30 March 2010

Clear(l)y a long way from Kent

By Daniel Wild

The pic is Jon Cleary performing at Treibhaus, Innsbruck, 2008. Thanks to Svíčková for releasing the pic into the public domain at Wikipedia Commons.

Despite the threat of rain – and it being a Monday – the intimate upstairs lounge of the Macquarie Hotel in Sydney was full to capacity for Jon Cleary’s vibrant and smokin’ piano. Touring down under from New Orleans, Cleary clearly knows how to get an audience swinging and foot-tapping. He combines blues and boogie-woogie, with nods back to classical virtuoso technique and forwards to the straight minimalism of pop, all the time retaining the sincerity and spontaneity of rhythm and blues and soul.

Jon Cleary was born in Kent, England but spent 20 years immersed in the life of New Orleans. Outfitted in flat cap, jacket, beige pants and sunnies, Cleary looked like he could play anywhere from a back alley pub or up-market restaurant to a 1930’s bordello. His playing is robust and his lyrics are heartfelt, philosophical and optimistic, touching on love lost and won and the gritty soul in urban life.

This was a solo performance where the performer has to draw all inner reserves of strength and rhythm to keep the collective foot tapping. Cleary had the energy and attitude to make it look all too easy. The rhythmic intensity of his playing and conviction indicates a lifetime of love for the old-school rhythm and blues.

His strong bass lines underpin tinkling blues rolls at the upper end of the keyboard. Often his hands are spaced over a metre apart as he pounds his bass lines with no thought of register, while playing dancing blues riffs with the right hand. The “no fear” approach in the bass brought out the full richness and sonic depth of the baby grand at the Mac and showed that the lower notes of a piano are meant to be played, not just occasionally stroked. He pushed the piano to the limit and it swayed and bobbed he percussively struck swinging blues notes over his solid 1, 3, 5, 7 walking bass line.

Some mid-piece adjustments of tempo were required to keep the feel and pacing steady – and to possibly accommodate the difficulty of some the passages, letting off a bit of the steam. His playing was never needlessly virtuosic. Instead, Cleary uses his instrument to evoke an era when rhythm and swing were more honest and the gap between audience and player was closer.

Cleary had remarkable stamina. He played one set that went for about 1 hour and 20 minutes and then gave an encore, finishing with Blueberry Hill. He must have strong hands to execute the trills and continuous three and four note riffs in the right hand with total fluency. Sometimes the left hand would follow its counterpart up the piano until they were both so high that it sounded like the splash of a thousand raindrops on a crystal pane. Then the two hands soared back down, chasing each other as if possessed by Rachmaninov. The crowd enjoyed these forays into the middle and upper-registers. Cleary’s hair raising chromatic chordal descents were a melange of harmony, and yeh they swung. Every set-play that Cleary executed was greeted by cheers and yehs!

The 80th birthday of Fats Domino was commemorated with a rollicking salon piece. Cleary had actually attended Domino’s party and remarked that he still played as if he was 50 years younger. Special mention was also made of Jelly Roll Morton.

In contrast to his energetic playing style, Cleary’s demeanour is laid-back yet engaging. He sometimes seemed lost in his world, doing his thing, singing his songs; occasionally he would glance at a couple of front-row audience members to ensure they were still having fun or hadn’t nodded off – surely an impossibility with this piano rocking music.

29 March 2010

Resolve it on the 1

The QSCollective was out again for a pleasant Adore Tea gig. This time it was the core of Peter, Brenton and Eric with Joe Taylor sitting in on tenor. Joe’s inventive soloing was intriguing for the band, and I guess was considerably challenging for the audience, but was well received. Peter noted that it changed the way he played on the day. The dissonant lines called for clear harmonic definition at times, but also taunted us to respond in kind. I, too, like to break away on bass lines. In this context it’s satisfying and rooted just to state the changes, but also an aural extreme sport to go feral with chromatics or pentatonic substitutions. It can be like walking a vibrating pathway, but it works (can work?) when you resolve on the 1, and it certainly provides an alternative to diatonism. But it wasn’t all so out. There was some sublime swing with a gently paced standard, There will never be another you. I rediscovered the lovely ballad, Bewitched, and put a name to Rollins’ angular tritone blues, Blue seven. And I enjoyed the opportunity to replay an old favourite modal latin piece, Little sunflower. On the other hand, our Beatrice never really settled, despite its being pretty interesting and pretty, and I liked God bless the child with the 12/8 bluesy feel but Peter wasn’t so sure. I enjoyed the open sound of a sax trio for Blue bossa, and the ostinato line that Joe requested for bass on Softly as a morning sunrise opened up a new, if obvious, line of exploration for me. And I got to introduce Joe to a cute old favourite, Bluesette. Thanks to Joe and Peter and Brenton for a very enjoyable gig.

The Quiros Street Collective (QSC) comprised Peter Kirkup (piano), Joe Taylor (tenor), Brenton Holmes (drums) and Eric Pozza (bass) and played at Adore Tea House.

26 March 2010

Smooth, somewhat shredded

It was the smoother end of jazz, the audience was mature, the forms less challenging. But Neilsen Gough and his band were swinging their butts off, the playing was fabulous and I had a great time. We can’t always be at the bleeding edge, and this was an eminently pleasant and stimulating way to relax and just plain enjoy an evening of music. The smooth scene is definitely a different scene. Neilsen and the boys were introduced as satisfyingly sexy for the women with an apology to the guys. I thought of latin lovers: the band wore nice suits, Neilsen had something like that presence and his songs of love and rejection were fitting. But his output was broader than that: other originals dealt with the father/son relationship and spirituality. As for non-originals, there were several go-ahead, comfy, rollicking swings (Let’s fall in love, Beautiful friendship, Two sleepy people), some ballads, arrangements of two classic if smoochy Beatles tunes (Blackbird, Michelle), and two unexpectedly earthy 12-bar blues. I’ve been hearing so much syncopation recently, that I’d forgotten the enjoyment of a good natured swing, so this was in part a renewal of faith in the mainstream.

But what made the night was the playing. These were quintessentially professional and competent working musicians: serious but playful, individual but observant. I noticed from the first bars of the night (Sinatra’s All or nothing at all) that this was a capable working band, with an storming rhythm section that started hot from the top. It’s a good feel when the band starts well warmed up. It’s indicative of regular performance and a good and professional gig. So Nick on drums was my first observation: loud and punchy and watching and responding to the others. Then Mark Harris on bass. He was a character, grinning and toying around and laying down wonderful swings and grooves. Although classically trained, he had an rough, inexact-looking technique (as many jazz players do), but he felt good and was a great, joyful presence. He even played some serious French bow passages, although I preferred his very capable pizzicato. The third member of the backline was guitarist James Muller. Everyone in Australian jazz knows of James as a highly respected player of clear international standing. Tonight he was playing a Telecaster, and his sound was more edgy than I’d heard. I’d never heard so much of him before. I’ve spoken on CJ of his short blissbomb solos that leave you aching for more. This night he played a broader role, reminiscent of piano, with chords and melodic fills melded together into a smooth but harmonically enriching whole. And solos that blazed with speed and interest over the extreme ranges of the instrument, with sweeps, bends, scales, arpeggios, odd rhythms, chords. Even two Chicago blues solos that were a compendium of blues guitar techniques. A great master. And then to Neilsen, leading this fine rhythm section. He was the last to the stage, singing with involvement and jazz fluency and musky male vocals. There were some strains for high notes, but it just added to the effect. There was a serious and anguished but endearing edge, and it must have had female hormones flowing. Then he’d pick up his trumpet for lovely neat melodies that spelt the chords with clarity, then falling into flourishes of fast scalar runs and mixed intervals. Neilsen inevitably gets compared to Vince Jones and Chet Baker and I did hear strains of Vince’s vocals at times, but he was quite different: more busy on both vocals and trumpet, with leanings more to bebop than cool.

A very different outing for me and one that Megan enjoyed. Smooth and mainstream, joyous and swinging, just plain great entertainment … and with some fabulous playing.

Neilsen Gough (vocals, trumpet) fronted a quartet with James Muller (guitar), Mark Harris (bass) and Nic Cecire (drums) at the Top of the Cross at the Canberra Southern Cross Club.

25 March 2010

NY up close and personal

Internationals are in the air at the moment. Last night it was a visiting New York outfit, Jacam Manricks’ Quartet featuring Aaron Goldberg. But unlike my recent Opera House concerts, this was in a small room, with a club atmosphere, as jazz should be, and with a chance to chat with the masters. So this was special. And these were no slouches; they all have significant pedigrees. Aaron’s pedigree has to take the cake, being sideman for the likes of Freddie Hubbard, Madeleine Peyroux, Wynton Marsalis, Nicholas Payton and Joshua Redman. But the others have notches including Ray Charles, Ben Monder, Bob Mintzer, Dave Liebman, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Lee Konitz, Jeff Ballard, Barry Altschul, Andrew Cyrille, Gary Bartz and Mark Levine. Wow! Jazz heaven. It’s a long way from NY, but Jacam and drummer Danny are Australians so are presumably on a working holiday back home. Great to see the good turnout and organisation to keep Canberra on the circuit. Saves a trip to NY. But what of the playing?

The concert comprised two sets of nine tunes in total, mostly taken from Jacam’s new CD, Labyrinth, along with Coltrane’s Countdown. Mostly it was modern style with syncopated rhythms, complex heads, sometimes repetitive grooves on madly syncopated ostinato phrases in odd time signatures, sometimes long chordal patterns, sometime complex structures. Gangbusting was a lively opener. Long ago and old fashioned was a mix and reharmonisation of parts of the standards Long ago and far away and I’m old fashioned. Mood swing was a tribute to Milton Nascimento. 2-3-2 and Sketch were examples of those difficult repeating syncopations. Aeronautics was a gentler ballad style. Microgravity was originally called New bolero, so obviously bolero in feel, but in 9/8 time. Countdown was Countdown with its Coltrane changes. Labyrinth was the final tune, a hugely complex melody with a super-fast little filler bridge.

Jacam led all this with a honey smooth tone and snake-charmer glissandi on some tunes, but then hardened up with honks and squeaks for some others. Hugely fluent arpeggios and extensions over the full range of the alto; dropping in and out of long double-time passages. A mate commented it was like a sax trio alternating with a piano trio. I didn’t hear it quite like that, but Aaron’s piano was similarly powerful and well spoken. He was often relaxed in finding the muse (there was a common feeling of space and sparseness in this band) but then he’d grow to consistent patterns ranging over the higher octaves, with varied left hand harmonies and an uncanny, drummer-like ease with maintaining a left hand syncopation against a right hand solo. I commented on the difficulty of reading the syncopations, and bassist Andrew agreed, saying it was only on Countdown that he could really play rather than read. So his was very much a challenging support role in this outing. Danny seemed more comfortable with the pieces. I’ve heard him with Jacam in the past, so presumably they play together often enough. He was a master, providing busy rhythms and colour using bushes and sticks and one time hands. I noticed again that ease with kick drum syncopations against complex right hand solo lines and the sharpest of stick techniques presenting mathematical permutations of beats and divisions.

Suffice to say, it was a magical concert, well attended and very well received. Thanks to the band for the fabulous performance and for saving us at least this trip to NY. But also to the decent turnout that will keep Canberra on the touring map.

Jacam Manricks (alto sax), Aaron Goldberg (piano), Andrew Emer (bass) and Danny Fischer (drums) performed music from Jacam’s CD, Labyrinth, at the University of Canberra.

21 March 2010

Returning to roots

Branford Marsalis is an interesting character. He’s no jazz purist who argues that jazz ended when Coltrane started with more abstract styles in the mid-1960s. His modern-mainstream with brother Wynton on Black codes from the underground is exquisite. He’s recorded hip-hop-funk and with a music history theme with Buckshot LeFonque, and sophisticated pop with Sting. Branford is a man for all seasons. His performance on the recent tour was a return to roots, with walking bass, hard swinging drums reminiscent of Art Blakey (who he also played with), and even visitations to baroque music. It was a wonderful display of musicianship.

Branford toured with his quartet, comprising Eric Revis on bass, Joey Calderazzo on piano and Justin Faulkner on drums. I took me a while to settle in. I kept thinking of the style: walking bass seems somewhat passé these days and this was mostly in that hard swinging style. But I love that style so I succumbed easily enough, and the inventive playing was fabulously capable. I especially enjoyed Branford himself, and young gun Justin, who was celebrating his 19th birthday on the day of the concert (hard to believe given his musical maturity). Branford joshed with Justin (you can have a second solo because it’s your birthday) but also with the audience. It was a relaxed and jokey Branford who spoke directly and often and made for a friendly event.

But what of the playing? It was mostly hard ahead swinging in a modern style, well indebted to bop, but not limited to that. They played a Purcell piece (O solitude) with ostinato bass (in Bb natural minor). It worked, unlike many classical crossovers. The gig started with a breakneck hard-bop that was a technical challenge if a little dry, but calmed to a slower, melody-centric original by Joey. There was another original by Eric, Monk’s 52nd Street Theme, Miles’ In the crease, and a delightful Cheek to cheek as an encore. The solos were long and several times grew to frenzies. Justin basqued in that frenzy and passion. I felt he pushed Joey’s solos beyond comfort at times. Joey could be blissfully inventive at moderate to fast speeds, but lost something with simpler chordal playing at the most intense levels. Justin’s first solo, long and increasingly impassioned, brought the house down and he got to play a second over a 10 beat ostinato by sax and bass. Eric mostly walked, although there was a more syncopated treatment for In the crease. But how fast could he go and how easy was the playing? Branford was a pleasure with a tenor tone a mate described as “dark” and a soprano that sounded to me like a clarinet in its clarity. Wonderful skills that took chords and arpeggiated and inverted. Unpressured lines with evenness of tone and classical precision. These are the jazz gods, of course. I don’t love big venues for jazz, with all the sound coming from a PA bin and rows of fellow listeners lined up for reveille, but this was great playing with some memorable highlights. Much enjoyed.

Branford Marsalis (tenor, soprano sax) led a quartet with Eric Revis (bass), Joey Calderazzo (piano) and Justin Faulkner (drums) at the Sydney Opera House.

Branford thereabouts

The support act for Branford Marsalis’ tour was Hobart pianist, Tom Vincent with Leigh Barker and Hugh Harvey. I’ve written this band up several times on CJ. They are an interesting trio with real historical jazz leanings, a readiness to play loose and improvise readily, and a great feel for an easy swing. Tom leads whole gigs with no charts and no set list, moving freely through medleys of standards and playing outrageously with the tunes, arbitrarily syncopating and reharmonising as the muse takes him. It’s a rare experience. Despite the location (Sydney Opera House, no less) and the environment (supporting Branford Marsalis), he presented a set with the same degree of reckless immediacy, although he seemed to have a clear Monk theme on this outing. It was brave (he could have taken a safer path) but it worked and he was well received. Well enough for the trio to be called out to play with Branford as part of the encore. Congrats to Tom, Canberra boy Leigh and Hugh.

I've indulged myself with some other pics of the local scene. One is of a small outfit (sax, congas, turntables) playing a bar in the concourse below the Opera House, and some other pics of Sydney.

The Tom Vincent Trio was support band for the Branford Marsalis Quartet tour. The trio comprised Tom Vincent (piano), Leigh Barker (bass) and Hugh Harvey (drums).

17 March 2010

Collective variations

Sandy Evans returned with the Sydney Women’s Jazz Collective last night at the Gods. Sandy was loosely identified as a leader, but convenor would be a far better term, because this was truly a collective effort. It’s evident that they play together often enough, because there was a level of ease and informality that carried the night over with occasional chuckles and a sisterly good will, but they are not a formal band. Nonetheless, there were some original tunes that I felt were pretty intimately known by several members, such as the shared vocals in tunes by Zoe and Jess. Maybe they use the tunes as platforms at the SIMA Jazz Workshops for Young Women where they have all taught.

The good will on stage was both infectious and pretty unusual. Sandy exudes familiarity and supportiveness and it obviously carries over, with Jess bopping to the rhythms, and good humour all round. But musically, the collective label was also clear. Sandy introduced the band, but promptly passed the mic to whoever had penned the next tune for its introduction. There was that added familiarity of each muso talking to us so we know them as more than just performers. We felt knew these players as we know someone in a café rather than someone on stage: it’s a generalisation, of course, but women are good at that and I reckon it holds the world together. And the styles were very different. Jess with her intimations of Scofield; Zoe with her jazzabilly and pirate songs (“every band should have a pirate song”); Alex reincarnating hard bop in the tradition of Blue Note and Sidewinder sessions; Monique with a lovely bossa with those twisted chordal cycles and slightly unexpected intervals we hear from Brazil; Sandy with her searching modern style and stunning soloing. I was also taken in the second half by several pieces with vocals. It wasn’t song and it wasn’t scat, but vocal tones sung by Zoe and Jess (and others?) in harmony with each other and with instruments. It worked like a harmonised horn melody, but sounded very differently: intimate and clear and bell-like with the high female voices.

The playing all round was capable and professional. Sandy’s solos were all stunning: apt for the style of tune, clear analysis of the chordal structure, and flowing melodic statements. But not soft or easy or relaxed: she always seems to be testing herself, at the hard edge of her creativity, giving all. I’d just heard her latest CD, The edge of pleasure, with Brett Hirst and Toby Hall, and you hear it there too. She’s well renowned and with good reason. Jess is another identifiable soloist: a fabulous, edgy Telecaster tone that she uses for thoughtful, sharp soloing. She’s not a shredder, despite occasional fast runs, but these are solos built with unapologetic tone and unexpected intervals. The tone says blues emotion, but the concept says jazz thought. And she digs the music, too, bopping freely to the beat. Alex was typical trombone. It’s not the slashing instrument that sax or guitar is, but the slide seems to enforce a considered awareness of harmony for heads or melody for solos. It’s she of the hard bop tunes, and there was that vibrancy and simple joy in her style. Sandy joked that she and Monique had done their jazz studies together, “when was it, 1876?”. I particularly enjoyed Monique’s bossa. Piano lends itself to an ear for chords at a profound level, and this tune clearly displayed it. Zoe was her eminent presence on bass and in person, if a bit soft (Acoustic Image amps are true to the acoustic tone, but there's little punch or presence). She was always involved and propulsive in her bass accompaniment, did a lovely solo, and I love her quirky country-rockabilly take on jazz. Drummer Ali was less revealed than the others given she didn’t provide a tune or introduce one. But it was a capable performance with an outspoken solo later in the night. She’d played admirably quietly earlier on, so this took me back a bit. It shouldn’t have; after all, she is a drummer. Finally, a sit in. These players actively support young female jazz performers, so it’s not at all surprising that one of Sandy’s Canberra students, Stephanie Badman, sat in on alto to perform Sam River’s lovely ballad, Beatrice.

Women aren’t so rare in jazz these days, but women’s jazz ensembles are, so this had a bit of the sociological as well as the musical. Add that it was also a fascinating trip through a wide variety of jazz styles and an affable interaction with the musicians, and you can see why I found it such a wonderful outing.

The Sydney Women’s Jazz Collective was Sandy Evans (tenor and soprano saxes), Alex Silver (trombone), Jess Green (guitar), Monique Lysiak (piano), Zoe Hauptmann (bass) and Ali Foster (drums). Stephanie Badman (alto sax) sat in for one tune.