30 August 2010

So sounds the Harlequin

Text and pics by Daniel Wild

The Harlequin is an appropriately named venue for jazz performance. In eighteenth century Italy, the role of the harlequin was to play the buffoon in an improvised drama. Just as the performers worked from a rough script and pre-set roles, so do the jazz players of today work from sketched chord charts and preconceived notions of what it is to be a lead, bassist or drummer.

Lindsay Winkler’s quartet provided laid-back and swinging musical soundscapes at the Harlequin in Pyrmont, Sydney. This is a pleasant venue for jazz although the many television screens, multiplied by mirrors, proved distracting for audience and musician alike. The musicians didn’t falter in their improvisation but you could see their eyes wandering towards the screens now and then, and this might have limited the interaction they achieved with the audience and among themselves.

They played “Milestones” at a steady pace, refreshing for a piece that is often played too fast. Granted, the modal structure allows for fast renditions and displays of virtuosity, but note Bill Evans on the Waltz for Debby album, where he showed that the soloist who pays heed to the underlying structure can tease out quartal harmonies. Quotation and exploration of the opening motif are also possible when playing this piece on its merits.

Winkler was a bit rough and squeaky around the edges when quoting the head; once he settled into his solo there were some smooth and vintage alto sax lines. Monique Lysiak’s solo on Milestones was exceptional, indicative of many years experience and a well trained ear. She listens thoughtfully, builds on the main theme and subtly varies it through different tonal centres and pitches. The way she colours her solos by using the whole keyboard is intriguing to the listener. She builds the expectations of the listener. Expectations established, she then made use of what sounded like quartal chromatic ascents that lifted the solo to another level before safely returning to earth in time for Shannon Haritos’ bass solo.

The bass provided solid ground work for the keys and sax and the solos were interesting and executed as if he Haritos was plucking a guitar. She makes the playing seem effortless and has a deft command of the instrument all the way up the fret-board. Her solo on a dreamy rendition of “All the things you are” and on a bluesy piece in F minor were well appreciated by the audience.

“Stella by Starlight” was romantic, dreamy, impressionistic and very satisfying. Winkler seems most at home when playing ballads. He moves the listener with silken tones and thoughtful phrasing that moves like a wave up and over the floating bobber on a fishing line.

Sam Barr’s drumming was solid throughout. Perhaps there was an overuse of the kick drum, but this is purely a subjective assessment. Many like the emphasis that the kick drum can give to a peaking lead phrase (especially in fusion); others feel it has only a minimal place in swinging jazz and should be used gently, if it all. Barr’s solos are always a pleasure to hear. He quotes military themes and is not afraid to overtly experiment around seemingly simple motifs on the snare which are then incorporated into more complex sallies around the whole kit.

The band was tightest when playing medium swing pieces, although there were commendable aspects to every standard they performed. The last piece, BlueTrane, requested by the audience, was one of their best, with deep and harmonies on the keyboard that showcased Lysiak’s touch. At the end of the bass solo, Lysiak made the mistake of telling Haritos what key the piece was in and what note the bass line should centre around. It is best in jazz to leave these things to chance and the musician’s ear. All things considered, there were worse things to be doing on a Sunday evening. This light-hearted jazz, not worn on its sleeve, provided a much needed post-election antidote.

Lindsay Winkler (sax) performed at the Harlequin in Sydney with Monique Lysiak (piano), Shannon Haritos (bass) and Sam Barr (drums).

Think Ming(-us)

So I thought while listening to the Ted Curson Quartet at the Caveau de la Huchette in Paris. This man was invited to New York by Miles, performed with Mingus at Antibes, had time with Cecil Taylor, went to school with Ted Heath. But he's got a job to do and dollars to earn, and this venue didn't exactly lend itself to such musics. I should have guessed from the other artists in the Huchette program, or the background music before, with boogie and R&R and White Christmas. We got standards at the pop end of the spectrum: Bye bye blackbird, Georgia, Blueberry Hill, and some that don't make the standards books, like Just a gigolo, Slip slop & slide, and You made me love you as a 12-bar. Ted sang, but it's clearly not his forte. He is a trumpeter and flugelhornist, and a nice one. I enjoyed his solos that played with sequences in chromatic movements, and repeated bluesy lines with neat responses, and lovely classic lines. Dizzy and Miles were influences but he's neither of these. Nice playing. But he's not a great singer and if he were, the buzzy PA wouldn't help. Poor Katy on piano had parallel problems with a Yamaha upright that was way out of tune. This was honky tonk plonk plonk. Sad, because she could obviously play with dissonance and was a good player. In fact, she's a professor of piano in Paris, and also had that position at Berkeley for a few years. But it really sounded awful. Then Dominique on bass was good, but he'd presumably brought his own gear. His solos were lyrical and fast and diatonic and well phrased in a mainstream way. Just plain sweet and correct. And Michel was steady as should be for the swing dancers … swing dancers? Yeah, lots of swing dancers, and a dance floor and stuff. Hey, it's not that I don't I like swing dancers … in their place … with cute and undemanding '50s R&R. But sad to see an old promise reduced to formula; sad to see a venue as such mulch; sad to see such trained jazz players reduced to swinglers. Dancing, swinging, I'm so gay, hey, hey. Did I mention I was disappointed?

But then, this is Paris, and it was a mild Saturday night in summer, and the sights are wondrous and there's still a show on. And I have my lovely clockwork music box as a souvenir, that plays La vie en rose. So Paris retains its romance despite the dicky swing club. Ted Curson (trumpet, flugelhorn, vocals) performed with Katy Roberts (piano), Dominique Lemerle (bass) and Michel Denis (drums) at the Caveau de la Huchette in Paris. And nice to meet Antero, Finnish jazz follower, multi-instrumentalist and diplomat. Look me up if you get to Australia.

29 August 2010

Tale of two cities

London's Les Mis and the Lido de Paris. It's not a space I would normally inhabit. These are two mega shows of popular commercial entertainment, but I'm on holidays and, as a mate once said, you should try everything once. And you know what, they were both brilliant in their own ways. These are not works of profundity, and to some degree, they are triumphs of style over substance. But they were performed with such professionalism and capability and skills, that I couldn't cavil. These were good.

Firstly, Les Miserables on Shaftesbury Avenue in London. Fabulous performance, fabulous audio, fabulous sets with the noisome, simplistic repetitive music and a plot that was almost rom-com in conception. I expect the Victor Hugo had more depth, but this was love conquers all against the backdrop of a French revolution. Not the Paris Commune or the big one of 1789, but ~1840s. The story was spread over about 20 years as a good criminal does the right thing and protects a female orphan as she comes to maturity. I had a big head in front for the whole show, so that was disappointing, but the dark and smokey stage sets and stunning props were to die for. Also great voices and subtle but effective audio (heavy echo and reverb for the quiet but emotional tunes) impressed. The small orchestra was OK, and biggest when the keys played big orchestral fills. Interesting also to watch the way they controlled the emotions with big choral numbers before interval and to end where all 26 performers sang in chorus, and the couple of segments of operatic counterpoint where two or three key singers sang together.

Secondly, the Lido de Paris. This is cabaret in the big, expensive, showy style of Las Vegas (or perhaps Las Vegas is in the style of Paris). Early on, I thought of Sinatra and Elvis in their later days, for their was swing and bombast, but then I there was disco, and a feature was performed to music of Nino Rota, and there was a segment from Cabaret and a James Bond theme was there too. The music was a pot pourri or styles and songs, richly and seductively arranged to support a totally inane show of great bodies, wonderful skills, extravagant costumes and complex lighting. I found incongruous several feature segments that were straight from the circus: acrobatics, juggling, ice skating from a rink that was raised from under the stage (!), equine dressage, but they were done with ultimate skills. I adored the luxury of it all. And no warm-bodied human could really deny the bods up there for our delection. It was probably all very risque in 1910 when the Lido opened, but now it's just lights and action signifying nothing. This review was called Bonheur, which I guess means good time or good humour. That about sums it up. The numbers where models sing “Je suis belle / Sono bella” and the paean to shopping says it all. This was commercial drivel that was fabulously entertaining and I loved it. Just don't search beneath the skin. But there was one off-note: the tribute to Edith Piaf was gauche. The Lido can make no claim on the passions of Piaf's heartfelt songs and actually I doubt it does.

Of course, you can't take pics at these venues, so thanks for these snippets from the relevant websites.

27 August 2010

Doing Tudor times

Shakespeare is the great playwright and symbol of England and the English language, so a visit to the Globe to see one of his plays performed in recreated Tudor style was an exciting prospect. I only got the idea a few days before. Seating is limited and was sold out, but there were tickets available for groundlings (standing room in the pit) for Henry IV Part 1 on a day I could manage, and to top it off, the price was a miserly GBP5. I couldn't resist, especially given that I'd performed in this very play at school (not a big part: 10 lines in 4 characters). I was a little reticent about the thought of a 3-hour standing session, but in the end, it was the rain that was the issue on the night. Yeah, it had settled in by then. But I bought a plastic poncho (available at the theatre for just such occasions) and joined the social throng. It was great. I started undercover at the edge of the pit, but the sight lines were poor and I was struggling to follow the script, so I moved to the front of the stage, in then open rain, and this was much better. I could hear the voices and was increasingly habituated to the language, so the second half was much better for me. It was a great presentation with good cheer and social interaction, as you'd expect when people share such a trial. My toes froze but the experience was memorable. The Globe performs with floodlights to simulate day time performances in Tudor times, although the planes flying overhead were incongruous. The actors were mostly covered, but sometimes in the rain along with the groundlings. The story is of Prince Hal (to be Henry V) who starts as a wastrel, a flibbertigibbet and good mate to the full-bodied and witty Falstaff. By the end of the play he's showing his seriousness in battle to the satisfaction of his father, Henry IV. But the presentation was great and involving and both fun and intimate, unaffected and uneffected. The music was real trumpets and trombones and drums performed by the players. There was singing between acts, no lighting, no audio. And to end, an amusing curtain call when the whole crew dance disco-like to music. This was unexpected, but fitted wonderfully. Everyone left in good cheer, if drenched. It was a worthy outing for the cleverness of Shakespeare who mixes wit and seriousness in this play with astounding ease, and the historical visit to another time and another pace of life. There are no pics during the performance, but I did get one of the cast at the curtain call. The Globe is a gem for a London visitor, and cheap as chips*. Be a groundling when next in London.

*Cheap as chips is a particularly apt reference here. Shakespeare's script has several references to Cheapside and chips are on the plate of every tourist in this town.

Street scenes

London has its share of buskers in the Tube and music in cafes. I particularly enjoyed the sound in the tube: nicely full and rich with reverb, and a few voices and singer songwriters justified the acoustics. But I have pics of two guitarists for CJ. First is Charlie Sus who was shredding for the harried travellers on the tube. Second was Francesco Coghetto, Italian jazz guitarist from Treviso who was playing a much more subdued set for a basement cafe in for a much more sedate audience at Fortnum & Masons. You couldn't get much different in style and venue, but music is a great leveller.

26 August 2010

Monk meets Metheny

I chose the Vortex for a second jazz night out in London. Loz Speyer and his Quartet were performing “in the key of Monk”. Everyone loves Monk, so it sounded interesting. It's a fairly challenging neighbourhood to navigate, and well out of the centre, but no hassles after working out directions. In fact, a few workers from the local railway station responded to my question about the location of Gillett St, with “Looking for the Vortex? Go down...”. How out of place did I look, I wonder? But I got there.

My first impression was the incongruity of a Monk session without piano, despite the presence of a grand piano on stage. But then I doubt that Monk would have been so limited in conception. Loz led in with Monk's Evidence. It was standard Monk with those staccato rhythms and oddly selected chords. Loz's flugelhorn led nice passages through the chords, sitting on key notes of the chord and finding neat tracks to the next. The guitar was comping with dissonance that I found quite apt for Monk, and bass and drums were sitting with truncated rhythms that seemed just the part. The night continued with other monk tunes and originals by Loz with influences form Monk. I particularly enjoyed Dave's double bass which just seemed spot on for the style. Nice little triplet fills and chord segments that moved up and down the fingerboard. Very elegant and very apt. Andy on drums was not so outspoken, but again seemed to sit in the style with comfort, soft and frequently polyrhythmic. I was a bit uncomfortable with Stefano's guitar. He's obviously a capable player, with devastatingly fast scalar runs on a seven string guitar (an instrument that I associate more with grunge than jazz). But I wonder if I am being a mouldy fig, because I didn't enjoy this mix: a guitar solo with heavy reverb; another with buzzing overdrive; comping to the bass solo with Metheny chords; organ swells. But he was a good player, and would have been a blowout in other contexts. Loz's tunes were decent compositions and had elements of Monk, but were more grounded, not so brilliantly absurd. No surprise because Monk is so unique.

So in summary, it was an interesting visit to Monk and his influences, with good playing and a guitar that was in itself a quirky choice. Loz Speyer (trumpet, flugelhorn) led a quartet with Stefano Kolonaris (guitar), Dave Manington (bass) and Andy Ball (drums) at the Vortex in London.

23 August 2010

Lucking out later

Mike Guy told me before the gig that I'd got lucky: I'd chosen a great night to visit the Archduke. The Anjali Perin Quartet was hot: a good choice. By the end of the night, I was swinging and totally in agreement. It was just a pick-up gig. This was not a regular, rehearsed band, but these were wonderfully competent musicians. Presumably amongst the best in London: stunning stuff and wonderfully enlivening. They were just arrangements of standards, some funky interpretations, some lovely swinging walks and bouncing twos-to-the-bar and syncopations, but this was bliss. This is why we follow this music. Emotional truth, collegial sharing, hype-free, and all with a well informed skill-set.

Anjali was once a classical pianist and violinist. She was also a commercial lawyer. Then she studied her masters at a local London jazz school, and now she's been professional for 5 years. She's mature. She's educated and subtle. She's entertaining with patter and good humour. All that a singer should be. She's also a lover of the great singers, Sarah Vaughan and the like, so there is intense involvement that expresses itself in hand and body movements and richly interpreted lyricism. And vocalese, and pitches that slip over the octaves, and arrangements, and even scat that I can enjoy. This is authentic stuff. And the band: such a great rhythm section. Davide, the bassista Bolognese who has been resident in London for 20 years, had a soft and un-edgy tone that was none-the-less always present. Easy and unforced accompaniment and frequent solos that sang. Drummer Enzo, the other Italian connection, sat with deceptive simplicity, but close your eyes, and this was recording quality: easy grooves, unforced fills, sharp yet understated. I felt Ross stood back earlier, but loosened during the night to longer solos and more adventurous substitutions. Powerful playing and open expression. The whole band just leapt to attention from the first bars of the first set, with a busily syncopated Love for sale. Such energy, solid swing and long adventurous latin solos and montuno accompaniments. Then into Yesterdays and Anj's delightful and very black scat and fluid sense of time. Thereafter, Ellington's In a mellow tone, Softly, You don't know what love is, and a more obscure number done by Chet Baker, Do it the hard way. Also Bye bye blackbird moving from New Orleans to New York, Never will I marry, a Sam Cooke's 12/8 A change is gonna come, and that bouncy Honeysuckle Rose, which speaks with the most suggestive lyrics, as we were told. All pretty obvious as a repertoire, but done with energy, tightness, driving grooves and inventive solos.

Can I say more? A wonderfully entertaining but also intellectually satisfying outing for a pickup band of informed and tasteful and heavily grooving musicians. Anjali Perin (vocals) led a quartet with Ross Stanley (piano), Davide Mantovani (bass) and Enzo Zirilli (drums).

Lucking out in London

We've left the kids behind to look after the dog, and it's another jaunt to Europe. This is a family visit, with Megan and Mum, so I don't expect to get to much jazz, but I always try to hear something in any city I visit. For the first outing in London, I certainly lucked out. Not just for quality but also for coincidence.

Firstly, you should know there's a wonderfully purposeful and comprehensive listing of jazz in London which is available online and in print from a few jazz centres. It's unceremoniously called “Jazz in London”, but it's a gem. Twelve pages of small-print listings of gigs from a range of venues, both better and lesser known ones (Ronnie Scott's, Pizza express, 606 and Vortex come to mind as better known). My first thought was, what a scene! I was overwhelmed with options. In the end, my time and knowledge of the town was limited, so I chose one with two bands, free entry, on the tube and near our apartment, and at a time that fitted family and tourist outings. Either I lucked out, or this is a scene like I can't imagine! I've now decided it's a bit of both.

The venue was Archduke Live! It seemed pretty modern, swish and tame on entry, and the first duo initially seemed fairly subdued and lounge-bar-ish at first. But listening with my ears instead of eyes, I realised the very complex vocal contortions, and the lovely movements into and out of dissonance by the pianist. Then vocalist Zena James introduced her offsider as Mike Guy. I thought I knew that face! Mike Guy trained at the jazz school in Canberra, moved to Melbourne and and now resides in London. I wrote him up when he returned to Canberra for a visit and performed at Trinity with old mates a few years ago. We chatted. He's now busy 6 nights a week on Keys 2 in Thriller, the Michael Jackson musical which is now playing on Shaftesbury Avenue. You probably know that London is a centre for musicals and they congregate around Soho and Shaftesbury Avenue. It's big business and there are something like sixty of them on at any time, and they can go on in the same theatre for years. It's a big business for capable reading musicians. Mike's had this gig for the last 18 months. He'd called in a sub for the night to back Zena. Mike told me of his subs: one was keys with Level 42; another toured with household names. Very impressive.

Back on the gig, the tunes were soft and restrained in volume with a range of standards and pop tunes. Michael Jackson's Human nature is so good it has to become a standard. Otherwise, Body and soul, Old Black Magic, Nat King Cole and the like, and an end on a tune composed by Zena's father, a bluesy 12-bar called Peace of mind. “It's been a long time / playing with my mind / I can't find / some peace of mind”. This was the opening act, as a duo, and entertaining eaters, so it was not raucous. But Zena's singing was busy with delicious jazz complexity and softly voiced, although, for me, a bit too excited on the heavier lyrics like Body and soul. I only heard a few tunes and what with ordering beers and looking around, I forgot to note Mike's style in accompaniment, but he was wonderful in solos in the comfortable but intelligent way he departed from underlying chord statements to explore substitutions. A lovely performance and a great start to the night. Zena James (vocals) performed a duo set with Mike Guy (piano) at the Archduke.

  • Jazz in London
  • 14 August 2010

    Seeing the gig the same

    Michael Galeazzi of the Java Quartet was telling me of a mate and PhD studies in music. He was investigating how different performers in a band see the same gig in different ways. It’s an interesting study, and I guess any highly trained performance art person must have experienced it. Jazz can be quite an emotional roller-coaster, but it’s part of the commitment and fascination and seriousness of it all. The time the band was in accord, after this Java Quartet gig at the University of Canberra, as was the audience. This was a great gig. Michael was up front, happy and joking and enjoying every minute. The percussion section (here I include the beatboxer along with the more obvious drums and tabla) were throwing challenges back and forth and revelling in the different sounds and styles of each of their instruments. Greg on piano and Matthew on tenor were laconic and cool but their blissful interplay said it all. This was the first gig of the tour to launch the Java Quartet’s new CD, Rejavanation, and the quartet was accompanied by two of its CD guests, Morganics on beatbox and freestyle rap, and Bobby Singh on tabla. It’s something I like, this fertile, cross-cultural experiment. It worked a treat and the band’s response just confirmed it.

    I wondered if rejavanation hinted at rejuvenation, because there were a series of tunes from older JQ CDs that had been reimagined for the new CD and this concert. The album cover describes each tune by a style: trance, ambient dub, boom bap, etc.. The CD’s press release explains the music as a component of Michael’s Master studies at the Sydney Con, exploring “notions of hybridity through contemporary hypnotic landscapes” through the “meditative aesthetics of contemporary dj/dance culture and Hindustani ragas”. Intriguing and different, interesting beyond the jazz field, and obviously entertaining for the band. Because getting back to the band, they were having a great time.

    Firstly I noticed the wonderful rhythmic feels. Drummer Mike was intense at surprisingly low volumes, then letting go at the end with double kick pedal; fabulous interplays between the complex tika-tak of the tabla and jazz drums and even vocal percussion; the way the beat squared up for the beatboxing from the more swung jazz segments. Then the simple, repeating melodies accompanied by moving chordal harmonies or echoing piano lines and the rippling piano and fluttering tenor bursting into full blown sax solos over intense and busy grooves. And the frequent bass solos on a Whitehead SASE that were sharp and edgy, but surprisingly deep in the recording I made on the night. Not at all strict jazz, but obviously jazz informed, and one branch of where it’s heading as it touches on other valid forms. Solos that just appeared from a band that has played together for years, and shows an unspoken interplay. There was even a ballad in there, a deeply felt, sparse thing of synth swells then sax then a touch of percussion. The whole was structurally and chordally simple, but subtly mobile and with an underlying percussive intensity. And it was even political, perhaps more validly than the current election. I missed most of the rap lines, but caught a few that spoke of Brisvegas: “Visions, valleys, concrete”; and refugees: “sometimes / we find / that time”, “sometimes / the best form of attack / is defence” and then a rap in 15 languages.

    It was an intriguing jazz for a modern ear, and a mix of styles for a modern world. Great stuff. And very much enjoyed by performers and audience. The Java Quartet are Michael Galeazzi (acoustic bass), Greg Coffin (piano), Matthew Ottignon (tenor sax) and Mike Quigley (drums). Their guests were Bobby Singh (tabla) and Morganics (beatboxing, freestyling).