiros Street Collective were a piano trio on the day, comprising Peter Kirkup (piano), Brenton Holmes (drums) and Eric Pozza (bass), and Hank Sinatra aka John Burke (vocals, guitar) sitting in for the later sets.

17 February 2010

Mainstream with edge

I was wondering just what to expect from Mike Nock’s CET (Creative Electronic Trio). They played last night for the first Gods session for 2010 last night. I thought maybe e-bass and several keyboards, but it was a more limited excursion into electronics than that. Mike was playing a Nord, with its identifiable piano sounds and retro synthesisers, and I guess that’s what gave the label Electronic, and there was one funky tune that benefited well from synth bends and the like. But otherwise, it was frequent brushes on the drums and even gut strings on the double bass, so that instrumentation was quite conventional, even traditional. I’ve seen several more electronica-style bands recently, but so what? Mike played a style I love and I enjoyed it immensely. I heard it as a modern, challenging ‘60s performance, playing mostly standards-type tunes (and one funky jazz-rock number), but with verve and excitement and high skills and always challenging and on edge, with some dabbling in electronic timbres and washes. The grunts and facial contortions and singing with solo lines and the sheer exuberance confirmed to me that this was not an easy, relaxed outing, but one that the band played with awful seriousness. As serious as your life, to borrow a famous jazz expression.

Mike led the band, although with clear respect for his fellow performers. He’s known as generous and supportive and as a mentor for many young musicians in Australia. This trio has been playing together for many years. The ease with which they threw around the decision of what tune to play showed that. They obviously had no formal set list. Their familiarity and informality was evident in Mike’s chats, where he asked the audience about the sound or briefly mentioned his history with a tune. As for playing, you could hear the long experience and skills as he took on a tune, worked over the chords, took ideas and retained them as long sequences through dissonance and back to consonance. Long solos of skill and edgy challenge and essentially pianistic techniques. But with an obvious melodic sense and references to the mainstream history of jazz.

I felt that Ben responded similarly, with a good solid tone and a strongly melodic conception. After the gig, he told me about a buzz in his bass (it’s an old German bass that suffers from the dry air of Canberra) and explained the gut strings don’t speak as quickly as steel strings. But I still heard long, hammering solos well into the thumb positions, and rapid movements through the fingerboard. And a melodic approach that was embroidered with challenging rhythmic patterns. There was also one fully French-bowed solo with reliable intonation (bowing is far less forgiving of intonation than pizzicato). It was a big role on the night, with frequent and long solos, and a deadly serious look on his face while playing versus an open smile between tunes. Brother James seemed more modest in performance. Openly looking on to Mike and Ben, drums faced in to his colleagues, sideways to the audience. He took a few solos: I especially noticed his last, long solo that was a more funky or rocky style. But mostly I heard softly responsive brushes and sparse, open playing that spoke with the melody. It was open and respectful playing that nonetheless seemed to lead each solo to build in intensity. More evidence of that era of jazz: the solo as the core exploration and purpose.

They started with an easy blues, House of blue lights by GiGi Gryce, all comfy swing and melodies that oozed over the bar lines. Then Ellington and a melody played unison by piano and bass, and particularly impressively on the bass. Then Cry me a river as a slow waltz and a “burner” in bop style that had some luscious contrary motion and counterpoint on piano that said classical to my ears. Also Armstrong/Fitzgerald tune (I would be friends?), another waltz, a funky original, and a few others.

It was a wonderfully intense study of modern mainstream jazz as I heard it, and I enjoyed it immensely: on edge, and challenging for both audience and performers. Hot. Mike Nock’s CET (Creative Electronic Trio) featured Mike Nock (piano) with brothers Ben Waples (bass) and James Waples (drums).

15 February 2010

Drenched days, starry nights

Given the recent downpours in Canberra, the only starry nights around are Van Gogh’s at the Masterpieces from Paris exhibition at the National Gallery. I went with Megan and Mum and we enjoyed it immensely. It’s a lovely little exhibition which runs you through six rooms and a pretty logical and evident series of styles, from pointillism through impressionism to blocked colours and hard lines then into what seemed a very different style hinting at the Arts & Crafts movement. Suffice to say there were some very big names and a string of recognisable paintings. It’s had a massive attendance (200K to date) but we just walked in on Friday around 3pm. The advice is to avoid weekends for the tourist hoards and arrive mid-afternoon. You’re still not alone, but it’s perfectly acceptable and it’s more fun milling around with a few others, anyway.

I’d provide a pic as I usually do, but I hit another copyright or licence limitation. No pics. Private spaces are becoming increasingly controlling. I wholeheartedly support bans on flash, which is damaging to pigments and paintings, but this is just thorough-going ban. I’m told it’s demanded by the originating institution, but I was recently in Paris, and I was happily photographing (incident light) in several museums I attended, including in the Louvre building, in open view of the guards. I can’t imagine pics of some of these paintings will do much to affect the awareness or perceived value of these painting. Or even more that there would be any influence on the industry, or that copyright claim that the creator deserves recognition and value from the creation. These creators are dead, so they won’t be affected. It’s argued that the artist’s descendents deserve to gain from the creations, but these are owned by institutions, not families. The recent extension of copyright to 70 years after death of the creator seems doubly excessive, but that’s the current law. Even if no pics, there's at least a great website for the exhibition:

  • NGA's Masterpieces from Paris website

  • In a related vein, copyright has been in the news recently in Australia. Excuse any legal or other misunderstandings by me (as a librarian, I discussed copyright with many people and the understandings often diverged, even amongst professionals with awareness and interest, so this is not easy stuff). There was the iiNet decision which found that ISPs are not responsible for the use their services are put to. That sounds reasonable, although I note that ISPs have benefited from the heavy downloads, so they may not be totally uninterested parties. But the other decision was really strange, and has caused much dismay and even anger in the music community. This is the one that found copyright of “Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree” was infringed in the song “Land Down Under”, by Men at Work. It will be interesting to see what compensation is claimed for this found infringement. The press mentioned 40-60% of the profit from 5 years of sales. I find this figure quite staggering, especially given the obscurity of the infringing snippet, but this is a commercial and legal, not artistic matter. I ponder the decision for various reasons (although decision it is, and I have to accept the judgement). Firstly, no-one mentioned the similarity for 26 years until it was discovered on a rock quiz show. I heard the offending snippet on the radio 10 or more times before I heard the similarity, and even then it seemed to me to be obscure and only a short quote. I wonder how many times that string of intervals and that rhythmic pattern has appeared in the history of music - it’s a very simple line from a kindergarten sing-along ditty. I thought copyright allowed some limited quoting (for printed works, it’s usually understood to be to 10% of a work or one chapter) but this quote was obviously not allowed here. And in addition, the offending section is not in the composition, but in the performance, and not part of the tune’s written melody. Again on radio, I heard another kids’ tune (they say there are several: from South Africa and Wales, perhaps others) that was almost identical to Kookaburra, in tune and even in lyrical theme. For justice to work, we have to accept the independent judgement of our judiciary, but also we need decisions that aren’t ridiculed or questioned widely in society. I must say that this is one judgement I really find hard to fathom.

    08 February 2010

    All the arias fit to hear

    Yeah, it’s light and it’s the catchiest and most popular tunes removed from their dramatic environment, but in the end I came around. Opera by Candlelight was wistfully pleasant. The rain held off; the voices were clear and beautifully present; the traffic noises were almost non-existent and the loudest interruptions were the local birds.

    This was Carl Rafferty’s annual city-wide opera outing. It’s an eminently mature and middle-class and comfy event: picnic in the park; beachchairs; old friendships; beers or bubbly; caviar and dips and cold chicken. All standard fare. But the weather was spot on: the rain held off, the wind was settled and the evening temperature was cardie-comfortable. The tunes were overwhelmingly recognisable, the voices impressive, and the backing good if limited (the synth orchestra was disappointing). But it was eminently pleasant and I went away singing the Torreador melody so I was pleased.

    There were about 20 singers on stage, the women in various solid satin colours and the men in formal black and white. The musical backing was led by Carl Rafferty on grand piano, with another piano/keyboard player, and variously tympani, trumpet, flute, clarinet, oboe and violin. The musos were kept busy through the night. The singers had several massed presentations, but also took breaks off stage for instrumentals (Chopin or flute or gypsy violin with very different scales) and otherwise came on for features in pairs or smaller groups.

    Opera is a strange, mannered style. I was surprised by the number of love songs and even risqué stories (but shouldn’t have been). The program talked of lustful Dons, love rivals, shameless flirting, fluttering hearts and more. Makes you think of Valentine’s Day, but it’s a week early for that. The main feature was selections from Carmen, continuing the melodramatic narratives of flirting and knifings and gaols and disreputable taverns. But there was also some nationalism, Verdi’s VERDI (Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia) is a historical oddity and … more love. It’s hard to take the stories too seriously but I did settle in to the voices. I felt they started off a little unsure, but quickly warmed up to be strong and convincing. In that still darkness of the second set, they were quite blissful. The PA helped. The performers were individually miked, and the PA itself was strong and full and crisply clear. PAs are one reason I love outdoor events: modern PAs are just so, so good. I savoured the individual voices and the clarity and quietness that allowed you to hear the reverb clearly falling away at the end of a line. I didn’t feel quite that clarity with combined voices, and the violin sounded just a bit harsh to my ears, but it was a stunning experience to listen so comfortably in such a large, open space. I asked the engineers what wattage they had available. One suggested 40,000 watts, but another said that measure is old fashioned and talked of efficiency. I guess he meant SPL (Sound Pressure Level) and the footprint of the sound, and this is ultimately what matters. Stunning.

    In the end, we packed up our picnic and said goodbye to friends. Looking around, the place was largely empty of people, and not a bottle or other scrap to be seen. Just more evidence of the nature of the audience and the production: homely, not challenging but really quite lovely. A very civilised little entertainment!

    The cast and stage crew were: James Adams (tenor), Katie Murphy (mezzo), Tom Azoury (clarinet/baritone), Bridget Patterson (mezzo), Philip Barton (bass), Zach Raffan (trumpet/baritone), Cecilia Connell (soprano), Anna Rafferty (soprano), Jessica Donohue (mezzo/oboe), Kate Rafferty (soprano), Harriet Harding (timpani), Claire Stjepanovic (soprano), Charles Hudson (tenor), Shane Treeves (baritone), Raphael Hudson (baritone), Diana Tulip (mezzo), Pierce Jackson (tenor), Clare Walton (mezzo), Samantha Joseph (flute), Samantha Warhurst (soprano) , Alison Laurens (violin), Eleanor Witt (soprano), Emeline Laurens (mezzo), Rowan Witt (bass), Jacob Lawrence (tenor), Philippa Murphy (soprano), Warwick Dunham (music director/arranger), Ellen Hardisty (Production/stage manager/stage direction, Carl Rafferty (producer/pianist), Edna Rafferty (stage direction).

    04 February 2010

    Memories of VN

    The Front sent invitations to the launch of a photographic exhibition on Vietnam tonight. I’ve been to Vietnam twice and loved it, so I had to go. The photographers were Lisa Styles and Mai Loc. It’s a little exhibition, but it brought back memories of a country I’ve much enjoyed. I’ve presented some pics of jazz clubs in Hanoi and HCM City (Saigon) on CJ in the past, but let this be my indulgence. Photography has been an interest in the past, so indulge me with a few pics from Lisa and lots from me.

    My VN views, 2007 & 2009 >
    four older men and down

    Lisa Styles is an art photographer who lives and works in Canberra teaching photography. She studied anthropology and photography at ANU, and now combines her passion for portraiture and experiencing cultural difference while travelling in South East Asia with her camera in hand. This exhibition showcases photographs taken in the central highlands of Vietnam from 2007 to 2009.

    Mai Loc lives and works as a photographer in Nha Trang Vietnam. In December 1997, Mai Loc received a small canon solar power camera as a wedding present. At first, he used this camera to take some photos for his family and around his home town for memories. Then he fell in love with photography and as he loved his country with the beauty of life, he started to teach himself to be better so that he could capture the beauty of Vietnam. In August 2006, he was invited to Kristiansund Norway to exhibit work in the first international photo festival.