No one is more fitted to sonically sketch the journey of the Eighteenth-century French explorer known as La Perouse than the Australian born Jazz pianist Chris Cody. In his bios, Cody is referred to as a French Australian musician and that is an obvious qualification. He also possesses an exquisite sensitivity when it comes to communicating complex truths. The colonist versus the indigenous peoples, the scientist versus the open seas adventurer.
On this album, Cody’s improvisational compass has deftly navigated his way inside a vast sprawling seascape; found ways to lift the veil on colliding realities and woven them into a compelling saga. For all that, the album is not mired in abstract musings; it is grounded in the tangible. Cleverly, he avoids the strictures of the programmatic; opting instead for memorable glimpses, interesting mileposts. He weighs past against present, the science against belief, and all the while carefully preserving the mythologies that feed the spirit. And like all of Cody’s work, the album evokes a timeless sense of place.
When you live on the Pacific Rim it is inevitable that tales of ancient navigators capture your attention. Our present realities were shaped by them and for better or worse we are their descendants. There were so many notables, but the epic voyages of the ancient Lapita peoples are always omnipresent. While the Pacific was opened by these early navigators, the European late-comers are no less interesting. Cook is much talked about and the legacy of his voyages is mixed. Other men followed in his wake, as this was the age of scientific exploration, the age of enlightenment. In truth, the scientific voyagers served both science and the expansionist desires of empire builders. La Perouse on his ship Astrolabe was more scientist than colonist, but for all that, his untimely death contains an eerie echo of Cooks violent demise.
In 1786, navigators relied on the compass for fixing latitude. To fix an approximation of longitude an instrument called the Astrolabe was used; an instrument with its origins in Greek antiquity. Complex mathematical calculations were required and losing your way was a constant hazard. As Harrison’s Longitude fixing watch was still under development, the methodology of open sea navigation often relied on dead reckoning. Dead reckoning sent more sailers to the bottom of the sea than to their destinations.
Something akin to dead reckoning is close to what skilled improvisers do; risk being at the heart of an improviser’s performance. ‘Astrolabe’ the album, is a work composed for medium-sized ensembles. Piano, trumpet, multi reeds, trombone/didgeridoo/conch, violin, accordion, double bass and percussion. This offered Cody unique options and the textures he creates are marvellous.
Mundus Vetus (old world) opens with the baritone clarinet establishing a motif over a measured vamp. This piece clearly references the court of Louis Sixteenth who commissioned the voyage. You can sense the courtly processionals and the formality. From that point on we are afforded glimpses of the new and exotic places along his journey. The sounds of accordions, drums and pacific flutes come and go. ’Becalmed’ opens with trombonist James Greening on didgeridoo, soon overtaken by the crystalline unhurried pianism of Cody. This is music that absorbs and it is best experienced by letting yourself fall into it. It rewards deep listening.
I must also mention the striking physical appearance of the album. The outside cover features a misty ink wash Japanese style by Maya Cody. Inside, you will find extraordinary engravings by Jean de Bonnot and a booklet containing translations from the La Perouse ships journals (translated by the multi-lingual Cody)
This album will definitely appeal to wider audiences and although it is a first-rate Jazz album it is also beautifully arranged. This is a journey to be enjoyed as a whole. I would place this album in the must-have category, so buy a copy early, preferably by visiting chriscody.bandcamp.com or by ordering it online.
#random facts: a young Napoleon applied to join the crew and was rejected. Joseph Banks gave La Perouse some of Cook’s navigation instruments. La Perouse sailed into Sydney harbour a few days after Captain Phillip – a few days earlier and perhaps Australasians would be speaking French. Chris Cody lived 25 years in Paris working as a Jazz Musician. If you visit Cody’s Bandcamp page you can obtain all three of his recent albums digitally for $22.10 AUD
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