28 November 2010

Hannah matters

So decided Dr Paul Langley in the play Lies, love and Hitler. I saw it last night at the Street Theatre and was intrigued by the moral complexities it mulls over. Certainly Hannah matters, but I’m not sure I would have taken the path the Paul Langley chose … but then I’m no great romantic. The blurb talks of the moral complexities of truth and lies and moral and emotional commitment and places them in the context of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer is now well-known in Australia after Rudd laid claim to him before the 2009 election which rolled Howard. He was a theologian who was involved in an attempt to kill Hitler. There’s an obvious moral dilemma here: can a person committed to God kill or, on a lesser plane, tell lies to prevent exposure of the plot? The utilitarian says yes, the moral purist says no. It’s not hard to sympathise in a black and white case like Hitler and I’m comfortable that the balance of evils supports Bonhoeffer. But there were other thoughts that occurred to me during the play. Bonhoeffer (39) was engaged to a younger woman (19) at short notice and this seems very demanding, but then Bonhoeffer’s world was pretty extreme. The play uses his letters to his fiancee within the plot to parallel theologian and lecturer Langley’s relationship with his student Hannah Summers. (Lecturer/student relationship alert! We are in the vicinity of a university, but there’s another related plot twist that I won’t reveal.) Langley pines that he hasn’t had the momentous experiences of Bonhoeffer, to which I thought of the curse of living in interesting times. War may be exciting and anything but trivial, but I reckon our relatively sleepy comfort is more productive and probably more satisfying if used effectively. The decision to “sin boldly” was a fabulous line, but it didn’t sit quite right with me in that context (although I may be rethinking my first impressions). I noticed a few lines that jarred with cliches and was surprised that the play was long enough to support an interval. A friend lamented the audience’s laughs at times of pressure, but a little black humour seems to me a sensible response to some difficult quandaries. But these are trivial comments. This was a lively, verbal, searching work that succeeded in outlining some quandaries that will always be with us. I’m stunned that this is a local work, one of the “Made in Canberra” theatre series at the Street Theatre. Great work and thoroughly well presented and very fulfilling. Congratulations to all involved, especially playwright Elizabeth Scott, cast Dallas Bland (Bonhoeffer), Hanna Cormick (Hannah) and James Scott (Langley) and the Street Theatre for supporting such great local works.

Out & about Canberra

There are times you are surprised by your own city. This is one of them. I write after hearing some mates playing at the National Press Club the other night. Andy Butler, James Luke and Evan Dorrian were performing. This was a standards gig, and I heard just a few tunes, but it was subtle and inventive, nicely settled and richly interpreted with sparse piano that searched honestly for lines, James’ open and gently funky bass and Evan’s busy and telling solos. This is just a club gig, but the band gave such a satisfying and exploratory response. Great stuff. That was Friday evening. Then Saturday morning, I had a very Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie moment. I was driving around Manuka and I spied a little walking group led by a guitar with Graham Monger attached. There was a big black bass bag with player by his side (who? Phill Jenkins, perhaps?) and a third person behind who must have been Dirk. They were obviously looking around for a house Auction notice, and there was one only a few houses away. I know how much I enjoy their playing, but they were only seen not heard this time. Then Saturday night, I attended a play at the Street Theatre: Truth, lies and Hitler, which was very, very impressive. I knew it to be written by a Canberra playwright, and that was impressive. Then I realised it’s part of a series called “Made in Canberra” that’s running at the Street Theatre. Just how much is there around this town! If you look, that is. I suppose most comfortable wealthy cities have similarly impressive arts communities, but I remain blown out by our own. If only there were more time. Congratulations to our little but vibrant community.

26 November 2010


I hadn’t heard of Pan Francis, but I knew I’d like them. They were a visiting band from Melbourne. They were in a favourite configuration: sax trio with that open, unbordered sound that comes from not having a chordal instrument and with the strong and more equal role for each player. They had interesting and varied backgrounds, including National Jazz Awards and classical training and even Big Day Out. They had a promotional pic that was wonderfully amusing and sharp and primary colourful. Talk of collective improvisation, quirky melodies, thumping beats and deconstructions of rock and pop classics had me sure to be in the audience. When the first tune was from Bad Plus, I was sold. These guys are busy and vibrant and well versed in their instruments. But also playful and aware of music of their less jazz-obsessed peers and they are having a good time. Not that it’s an easy listen, but it’s capable and interesting and contemporary and aware and I like that.

Jon played alto sax, which fitted nicely for a lighter, more flighty sound than would a tenor. He’s classically trained and a finalist at the National Jazz Awards and an Arts Council grant recipient, so he’s got chops. You could hear it in the extended range and the sequences that spoke of a harmonic awareness at the level of each note he played, but there were also squeaks and screams for the passion. I was intrigued by long intervals of solos in whole note triplets, one time with a bass playing on 1-3- for a strangely floating effect. Michael was strong and edgy on bass with a lovely rig borrowed from Phil Jenkins (Acoustic Image & EA). His role is bliss for an adventurous bassist: free to improvise as an equal, often holding the groove, but also passing it to drums or even sax for ostinato lines, and lots of solo time. He’d busily range rapidly over the fingerboard with nice intonation, but equally drop to the quietest of repeated notes for effect. Very nice, and he was so obviously having a great time. Also busy and inventive was drummer Nick. He’s the one with history at Big Day Out, so has a rock heritage. I certainly felt it: matched grip on the sticks and some rock-style rolls and fills. There was a clear jazz sensibility there in his freedom, but it was not gentle and subdued from jazz training but more loud and grubby. It was a nice blend for a gritty band crossing over into pop deconstructions.

I mentioned Bad Plus’ Bugs (or more fully, Keep the bugs off your glass and the bears off your ass [sic]). Other non-originals were a Bud Powell bebop called Wail, which sounded very contemporary and un-‘40s although hinting at its history. I was searching for the reasons here: the alto that was more fluid and indefinite or the bass lines that seemed more 2 note patterns rather than bebop 4s and that avoided the obvious statements of chords. Then a fabulously complex Paul Williamson tune with a complex time feel and unison staccato melody, and a funky 12-bar feel from band Fly. Then Spiderbait’s Buy me a pony and Pink Floyd’s Bike [obscure title alert] which I particularly enjoyed for its jolly, melodious tune with deceptive twists. There were originals by both Michael and Jon. Jon’s Loneliness was balladic. Jon’s Untitled (and due anytime now) was a dark ballad with a film noir flavour. Michael’s J’s track was a slow rocky feel with latin accent. I think I got the title wrong, because Michael’s Obituary didn’t feel to me at all funereal, but more light and cloudy with a contemporary melody that reminded me of Ornette.

All round, an interesting journey from capable players in a this open and adventurous format. Not easy, but I enjoyed it immensely. Jon Crompton (alto sax), Michael Story (bass) and Nick Martyn (drums, percussion) played as Pan Francis at the Loft.

16 November 2010

Kelly country

I was in Beechworth for the weekend, now a tourist town of restaurants and B&Bs and boutique breweries and once a gold town and a haunt of Ned Kelly. There was jazz here, too, in the guise of John Bisignano. I hear that John is a music store owner and music teacher in Wangaratta, another town in the region and one of great annual interest to readers of CJ. John was playing at the very busy and successful Beechworth Bakery, upstairs on the open verandah. I heard a melange of instruments going up the stairs, but there was just one guy performing. But John records his own arrangements, and after a few tunes, I was impressed by his multi-instrumentalism and convinced he probably plays everything on his backing tracks. As I arrived, he was singing a ‘40s pop song with a very attractive voice. But on request, he switched through the various other instruments on stage: conga, tenor and guitar. The conga was pretty straightforward; the tenor playing was authentic, well phrased and with a decent tone; the guitar was bluesy, strident, even searing, again a good tone. But voice is the main means of musical communication and John sang warmly and with nice effect and a rounded, expressive voice. It was a nice interlude from touristing, although a delay before that boutique brewery. John Bisignano (voice, guitar, tenor, congas, more …) came down from Wangaratta to perform standards and early pop tunes at the Beechworth Bakery.

13 November 2010


The opening of a new venue is a night of anticipation. Thus it was when Legends opened for the first night with our local New Orleans-inspired strolling brass band, Brass’ere. This venue looks like it will be catholic in its tastes, with Ax Long playing a more post-bop style next week and Latin on weekends. But Brass’ere’s influences and the fact they can be mobile shouldn’t suggest something from lost past. They played Michael Jackson and Honky Tonk Woman as well as St James Infirmary and even threw in a miked and distorted trombone for a guitar solo (through a genuine Zoom guitar pedal, no less). But of course, the essence of the loud and strident brass tone was always there from pairs of trumpets and trombones and a thumping, billowing sousaphone. Sousa’s a great big, round sound with no sustain and lovely to hear and it even works with funk. But there were a few ringins in this brass band. I could hear the drums easily enough, and Mi Tierra’s percussionist was sitting in for the night, but there was one reed: Nathan on baritone sax. I only thought of this later, too late to isolate the tone, and brass purists may not be happy. But the clear, bell-like tone was predominant, so all is well. Courtney appeared on a few songs, but there were plenty of instrumentals, including some light and friendly originals like The song that could. I’m looking forward to hearing the strolling band. Even drummer Nesci walks with a snare. That’s the final and definitive connection with New Orleans and jazz funerals and the rest. I assume they drop the rock tunes from the repertoire for a genuine funereal march. But I jest, which fits the good humour on stage on the night and the effervescent nature of a brass band.

Brass’ere played the opening Thursday night of Legends Jazz Bar, upstairs at Manuka. Cameron Smith (trumpet, vocals), Zach Raffan (trumpet), Michael Bailey (trombone), John Gosling (trombone), David Abkiewicz (tuba, sousaphone), Nathan Sciberras (baritone sax), Robert Nesci (drums), Courtney Stark (vocals) and Francisco Meza (percussion) sat in for the night.

11 November 2010

Something happy

So said the bass player: “Please can you write something happy”. And Peta Gammie wrote a lovely jazz-influenced ballad that swung lightly and with pathos rather than joy. But this was the only tune I heard that I recognised as jazz. Not that that’s a problem. She’s a good composer of soul or rock or funk songs on very personal issues of love and its consequences (if with a twist, like morning and non-morning partners living together). And Peta can carry the style off, with a strong mid-range voice that she uses capably and with evident and satisfying jazz-trained precision in pitch and note values. It was a friendly and sometimes amusing concert, if just a little nervous. The high heels that found the hole in the floor were an unexpected surprise. The relief felt by travellers returning home was evident in comments on the Aussie pronunciation of water (d for t)and the audience’s understanding of her patter between songs. Peta’s been in Geneva for the last 6 or 7 years, but comes from around Kiama and studied at the Jazz School here in Canberra, so this concert was somewhat a gathering of friends. The band was fitting, too. Mark beating such apt, flailing grooves and fills. Jason laying down busy, finger-funk bass lines with that middy, woody Warwick tone into a man-sized bass rig. Greg mostly strumming light, funk styles on strat but letting go for some devastating guitar solos culminating in sequences and sweeps. Ya have to love it! John leading on melody and soloing with some bluesy lines, but then insinuating sophisticated dissonances into busy grooves. And Luke on edgy Nord piano tones sweeping over the keyboard, and just one time at the end, introducing organ (I wished I’d heard more of this).

But it was more than just a concert. CIT is a training ground for video and audio engineers, as well as musicians and the music business. So we had a mega production, with big PA, big lights, big screens. I loved the sound of the PA, running well below its capacity and totally unstressed. I didn’t always like the mixing. I found it sometimes too edgy and cluttered and unbalanced for my ears, but I’m the backseat driver here. Mixing is harder than it looks. I enjoyed the video. It gave a different view of some things, and I found myself watching it several times, even with the live act only metres away. But one thing was disconcerting: there was a slight but noticeable delay between the PA sounds and the projected video. I know they delay sound for speakers at different distances from stage at big stadium gigs. That wouldn’t have been feasible here, where we were seeing the life performer just metres away, but it was strange to observe.

Peta’s songs were all originals, other than one Elvis Costello tune, I want you. Annabelle Jones sat in with acoustic guitar and nice harmonies for one tune. Utopia Collective played the first set, with their highly capable fusion, finishing with a tune John had introduced to the band only 5 minutes before. As I remember, it had a rock groove, a busy but constant bassline, one or few chords, a devilish melody that John must have known, and otherwise five very capable musos who pulled it off with ease (if a few nerves).

I enjoyed the night, enjoyed the sound and the experience, and especially enjoyed Peta’s soulful music and personal lyrics with such a capable backing band. Peta Gammie (vocals) sang with the Utopia Collective. The Utopia Collective is Greg Stott (guitar), John Mackey (tenor), Luke Sweeting (keyboard), Jason Varlet (bass), Mark Sutton (drums).

09 November 2010

Life on the outside

It was a pensive sound that was wafting through Woden Town Square as I emerged from shoppers’ paradise into fresh air and reality. Jazz had finally supplanted the buzzing rockers. Mick Elderfield was playing tenor under the bridge next to the Soul Bar. The bridge is an apt location for a solo tenorist: for the wonderfully rich and echoing sound under the massed concrete, but also for the reference to Sonny Rollins’ Bridge. I listened a while. That sound was so big and smooth, and the slow but sturdy statement of the underlying harmony was satisfying. I wondered if the lunchtime crowd, mostly brought up on fast pop or staid country lines over 3 chords, would think of this complexity. Would they hear the more intricate harmony? Would they hang around long enough to recognise a standard? Really, I shouldn’t expect so little: this was a well-educated public service crowd at lunch, and they probably listen to Miles and classics at home. Like me. They were probably rushing back to work for a meeting. But it was lovely weather and that sound was so nice. I commented to Mick and he confided he was playing a Selmer Mark VI, so there was good reason for the sound. I noticed tarnished metal and fresh-looking pads, so this was a cared-for vintage instrument.

Much of our public life now happens in commercial private spaces sporting agreeable charities and piped music and well-presented people and informed by eminent business sense. It’s all safe, ordered, efficient and comfortable, but it’s soulless. It was lovely to emerge into the rag-tag of public life in a public space and hear such sweet and thoughtful sounds. Thanks to Mick Elderfield who busked Selmer tenor under the bridge at Woden Town Square.

07 November 2010


What a fascinating night it was! The Cosmopolitan Cabaret was a fundraiser for two development projects in Timor, one for micro finance in West Timor and another for sustainable farming in East Timor. The audience was committed, friendly, intelligent and the performers were diverse, local and interesting. It was not your normal display of jazz chops. This show covered folk, rock, classical song and cabaret-jazz. My band, the Gossips, started up with the cabaret-jazz playing ‘40s-era tunes with a cabaret bent: Ellington, bop, latin, even war-time singalongs. Great fun and some decent soloing all round. Congrats, guys … and our Darling Sister Leanne. Then Drew Walky with punk-cum-mod singer-songwriter songs of Canberra. This was interesting lyrics, strummed strat and a great line in dry vegetal stage humour and some amazingly capable number guessing from the audience. Then soprano Kristen Mann singing several songs by Debussy accompanied by Gossip Mike Dooley on piano: a change and a delight. A wonderfully strong and serene soprano voice filling a reverberent hall; no PA wanted or needed. Delicious! Then the fabulous Cashews. The Cashews are Pete Lyon and Alison Procter and are a Canberra alt institution. Famed for guerilla gigs (I dream of this, but it doesn’t work quite as neatly with double bass), clever, humourous, sometimes touching lyrics, easy and pleasant stage patter, these are a gem. The harmonies are so sweet, the ambience is light and humourous, the playing is capable and the songwriting is relevant and intelligent. Don’t miss their “acoustic-brain-pop”. Then more rock-influence with Andrew Holmes and Naomi Milthorpe performing songs of Ryan Adams. Not nearly so humourous. [Wikipedia notes that Ryan Adams recorded one album called the Suicide Handbook which was rejected on the grounds that it was "too sad". Hardly Cashews territory.] The end of the night was Gossips for our second set. So, a great night. Lots of varied sounds and emotions and a good cause.

The Gossips are Leanne Dempsey (vocals), Richard Manderson (sax), Mike Dooley (piano), Eric Pozza (bass) and Brenton Holmes (drums). Drew Walky played guitar and sang. Kristen Mann (soprano) sang Debussy with Mike Dooley (piano). The Cashews are Pete Lyon (vocals, guitar) and Alison Procter (vocals, guitar, accordion, supermum). Naomi Milthorpe (vocals) and Andrew Holmes (vocals, guitar) performed songs of Ryan Adams.

06 November 2010

Loft, as in NY

Carl Morgan played at The Loft the other night with his Quintet. I haven’t been to New York, but Carl has, and this seemed to me to be just what I’d expect in that aggregation of little bars with players from around the world experimenting at the forefront of the art. I loved it and it’s probably unique in Canberra; very special.

But this is not music for the fainthearted. It’s demanding for both performers and audience but it’s also engaging and satisfying for both. The rhythms are complex, the melodies are contorted and busy and the flow of the compositions is none too clear at first glance. I was trying to count the first tune of the night: I thought maybe 14 but there seemed to be occasional extra beats here and there. There were. Talking to James the drummer afterwards, he told me it was a 4/4 (I was floored by this) played in 5-7-4 totalling 16 (this sounds more likely). Likely, but none too easy to fathom or to play. The grooves were syncopated-modern with just one or two walks that take on a delicious quality amongst the broken beats. James was just playing around the groove and implying the rhythm with skills and subtlety aplenty. Bassist Alex had some ostinato lines or was playing on 1-2+, a common latin-like beat, but in the contemporary jazz idiom, and embellishing with fills and long intervals. I suppose all this is classified as polyrhythm, but it’s certainly rhythmically complex. A drummer next to me noted pianist Steve played rhythmically, but I noticed more his solos that were obscure to my ears: closely spaced lines that repeated, regular but not quite sequences, busy and constant, not flourishes but a moody activity that buzzed and bent the underlying harmonies. Again, I’ve heard this before but on recordings, not locally, and my ear places it somewhere around the bleeding edge. The front line of Carl on guitar and Mike on tenor were more clear in relationship to harmony, although both were melodically challenging and had expert chops. Carl and his constant overdriven guitar tone were solid and even, framing lines that were smooth, although phrased and intervallically jumpy, and making lovely use of fretboard positions to move through modes, and throwing in those occasional devastatingly fast flourishes (that had me laughing in elation) or just plain modestly fast lines (still gems). Mike was more constant in melodic concept, often using sequences to move around the tonality, and with a physical presence that reminded me of Jamie Oehlers, bending knees into the low tones and arching back for higher runs. Alex was similarly physical, bending into the bass for the thumb positions and sometimes remaining crouched into the body, and thinking back, Steve was well bent over the keyboard too.

The tunes were originals, several by Carl but also by Mike and Steve, and just one by a US sax player, Dave Binney. Not all tunes had such a difficult conception of time; one seemed a 32 bar tune (or thereabouts); one was a walking swing. I thought I noticed development between a few of Carl’s tunes. I think it was Wheel that was an earlier composition, and relatively (I do mean “relatively”) sedate and less complex. Whatever, this was a brilliant evening of challenging compositions and playing at the forefront of contemporary jazz, at least here in Canberra, and heard in a nicely intimate environment. That pretty much adds up to bliss to my ears.

Carl Morgan (guitar) led his quintet comprising Mike Rivett (tenor sax), Steve Barry (piano), Alex Boneham (bass) and James Waples (drums) for a session at the very intimate new venue, The Loft.

05 November 2010

Restoring our history

Modern life is very much lived in the fast, unrelenting present: we forget our history, which also means that we forget our dues to the past. I don’t come at the argument that jazz ended in the ‘60s but I value history. Leigh Barker’s Quartet obviously do too, and I found their recent gig at the Gods was refreshing and different because of it.

Leigh with his acoustic bass (truly acoustic: miked, no pickup) and slapping technique and gut sound led the outing, but Mark fitted admirably with older-style grooves (sometimes strange and clumsy to my modern-influenced ears but which just fitted) and always sharp rolls and accents and rimshots and hihat sizzles and the solos from Sarah and Eamon were talking with a blues accent. One mate spoke of the piano solos as “gritty”: a nice metaphor and it fitted often enough. I was initially hearing hard bop: strong tonal lines and solid swings with that blues background. But as the night wore on, I started hearing more styles, more influences. Piano and trumpet both broke from consonance for lines that spoke clearly with dissonance and substitutions, and even touches on modal styles and more linear improvisations, rather than locking to the chord changes. But then, back to the past, with lovely gentle swings and vocals from Sarah on an old song, Please be kind, as played by Sinatra/Basie, that reminded me of the current wave of female jazz singers. And a historically apt interpretation of What is this thing called love, sung by Eamon and finishing the night with a touchingly distant and devastating interpretation. Just last weekend, Eamon won the Wangaratta National Jazz Award, this year for brass, so I wasn’t surprised by his fluency and command. His was a masterful performance: a forceful tone, clearly enunciated; melodic, structured, fast solos with growls and bends and releases; wonderfully present and in command. These were not long solos but they spoke clearly and authoritatively.

I think it was the phrasing and rhythms that determined the band as located so much in history, despite the dissonance and modal freedoms that appeared throughout the night. This was harking back to pre-bop, but influenced by many generations after. Or was it the other thing I noticed, that the lines were just right: apparently simple because they were so unjarring. I noticed that first with Sarah’s solos: apparently simple, mostly arpeggiated, and so right. Musicians know this is no easy achievement. It takes work to play simply and inevitably: it’s not something you can fake. James LeFevre was there, and in true jazz bar style, he sat in for the last tune. James played very well, but differently: a longer solo, more modern-challenge, more ecstatic, less classical. It was an interesting juxtaposition and so appropriate for a band that exuded jazz history in bars and bordellos to invite in the local.

I very much enjoyed and was refreshed by Leigh Barker (bass) with Eamon McNelis (trumpet), Sarah McKenzie (piano) and Mark Sutton (drums), and James LeFevre (tenor) sitting in for the last tune.