I have seen Murray McNabb perform many times over the years and it has often been said that he plots a course at variance to the mainstream. If this is true it could also be said of many top Jazz musicians; they understand that Jazz audiences seldom want to hear endless note-perfect repetitions of previously played music. Improvisation demands musical bravery and the Murray McNabb band has this essential quality. The sharp-witted Zoot Sims summed up the sentiment when he said, “Jazz is the music where you never play the same way once”.
Auckland has of late been experiencing an explosion of Jazz creativity and the ‘Astral Surfers’ album is a fine example of this. The album came out over a year ago and for some reason I had never located a copy. I should have tried harder because the album is marvelous. It gives a nod to the best Jazz of the 1960’s but the album is also very contempory. This is a musical narrative (like ‘Zoo’) and the overall vibe is essential to the journey which unfolds. It is exactly as the title and track list suggests; a journey through exotic and often surreal landscapes. I am always up for this if the music is good and it is.
The album was created with a much larger pallete than the live band used at the CJC. Apart from the core band of Murray McNabb (keyboards), Frank Gibson (drums), Neil Hannan (bass) and Stephen Morton-Jones (saxophones), additional members were present on the album. Martin Winch (guitar), Basant Madhur (Tabla), William Yu (dulcimer) and Tanya Li (erhu). All of the compositions are Murray McNabbs.
For me, there is a powerful presiding spirit hovering over this album and that is guitarist Martin Winch. His passing late last year was felt deeply in the Auckland Jazz community and to have him recorded to such advantage here, makes the album a treasure for that reason alone.
The first two tracks on the album are ‘Marco Polo’s Return’ and Sub Continental’ . These tracks draw on the shifting sounds and colours of the silk road. Stephan Morton-Jones weaves engagingly in and out of a solid groove laid down by Murray, Frank and Neil, occasionally extracting microtonal effects from his soprano as he traverses foreign sounding scales. The richness and diversity of the musical palette does not divert us from the core theme and that is as much down to Murray’s writing as to the musicianship of the band. Adding tabla, dulcimer and erhu into the mix works, as they fit in well and enrich without overpowering.
The title track ‘Astral Surfers is also brilliant with Frank Gibson putting his experience and chops to the best possible use. He makes sure that he does not overshadow the tabla while never-the-less blending in a few percussive tricks of his own.
It is the track ‘Snake’ that I like best. It has a solid bass line and a nice melodic hook while providing a vehicle for improvisation. Martin Winch can be heard playing against Murray’s engaging vamps while Stephen extracts alto gold from the deep groove. Martin and Murray also provide convincing solos.
Many of Murray McNabbs compositions are modal or give the impression of being so. He has developed the art of extracting profound messages from apparently simple progressions and the fact that they are so satisfying is due to his writing skills.
The band that fronted the CJC gig was the basic McNabb, Gibson, Hannan & Morton-Jones unit. They got down to business and showed us that they did not need the extra instruments to create a big sound. Murray had thrown a curve ball at Stephen by writing parts for two saxophones (to be played simultaneously) and Stephen in true Roland Kirk fashion had risen to the challenge. I asked him after the gig if it had been daunting to play two saxophones at the same time and he admitted that he had needed to work hard in order to get there. The fingering on a soprano and on an alto is the same, but a fourth apart. This unison playing worked well and at times Stephen also used one of the instruments as a drone. He joked afterwards that the biggest challenge would be playing counterpoint to himself. Maybe that wasn’t a joke.
Many of the tunes played were not from the album and the first tune Scarborough Fair (trad) was a knockout. This had been reworked into a near modal form and the rich voicings and nice ballad groove gave the band a freedom which they used to advantage. Another tune that appealed was ‘Turkish Like’. I intend to follow the McNabb band more closely in future but I will not be expecting more of the same as they tend not to do that.