29 August 2011

Shipshape 1

Now I report an indulgent time: cruising the Inside Passage to Alaska. I’d been on a ship before, but Megan hadn’t and wanted the experience. So be it.

I was interested in the musicians and the aurorae if less the ice. It was too cloudy for aurorae but I ended up stunned by the glaciers and we heard some very decent musicians on our Sapphire Princess.

La Boheme was a lovely string quartet from the Ukraine. This was chamber music, some Mozart and Boccherini, Vivaldi and Handel and Hadyn, Elgar and Puccini - very civilised but also gently pleasant music with classical integrity. The musicians played with a real ease of melody and accompaniment, no hesitation, strong dynamics and a feel for the charts. I enjoyed listening to the parts as they merged and contrasted, and the pizzicato playing as it moved between instruments. Very beautiful and very dignified. I was amused when one player said to me that “jazz is life”. So is this, in spades, even if it speaks with the language of another era. La Boheme comprised Adrian Biodnar (violin 1), Olesya Masnyk (violin 2), Dmytro Nosal (viola) and Julia Griaznova (cello).

Steve Savage was a singer/pianist out of New Jersey playing piano bar sets with a nice New Orleans blues vibe. Here was music of the modern era: syncopations and an earthy roughness. All the favourite singer/songwriters: Carole King, James Taylor, JJ Cale, Harry Chapin, Billy Joel, Elton John, Elvis Costello and the like, and Dr John with some sleazy down-south marching grooves. On the first night, I particularly noticed that his voice suited Let it be. I love the Beatles, but he’d already won me over by then. Steve was trained at Berklee where he was in the Motown band. He’s well travelled – he’s booked soon for a month in a club in Amsterdam.

Tatiana Karmatskaya also performed a piano solo sets, but this was instrumental and classically influenced and performed with fine music technique. There were instrumental versions of a range of musical and pop tunes of the mid-20th Century but Tatiana is classically trained and played a lovely Bach prelude (C major) on request. It remains stunning to me to hear such music at close hand, picking up on the altered notes, the F#s and Bbs and Abs: chromaticism, modes, extensions, intervals – all there and recognisable to the jazz player. Tatiana was from the Ukraine, and interestingly had played in an orchestra with the cellist from La Boheme quartet.

Shipshape 2

Ignacio Long was the Argentinean bassist with the show band. The show band read the charts and backed the dancers in the theatrical presentations. We saw Piano man and I’ve got the music in me, both variety collections of pop songs. Great songs, impressive costumes, professional dancers, but inane entertainment. Totally as expected and we enjoyed it immensely. (Ships are just floating resorts and none too intellectual, so you may as well go with the flow). But Ignacio was a nice player. I caught him in a guitar duo on fretless Jazz bass, and his grooves were steady and percussive and his solos were nicely melodic. He played a 5-string Ibanez in the Stage band. No surprise that he’s a graduate from Berklee. Ignacio was mostly playing electric on board and was nice enough to lend me his double bass for a few days to run a few scales. Many thanks.

Ignacio was playing with Australian trumpeter Gordon Dedman in the stage band, and also in their incarnation as the Big Band / Orchestra. I caught the Big Band playing arranged swing (Basie, Goodman, show tunes) in one bar, and the Orchestra playing Dixie and dance sets the next day. Gordon was on leave from the Australian Army Band (can you believe it!) and also plays with James Morrison’s Swing Street and has often played around Canberra (small world). I also said a few words to Joe Barna, the drummer. He’s from NYC and his teacher is John Riley who recently visited Canberra (smaller world still). The full band was Bill Hamilton (trombone), William Todd IV (saxes, flute, clarinet), Ignacio Long (bass), Joe Barna (drums), Gordon Dedman (trumpet, flugel) and Steve Lee (piano, band leader).

Sol Provider was one of the dance bands. It was a quintet of two female vocalists with keys, drums and bass. The players were from Ghana and I think one singer was from South Africa. Nicely gathered sets that merged latin and country and rock’n’roll and disco, and broke styles with neat ballads and waltzes. This was my old 60/40 entertainment with a lively beat and joyous presentation. The two women harmonised nicely and the instrumental trio was surprisingly full with keys doing horn parts aptly reminiscent of the originals and drums and bass enjoying busy grooves. The band comprised Cleveland White (drums, band leader), Rhona Gravesande (vocals), Nancy Osborne (vocals), Remo Bowen (bass) and David John (keys). I dug this band.

24 August 2011


It was truly lucking out to find we were staying virtually across the road from a jazz club in Seattle and not too far from the other major venue. I chose Tula’s with its interest in local Pacific Northwestern jazz. Greta Matassa was singing with a piano trio. It was a Friday night, the club was quite laid back but the street outside was buzzing with life and music with a little desperate edginess. Tula’s is in Second Ave, in Belltown, walking distance and midway between the quirky and touristy Pike Place Market and the vintage Space Needle. There a buzz in this town and a history of invention: Microsoft, Amazon, Adobe, Fedex, Boeing, Starbucks are all Seattle products. There’s water, fishing, lush country, mountains, even snow clad volcano cones in the distance rising above the smog. The local library as a major monument and the geek chic fits the claim as the most literate city in the USA.

Greta Matassa also fit the bill. She’s a lithe and flexible voice, moving intelligently and smoothly through medleys of standards on request. This is the world of steady professionalism. She told me she likes this band with its ability to play her 2,000 song repertoire at call. Certainly, she took requests and the band moved easily through tunes. A funky Baubles bangles and beads; Summertime that melded into It ain’t necessarily so as a dedication to the operatic Porgy & Bess that was then playing in Seattle; Skylark; I’m through with love; even Wouldn’t it be lovely and a Kurt Elling reference. I wasn’t surprised at the chat after the gig about keys – it’s a common topic for performers supporting singers. I also wasn’t too surprised (although I was impressed) that Greta had recently played at Dizzy’s in NYC. She has a lovely capable voice: sometimes blues-rough, sometimes jazz-mobile, sometimes scat-improvised, sometimes cabaret-present, but not forced or too obvious in its musicality. This is easy professionalism and sophisticated entertainment. Her band was similarly understated. Darin Clendenin was appropriately supportive of Greta, but could let go on fluent solos with a beautifully moderate dissonance and passing chromaticism. Bassist Clipper Anderson soloed frequently and with real fluency and tonal lyricism. Mark Ivester was supportive and unobtrusive. All the marks of seasoned professional musicians and lovely to hear. Interestingly Clipper Anderson had an Australian connection. He’d played with Jim Kelly of Crossfire in Brisbane, spoke well of Vince Jones recordings and, along with other Americans we spoke to, was wary of our wildlife.

But this is travel so it’s also a matter of talk and experiences. I’m enjoying the people. There are some obviously different conventions here: formal manners in a society of privilege and homelessness. But as one interesting if unhinged conversationalist I met quoted from Keith Richards: You go to Heaven for the climate and to Hell for the company. They say Seattle rains a lot, but it’s beautiful weather for us. Not sure what that says but I was mightily amused by the quote and I’m enjoying the company.

Greta Matassa (vocals) led a bands with Darin Clendenin (piano), Clipper Anderson (bass) and Mark Ivester (drums) at Tula’s in Seattle.

21 August 2011

Caterpillar chronicling

Text by Geoff Page

It is not often one gets to hear a big band these days, especially in Canberra. Their dominant moment in the history of jazz is long gone even though a number of jazz clubs around the world still feature some sort of rehearsal big band on Monday nights. Thus to hear a big band at all at the moment is intrinsically surprising - especially when we are so used to listening to small groups, sextets at most.

New York-based Steve Newcomb's concert at the ANU School of Music Band Room on August 18 was even more surprising than expected - and gratifying. The evening began with a solo piano performance by Steve based around "There Will Never Be Another You", after which John Hoffman from Brisbane joined him for a duet ballad on trumpet. The short first half then concluded with Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A Train" with sensitive, understated solos from Hoffman, Miroslav Bukovsky, John Mackey and Steve himself. The Ellington/Strayhorn reference was probably deliberate, foreshadowing as it did the second half of the evening where Ellington's style of orchestral writing was one of several beautifully integrated influences.

Given the importance of improvisation in jazz, the term "jazz composer" may seem oxymoronic but with his new multi-movement composition, "Caterpillar Chronicles", Steve Newcomb, showed that this is far from the case. Although the piece is loosely programatic (following the development from caterpillar to butterfly) its main interest lies in the sonorities used and in the integration of its improvised and composed elements. After an impressionistic introduction on piano, Steve conducted the orchestra from out front, leaving Andy Butler to the piano role. Although the orchestra included several of Canberra's top young improvisers (Niels Rosendahl, Matt Handel, Reuben Lewis and Alex Raupach among them), most of the improvising was done by senior figures - John Mackey, John Hoffman and Miroslav Bukovsky). In each case the solos were satisfyingly integrated with the music as a whole - and occasionally involved antiphonal elements, especially between Hoffman and Bukovsky.

Although Steve Newcomb appeared disconcertingly youthful out the front conducting such a large assembly, he clearly knows his jazz history very well. In addition to Ellington, it was the arranging innovations of Gil Evans which were the most strongly felt. Like Evans, Newcomb did not use the brass and woodwind sections by turn or against each other but combined their timbres in sonorities that often hovered at a compelling mid-point between harmony and (relative) dissonance. There was a strong sense throughout of both tradition and of never having heard anything like this before (not even from Evans or Ellington). At times I thought an influence of French twentieth classical music could also be detected. It made one feel that this orchestra, its composer and its (mostly) young musicians should also be heard in a larger hall by the audiences who flock to classical concerts. It's hard to imagine they too wouldn't have enjoyed it. Nevertheless, the experience of hearing such a sophisticated and original piece up close and so well played was certainly a satisfying one.

Sitting in the front row, I was able to notice just how much the young musicians were enjoying being part of it - even though, I was told later, there had not been extensive rehearsal time. The feeling was even more obvious in the sections where they were "laying out", as it were. I could see how they clearly understood why they were not playing in those particular bars and how even their silence at that point contributed to the total effect Newcomb was aiming for. Fortunately, the concert was recorded but when, or if, it becomes available is not known at this point. It's unlikely that even the best recording techniques could in any way duplicate the experience of hearing such a concert live.

Caterpillar Chronicles was composed by Steve Newcomb and premiered by the ANU Jazz Orchestra at the ANU School of Music Band Room on 18 August 2011. John Hoffman (trumpet) visited.

  • Cyberhalides Jazz Photos by Brian Stewart
  • 13 August 2011

    Amongst the community

    Thanks to Brian Stewart at Cyberhalides Jazz for the sharp pic

    It’s Saturday and I’m still spinning after a very pleasant jam session at the Loft. It was a fundraiser-jam. The jazz community was friendly and the music ranged from touching to boisterous. There were enough, but not too many, bassists and pianists and drummers and horns and vocalists, and even a violinist to challenge my jazz ear (and a very capable player with a jazz conception, too). I managed perhaps 4 or 5 tunes. Mostly they were pretty comfortable swingers or blues, but I remember an over-reachingly fast Stella that I deliberately took up a notch when I felt the band was rushing (live dangerously) and a lovely What are you doing for the rest of your life, sung by Rachel Lole deliciously underplayed by Luke Sweeting and somewhat overplayed by me. I’ll blame it on struggling to read the chart under low light. Otherwise, there was some very entertaining playing on the standards which are the staples on nights like this: amongst others, Green Dolphin Street, Anthropology, There will never be another you, Blues of Alice, All blues, Donna Lee, If I were a bell, Oleo, Straight no chaser, even Girl from Ipanema, and the almost inevitable finale of Tenor madness. There were lots of players moving in and out on various instruments. I particularly noticed the pianists and Andy Campbell on guitar, and of course I watched the bassists, but there was good playing and nice solos all round. My thanks to Phill Jenkins who is always generous with his nicely setup gut-strung bass. My guess is the fundraiser covered the rent and the piano tuning, maybe not much more, but so what - it was a great community event for both players and listeners. For the students who play together often, it was a chance to let their hair down, and for me it was a chance to play with a range of very good musicians. Thanks to Andy and Luke for organising it.

    And just a note about my gig last night. It’s not worth a full post, but it’s notable for me as my first real gig as a doubler, ie, playing electric and double bass on one gig. It leaves you a bit schizophrenic, but I loved playing electric again after several years of only double. My Yamaha TRB-6P is a fabulous instrument. I set it to fat Pastorius mode (lots of bass, little treble, bridge pickup) and played sixteenth-note fingerstyle on jazz and jazz-rock and funk and even some reggae. E-bass: this is my old school. Electric and acoustic basses are such different instruments, especially when the e-bass is a 6-string. It was a great workout and the good cheer from the jam carried over to a most enjoyable gig.

    11 August 2011

    Our NYC moment

    Miro suggested that last week was our New York week. There was certainly a lot of jazz on offer. The main offering is the Capital Jazz Project. CJP was a festival arranged by Street Theatre and the ANU Jazz School with two venues and running for most of 9 nights and two weekends. But in addition we had Ilmiliekki visiting at the Finnish Embassy, The Prophets at the Gods, and Roil at the Loft.

    CJP was a wonderful event with lots of local and visiting musicians including two internationals. The venue was the Street Theatre, with its smallish but comfortable, formally raked, proscenium-arched theatre (Street 1) and its smaller, more intimate workshop space (Street 2). They are both comfortable and provided with very good sound systems, but I had a preference for Street 2, the small workshop space decked out with the band on one long side, the audience littered around at Parisian café tables, with luscious curtains and Viennese mirrors. It was nicely decadent but it was also fairly small and regularly sold out. I missed several gigs earlier in the week due to sell-outs then got slipped in when Zoe was also sold out. There seemed to be a lot of new faces, which is good for jazz but obviously not so good for regulars who expect to arrive 5-minutes before a gig and get a ticket. There was also quite a buzz in the press. I saw several reviews in the Canberra Times for CJP events (even two on one day), it got a mention on ABC national radio and presumably on ABC666, and I saw it mentioned in Extempore and BMA. The CJP program was not concentrated enough for visitors but too concentrated for people with day jobs, so I see it as essentially a local jazz series. But what a great series and what an intensive week.

    As for acts, I missed two gigs early in the week due to sellouts. I caught The Prophets at Geoff Page’s Gods series on Tuesday (I had a season ticket). I missed the circus act and the Sirens (once again - third time unlucky) and Ilmiliekki on Wednesday due to a family birthday. (I got a mate to report on Ilmiliekki for CJ). I gave myself a night off on Thursday, so I missed two favourites: Wanderlust and Roil. I’d booked for the internationals, Bill Cunliffe and John Riley, on Friday and Saturday nights, and they were excellent. I also caught Zoe’s Buttercups Friday late through the grace of management when it was also sold out. I had a gig on Sunday afternoon. So I caught a fair bit and missed a lot but was still busy. I’ll be in NYC soon for a visit and I expect to have the same problem.

    Congratulations to ANUSM and Street Theatre. I hope CJP appears again next year. It was an exhilarating week. I’ll just have to remember to make bookings.

    10 August 2011


    I’ve heard it called jazzabilly. Zoe and the Buttercups are an oddly named band (no guy could lead a band with this name) and the lineup is somewhat heterodox given its paired horns with paired guitars that can switch to banjo and acoustic. But it’s a fabulously entertaining and eclectic sound that’s postmodern in its irony and its habit of collecting titbits of style. I enjoyed the CD, was surprisingly taken by their performance at JU2010, and adored this latest outing at the CJP. This one was particularly intimate, being in a small, slightly muggy theatrical space with stage lighting and decent sound and Viennese mirrors and Parisian café tables with the band on the long wall and the audience arrayed closely around it. I loved it, and obviously the band did too.

    This music is delightfully and unchallengingly lyrical with melodies that are simple and just plain lovely. Buttercuppin’ is a theme tune and it’s pure and played unadorned and with heart and it’s just plain beautiful. Gut for garters was Zoe’s pirate song (“every band needs a pirate song” says Zoe) and was mysterious like the giant squid or the white whale. Sludgebucket was the heavy rocker with screaming guitars. Zoe mentioned Mahavishnu, but this is heavy like Beatles’ I want you (she’s so heavy), not metal. The Buttercups have too much wit and love for genuine heavy (good on them). But great guitars! Brother Ben is a favourite of mine when he lets go, which he does on this tune, but I also noted some nicely restrained overdrive from Aaron. These guitarists are a feature of the band, with Aaron’s airy reverb behind so many tunes, and Ben’s banjo defining the rhythm on others. Banjo? It’s disconcerting but joyous and just one of the Buttercups’ little idiosyncrasies. The Buttercups don’t get together so often these days (Ben is in Melbourne; the others in Sydney), but you wouldn’t know it. The rhythms were tight and supple from Zoe’s easy bass and brother James’ sharp drums. The harmonies were sweet, from the horns, but also sometimes in unison with one or other of the guitars. If there were weaknesses in performance here, I didn’t notice it. The band was concentrated but relaxed and the tunes were genuinely song-like: rollicking good feels with those attractive melodies. Oddly, at one time there was even jazzy disjointedness as feel-good decayed to free and atonal then back again to sweet song. Clever - they are jazzers under the hat, after all. But the whole is joy and sonority. Everyone likes a sea shanty, and I can’t imagine that everyone wouldn’t like the Buttercups. As for me, they bring wit and joy with impressive playing and I thoroughly enjoy them for that.

    Zoe and the Buttercups is a project of Zoe Hauptmann (bass). Zoe’s blokey Buttercups are Ben Hauptmann (guitar, banjo), Aaron Flower (guitar), Dan Waples (sax), John Hibbard (trombone), James Hauptmann (drums).

    Less jocular

    The Reuben Lewis Quintet followed Zoe and the Buttercups at Street 2 and shared a bassist (Simon Milman was unavailable on the day and Zoe Hauptmann sat in) so there was some continuity although the results were worlds apart. The Buttercups were ironic and postmodern; Reuben’s band was serious and modern. The compositions were originals, mostly by the band: by Simon in his absence, Nick Combes, Reuben and Luke. The playing was purposeful and capable: these are amongst the best recent ANU jazz students and I’ve written frequently of them before. I was particularly taken by a complex composed by Reuben and dedicated to Tomasz Stanko that they played as a bass-less quartet. I also recognised the other tunes: A bouncy tune from Reuben about a cat, Luke’s Just a minute which I’m pretty sure I’ve heard orchestrated for one of the large ensembles, Nick Combes’ Moira and that one by Simon. I wonder if this says something about Jazz School training for music as business: developing students to compose, to have a repertoire of originals, to develop working ensembles. This is just a note because I write days after the gig and I’ve recently written up this band (with Simon). Suffice to say this was very satisfying, serious playing and valid compositions.

    Reuben Lewis (trumpet) led a quintet with Max Williams (tenor), Luke Sweeting (piano), Aidan Lowe (drums) and Zoe Hauptmann (bass) sitting in for normal bassist Simon Milman.

    08 August 2011

    A Visible Flame

    Report by Mike Dooley. Pic from Ilmiliekki

    Ilmiliekki is a Finnish word for a flame that ignites visibly after coals have been smouldering for a while. The fire was very evident on the night of Wednesday August 3rd as the Ilmillieki Quartet played at the Finnish embassy in Canberra. With the combined talents of 4 technically brilliant, musically sensitive, obviously highly creative musicians it is no surprise that they have won a number of Finnish and European awards and have been billed as one of Europe’s most exciting contemporary jazz acts.

    It is one concert that is hard for this reviewer to categorise, and it seems a disservice to the music to classify simply it into the “jazz genre”. Conspicuous was the absence of walking bass lines and swing beats, though Antti’s rhythmic tightness and excellent intonation was evident on the bass throughout. Harmonically, the music definitely owes a lot to contemporary jazz, rhythmically perhaps more to rock, and in the sense of space, dynamics and composition there are contemporary classical influences. Underneath there is a Nordic feeling of lyricism and drama.

    Their set on this occasion included mostly originals. They began with four of Verneri’s tunes. The first, Ancient History 1991, celebrated the year that Verneri started learning trumpet. Immediately a sense of space was created by a haunting melody which built into a dynamic rock influenced piece. Olavi was particularly energetic, conjuring a wide range of timbres from his kit and adding to them by drumming on the small table next to him and the concrete pillar behind him. For Three, the next tune, was a piece that felt more like 6/4 than 3/4, and had a slightly Spanish feel to the melody and harmony. Once again the sense of dynamics and space gave the composition and very satisfying arc. Following that was a piece which Verneri rather reluctantly told me after the gig was called “The Castrator”. That helped to explain the intensity and energy of the music. In retrospect, I am glad I was blissfully ignorant to the meaning. Karhu, which means the bear, began with angular, almost minimalist fragments over a fast 16 which developed into a more flowing tune played by the trumpet doubled by piano, a technique that was employed to good effect throughout the night. Tuomo then took an energetic and inventive solo, then stopped playing as Verneri took his solo over the drums and bass. Once again contrast and space was created. Next the band once again showed their eclectic talents with a delightfully pentatonic rendition of Burt Bacharach’s “Me Japanese boy”.

    The next 2 pieces in the set were written by Tuomo. Ico began with an almost classical sounding piano solo that once again contained echoes of Debussy and Ravel, then voiced piquantly by Verneri on melodica. A very fast but at the same time and spacious rock beat then sat under a piano and trumpet doubled melody, which developed into a innovative solo where Verneri squeezed a wide variety of tones out of his instrument. Tuomo backed up with minimalist textures on piano that could have come out of Steve Reich composition. Then proceeded with a blindingly fast solo that continued as Verneri reprised the melodica melody, and the piece ended once again with a return to the poignant lyricism of the intro. The next piece, Hatchi, was underpinned with a minimalist one note bass line and drum beat that could almost be described as ¼ and an unusual but appealing major melody. Tuomo then created a heavenly sounding contrapuntal melodic solo in the high register of the piano towards the end of which Verneri came in softly underneath with a beautifully understated mournful trumpet melody, which grew into his own solo, beginning with unusual breath effects on the trumpet and climaxing with low flutter tones on top of Tuomo’s apocalyptic sounding rippling piano chords. As the piece developed to its frenetic climax, Verneri once again voiced the melody. The encore was a rendition of Ornette Coleman’s “What reason could I give”, at the end of which Verneri played a haunting unaccompanied solo into the piano with the pedal held down, creating scintillating harmonic reverberations.

    Chatting with the band afterwards, I learned that Verneri had almost given up trumpet in his early twenties, but was inspired to continue after hearing Norwegian jazz trumpet player Per Jorgensen. So we have a lot to thank Per for, because Verneri and his fellow band members have made an unmistakable and highly unique contribution to the contemporary music scene.

    Ilmiliekki Quartet are Verneri Pohjola (trumpet), Tuomo Prättälä (piano), Antti Lötjönen (bass) and Olavi Louhivuori (drums).

    Simeon says

    It’s been a quiet time for the Gossips, but we managed a gig yesterday. Thanks to Simeon Staker for filling in for our absent Brenton. And Mike for singing a few tunes to cover for our injured Leanne. I like the way that jazz bands morph with availability and there’s no better way for musicians to get acquainted than by playing a gig together. Thanks to Simeon: very well done and much enjoyed. Simeon plays with Gossips again on Friday evening at 1927 Bar, East Row, Civic. Drop in if you’re passing by. Free entry.

    07 August 2011

    Words fail me

    Everyone seemed to be excited at the interval but I was speechless. Bill Cunliffe led his trio with horns and it was very, very good. Stratospheric. But what did they play? Some originals but mostly standards, although with some arrangements. As a trio: My funny valentine, Just the way you are, Girl from Ipanema and a few originals. Hmmm. I do sets like that. (Think again: not quite like that). Then after the break, with four horns added to the trio and arrangements by Bill, it was Stolen moments and Hoedown and Recordame. I’ve done them, too (but not quite like that). He played an original Joe Henderson chart of Shade of Jade. When Bill played with Joe Henderson (yes, he played with Joe Henderson for a few gigs), he mostly played standards. Luckily John could supply that chart. John’s played on some Blue Note releases. I guess he had the chart from some outing or session with Joe Henderson. (I think: we are touching on jazz aristocracy here). I liked the tunes from Oliver Nelson; Blues and the abstract truth is a favourite album. Bill’s done a revisit CD for that. I tried to buy it but it was sold out: everyone was buying 5 CDs and there was nothing left when I arrived. In the break, everyone was talking about Bill’s party trick. He got the audience to suggest a jazz tune, a classical tune and a recent pop tune, then to vote on which he should play. In the end, the vote was Summertime, Rachmaninov’s Concerto no. 2 and Billie Jean. Then he played them, medley-like, interspersed and intermingled. Summertime blending in and out with Billie Jean; Rachmaninov too; then Summertime in a classical full-handed chord style, presumably à la Rachmaninov; then Billie Jean with Summertime fillers. No preparation; no charts. I’m awestruck. On stage, Eric and John were clapping with obvious respect. That’s when I decided words couldn’t do it. But words are all I have. Great trio; great visitors. The horns were great, too. Tight and beautifully intonated, and some great solos. Eric too. John without mention. Great night. Standards as they can be. Stunning and one for the memories. Words fail me.

    Bill Cunliffe (piano, arrangements) led a trio with Eric Ajaye (bass) and John Riley (drums). For the second set they added four horns: Rob Lee (trombone), Miroslav Bukovsky (trumpet), Niels Rosendahl (alto, soprano saxes) and John Mackey (tenor sax).

    06 August 2011

    Bill leads the bands

    I finally got to the Capital Jazz Festival and it was for the internationals. Last night I caught Bill Cunliffe leading the Commercial Ensemble and the ANU Big Band in his own compositions and arrangements. I hadn’t expected it, but visiting NYC drummer, John Reilly, also got a look in for a wonderful few tunes.

    The Commercials played the first set. This is the funky electric outfit from the school. The charts were demanding, and the band was performing them with considerable confidence. I particularly liked the second tune, an arrangement of Steely Dan’s Do it again. It started off standard enough, but then falling lines of varying dissonance just struck me with their intensity and creativity. Stunning writing! The band did a decent job on it, too. This was not easy. I chatted with pianist Callum Stewart after the gig and he was saying how odd the lines sounded when he was practising at home, but how it all fell together in the band context. Perhaps the pitching of the notes, or the tonalities, but the dissonance was a pleasure: not easy but it worked a treat. They also played a take on How high the moon that morphed into a mangled bop head (Ornithology?). Here I noticed lines that were dissected and moved in pitch so as to change the melody but leave it recognisable and beats and bars that were inserted that delayed and crossed the groove, just holding it for another onslaught, and washes of horns and contrapuntal lines that backed short, moving solos. Lovely writing.

    The Big Band played the second set. This was a more sedate affair: much bigger, more horns, less brash, double not electric bass, more swing than funk. The standouts here were the professionals playing an Ellington medley and the ensemble playing Bill’s Grammy-winning arrangement on West Side Story. Firstly, the visitors. I remember Things ain’t what they used to be, and I thought In a sentimental mood (Megan’s not so sure) and perhaps others. Whatever, I heard a lovely strong piano tone and absolutely clear statements of fast changing chords from Bill Cunliffe. John Riley was a demonstration in drumming: body steady although not locked; wrists loose and arms easy; hard swings with a sharp snare on the 4 and fills of precision and inventiveness. He was lost behind a music stand for my eyes, but a treat for the ears. John Mackey soloed a particularly dirty blues and student bassist Jared Plane held his own amongst awe-inspiring company. It’s times like these you realise just what NYC must mean: this was easy and enjoyed but also powerful and fabulously informed. Bill’s solos were a pleasure as they strolled in and out of tonality through diminished scales. Nothing forced, just known. Bird said: “practice, practice, practice … and then … forget all that and just wail”. This felt like that, great playing informed by the composers' understanding. Then the West Side Story arrangement. It was a great bit of writing but not what I’d expected. I know the film score intimately, so I was surprised that I didn’t recognise more. The famed melodies just bubbled up amongst the orchestration, stayed for a few bars then disappeared. But no doubt it’s what he wanted. The arrangement was a tribute to Oscar Peterson’s WSS medley and influenced by Buddy Rich, who Bill had played with, so no surprise that this also featured a drum solo.

    This was a very satisfying night of great orchestration with the bands both playing admirably and the students obviously having a great time. Looking forward to the visitors and their gig tonight.

    03 August 2011

    Many Prophets as one

    When I saw pics of The Prophets, before they performed at the Gods, I naturally thought of Sun Ra. It’s an obvious connection given the zany presence and the madcap costumes that make both bands such unique theatrical shows. But I’ve seen Sun Ra at Villa Celimontana many years back, and the music is quite different. And I’m not sure that The Prophets lay any claim to outlandish origins, although they did mention connections to Mali and Ethiopia and the music clearly talks with a language out of Africa. There’s also jazz and rock there, so this is exotic and international but not extraterrestrial.

    The individual components of their performance are not unique, but the whole is clearly unconventional: two drummers; four alto saxes (actually 3 altos and a C-melody sax - a new one on me and apparently an instrument that hasn’t been produced for many years); no bass (although I think they sometime use one); occasional vibes; invitations to the audience to join in on homemade wind instruments; no clearly defined, individualistic solos; occasional duets or smaller ensembles, including a drum duet). And the costumes, of course. As I said, the music spoke of Africa. Apparently some of the band had travelled to Mali and one tune was Ethiopian. So the music was riff-like passages that morphed in a minimalist way over time, with moving contrapuntal lines from various saxes and polyrhythms from drums and others. I thought I counted lots of threes (triplet feels and lines in 6s or 12s) and lots of riffs that seemed front-loaded (is there a musical term for this?) with shorter notes on the beat and on the accent, and longer notes following. This all made it not swing and not relaxed, more jumpy and perhaps African. But then I remember fours from drums so there were polyrhythms happening and gently changing. There were solos, but they were not obvious, singular, ecstatic events. These were squeaks and squeals, unimposing, flittering over the grooves. The one piece with vibes just confirmed the African connections with the lilting grooves of tuned percussion. It got a little odder with the invitational piece. This was three melodicas, a fog-like wooden horn, two drums and about 10 wind instruments made with holey hose, straws, balloons and rubber bands that were played by invited audience. Congrats to Jono Lake who took to his instrument with considerable rhythmic confidence, which is what the piece needed. In the spirit of Prophetic anonymity, I’ve nothing particularly to say about the individual musicians. The masks created the anonymity and the music confirmed it. This was a zany presentation and rough around the edges, but lively and fresh and I loved it.

    Given the masks and the instrumentation it’s hard to know who’s who, but The Prophets were Peter Farrer (C-melody sax), Dale Gorfinkel (alto, vibes), Marcus Whale (alto, sitting in for Sam Dobson), Laura Altman (alto), Finn Ryan (drums) and James Waples (drums).