Sometimes I step into the shadows to locate a light that is otherwise denied me. A place where anti-art hides real art and where music appears in bizarre disguises. It can feel like an unnatural place but if you walk on, your eyes soon become accustomed to the half-light. It is only then that the ghosts in the machine become visible. This is the strange world of Anti Pop; a place where those striving to earn a living from popular music bite the hand that pretends to feed them. It is digital Dada – it is an off note brought to a knife fight.
TQX is a subversive entity, a logo hiding in plain sight. I was introduced to the phenomena by a Jazz musician and sworn to secrecy. I will not reveal my source as corporate lawyers and music industry moguls are circling like demented bats. The sort of bats which swooped on Hunter S Thompson during a bad day in the desert. Thompson once wrote: ‘The music industry is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There is also a negative side’. What would he think of the industry now? It causes hallucinations just to ponder on it. Yesterday primo Jazz trickster Barney McAll sent me a link to this anti-pop album titled Global Intimacy. This ‘revolution is under the radar – ‘it will not be televised’. I recognised many of the names – Sia, Gian Slater, Ben Monder, Barney McAll, Kool A.D. Musicians who come from across the musical spectrum. It was a message disguised as popular music, but the sort that is often confined to student radio or oddball playlists. It was political but not everyone will have the ears to hear the message. The material will not suit every taste but everyone should try a bite. I got the message, understood the flavour, and I hope others do.
Then I read an exchange between TQX and the graffiti artist known as Banksy (are either of these people real?) and the whole thing got even stranger. I will reproduce excerpts from that email exchange.
‘Dear Banksy, My name is Barney McAll. I am a pianist, producer, and composer and I’m writing on behalf of an international group of artists known as TouniquetX. We want to use your image……. Dear Barney. I don’t license my images for use in such a way, sorry but good luck with it! (signed) Banksy ……. Thanks for your response Banksy but we don’t want to license your image. We want to blatantly use it without any license, with full public knowledge that it was your image and that – we stole it.’
I leave it up to readers to untangle this maze of subversion and if their curiosity is piqued, if they think alt-pop is for them, they should discretely access TQX and obtain a collectors edition – only hard copies are available. None of the proceeds will be creamed off by the 1%. Nostalgic for the present yet? goto TQXofficial@gmail.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
The pleasure of experiencing great music in small venues is inestimable. Sure, we love it when the famous cats blow through town, rush to get our tickets for the town hall concerts, pay the hefty price tag gladly and listen; watch the tiny figures way, way down on stage. I have attended many such concerts over the years and regarded them among life’s high points, but now I am not so sure. As great as these concerts are and as amazing as the visiting musicians are, the experience is filtered through layers of complexity and as a result, one essential ingredient is often missing, that feeling of warm intimacy.
I have heard road-wise musicians talk of a virtuous feedback loop, the way artist and audience feed off each other until the music becomes bigger than the sum of its parts. Large civic venues are by their very nature redactive and the end result is often a performer facing a passive sea of listeners. Anyone who has been tapped on the shoulder during a performance and been told by an usher to sit still will get my point. Sitting still and mute is difficult for seasoned Jazz lovers. We know when to hold our breath and we know not to chatter, but we also understand when to vocalise our joy or when to exhort a soloist to greater heights. And bodies will sway and feet will tap – that’s the fine point of engagement. When the music is visceral it radiates a life force and even at the most fundamental level of existence, atoms collide and shift. If it lives it moves.
Some of us, the lucky ones, have experienced an artist of international stature performing in a small cosy club. If it’s a pianist and if a very good piano is located in the venue, then it’s a recipe for unbounded enjoyment. A few days ago Barney McAll played at a sold-out venue at the Wellington International Jazz Festival. Thanks to his close friend Jonathan Crayford he stopped off for a day in Auckland on his return journey. There had been some discussion about this possibility a few months ago and JC assured me that it would happen. Because I had a prior warning I waited and when the tickets appeared I swooped like a hawk. Only the lucky few got to attend this gig.
The eye-catching online notification featured an attractive sketch and a poster which read; ‘Barney McAll plays Gospel solo piano at Freida Margolis, limited tickets available’. In the fine print was the word, Steinway. Together this spelt seismic. When you hear McAll you experience more than just music, you experience dreamscapes and multiple histories. The first thing to grasp about McAll is that he can reference many styles and genres and while this is disconcerting to some, it is an essential part of his output. Cutting edge contemporary improvised music, Orchestral Jazz, alternative popular music, standards, soul, free or Gospel. While his projects can feature any of the above styles, each is laid down with the utmost integrity and each bears his unmistakable hallmark.
What we heard were mostly Gospel hymns – the sort you would hear in a Harlem church. They were hymns, but not presented in the way you’d hear them in a New Zealand or Australian church. They were improvisational vehicles and the voicings of some old-time Jazz greats shone through. I have heard such voicings from the likes of Hank Jones and this is hardly surprising. Musicians like Jones came up through the black gospel church experience. What is uncommon, is to hear this from a white Australian musician. His eight years of playing in American Gospel churches left its mark of authenticity on him.
During the night he invited Jonathan Crayford and Bella Kalolo to join him. Crayford accompanied on piano, free improvising, while McAll played an unusual guitar-like instrument, imparting a sitar sound or prepared piano sound. Kalolo was obviously delighted to be accompanied by McAll and even though she was unamplified and therefore low volume the two of them had strong chemistry. While they approach the tunes differently, Gospel is clearly something both artists understand.
McAll also played Necter Spur from his ‘Mooroolbark’ album and ‘The Nock Code’ from his recent ‘Hearing the Blood’ album. Both albums garnered multiple awards and significant praise. Unencumbered by a band, he ranged freely over the numbers and found exquisite asides to explore in-depth. This was music to be experienced from three metres away. This was a love letter to the classic Steinway ‘D’ series and Freida Margolis was the perfect backdrop. I had mounted the camera up high and it was surrounded by tiles which brightened the sound – but that piano – those tunes and those musicians found the magic and gave us a gig to remember.
Barney McAll (Steinway D, stringed instrument), Bella Kalolo (vocals), Jonathan Crayford (Steinway D) – for McAll albums visit Extra Celestial Arts on Bandcamp.
Viata: When the Eamon Dilworth album ‘Viata’ was delivered, I was just about to head off to a gig. As I pulled out, I fed the CD into the car sound system and was immediately captivated. Some albums grab you like that, cutting through the dross of everyday life and commanding your fullest attention. The next day, freed from distraction I played it again, and as I listened, the power of the music was evident; a private world where carefully layered soundscapes revealed themselves in an unhurried fashion. I have heard Dilworth live and listened to his recordings, but this is ‘one out of the bag’. Over the years I have learned to expect great things from Australian improvisers and this certainly reinforces that well-earned reputation. ‘Arrow’ was a great album but ‘Viata’ is quite exceptional.
Arrow and Alluvium, were broader canvases – more eclectic; but these compositions are pastoral rather than urban landscapes. Revealed are breathtaking aural vistas of the kind you would expect from ECM artists; pristine spacious northern European landscapes. One of the tunes is titled ‘Eich’, a clear homage to Norway’s Matias Eich and it is beautifully realised, but as you work through the album the unmistakable dreamy warmth and gentle slurring of Tomasz Stanko is evident. Jon Hassel helped shape the direction of Scandinavian trumpeters and perhaps via the Nordics, Australian trumpet players also. These are not the only influences evident here and the vast Australian landscapes cannot be overlooked. In spite of its influences, the album stands strongly on its own merits. The quintet utilises the skills of notable Australian musicians; Alistair Spence (piano), Carl Morgan (guitar), Jonathan Zwartz (bass) and Paul Derricott (drums). With these heavyweights accompanying Dilworth, he couldn’t lose. This is an album I really enjoyed. If you listen carefully it is possible to hear a distant Bell beckoning.
Zephyrix: There is nothing that piques my interest more than receiving news of an impending Barney McAll project. His projects are seldom announced in conventional ways but they creep into your consciousness like portents. You see an image or hear a rumour and know that something is unfolding. A few months ago I noticed a mysterious image appearing below a McAll tweet. There was no explanation, just the word Zephyrix and an image of a man-bird. Because he paints on a vast canvas and because he is a master of subliminal, the image was the message; leaving you with the sense that something extraordinary was about to appear. This how McAll works his magic. By communicating on many levels at once. You always get great music, but embedded in that music and in the related media are archetypes. This album exemplifies his approach to creating art and it touches on his philosophy.
A few weeks after I spotted the image I received an email from Melbourne’s Monash University, inviting me to attend the launch of McAll’s Zephyrix album as a guest. The work was commissioned for the prestigious Monash Art Ensemble, a fifteen-piece Jazz orchestra. The work had six parts and was conducted by the well respected Paul Grabowsky. A few years earlier I had interviewed McAll during his Peggy Glanville-Hicks composers residency in Sydney. The work was composed at around that time.
Although unable to attend the launch I received a copy of the album and as I played it that familiar question arose. How can one artist have such a diverse body of work and yet achieve such excellence in everything that he creates? The answer lies partly in McAll’s work ethic, but above all, it lies in the way he views life and the creative process. The integrity of his vision is never subordinated to the commercial imperatives which often grind artists down. In spite of that (or because of it), he has a large following and wins award after award (he just collected three further Bell Awards for ‘Hearing the Blood’).
As you listen to Zephyrix you enter a world of textural richness with surprises at every turn. Mythical and exotic creatures populate the imagination, only to disappear as another, takes its place. McAll’s work is always strongly allegorical and in this case, the allusions touch on the fundamental struggles of existence. Beginning with the Greek God Zephyr (God of the west wind ) and followed by the voices of Black Crow, White Swan, Peacock, Pelican, Zephyrix and Phoenix. The odd creature out is the most interesting, one of McAll’s creations, the Zephyrix. This is a fusing of the Phoenix and Man – the man wearing business attire, the phoenix perhaps his better self.
As you listen to the album you detect the spirit of Stravinsky, but the touchstones go beyond orchestral Jazz or modern classical music. Even though the references to the past are there, this work sits comfortably among the best of forward-looking orchestral works. It is a journey well worth taking and I am eagerly awaiting McAll’s next project.
It was a foolish oversight on my part – I hadn’t visited Melbourne in fifteen years. I had seen quite a few Melbourne improvisers perform in Sydney or Auckland but failed to track them back to their native habitat. The last time I was there, Bennett’s Lane was still a thing, but closed for two weeks. That was the week between Christmas and New Year; that arid Jazzless desert in the live music calendar. With family now residing in Melbourne, I decided to atone for my sins and I headed off while the Jazz calendar was over-flowing with tasty offerings.
My first stop en route was Sydney where I met up with Mike Nock. That evening we caught a gig at the Foundry 616 where Nadje Nordhuis and James Shipp were playing. When Nock enters a venue the room rearranges itself. You immediately become aware of people in the dark interior, gathering quietly to pay their respects. It was great to see him looking so well and to hear about his new projects. We miss him in Auckland as he has not played here for over a year. I had previously seen Noordhuis perform when the Darcy James Argue band came through Auckland. She is a member of both the Darcy Argue and the Maria Schnieder ensembles – Shipp is a vibraphonist percussionist and ‘synthesisist’ and well-known in New York. The gig opened the Sydney Women’s Jazz Festival and it was well received. I was also delighted to catch up with Thomas Botting who played bass for that particular gig. A robustly healthy and startlingly fit Botting. After a few days with my daughter and grandchildren, I headed to the domestic airport and Melbourne.
To my delight, I was greeted at Melbourne Airport by large signs reading – ‘Welcome Home from Jail Granddad’. Aussie humour is unique and often intentionally embarrassing. Hiding behind false sensibilities is not an option. If you don’t like good-natured piss-take humour – go elsewhere (Kiwis get this). It is no accident that our lost, lamented and beloved Kiwi comedian John Clarke and the actor/comedian Bruno Lawrence settled there. A larrikin world-view runs through the music as well. There is a unique openness about much of Australian improvised music. It is of course informed by the Jazz roots of America, but strangely unbeholden to it. The musicians are liberal-minded and many are unashamedly strident in their political views – this can feed the music as well. New iterations of the Liberation Music Orchestra are forming in Melbourne and that makes perfect sense.
There were quite a few Melbourne musicians on my list and at the top was Barney McAll. It is no secret that I am fascinated by the depth and scope of McAll’s music and interviewing him is always an interesting experience. Some musicians go to great lengths to hide from personal scrutiny, believing that their music is all you need to know about them. That is an entirely valid viewpoint, but a curse if you’re a biographer or reviewer looking for context. When I review, I try to avoid armchair appraisals; attending live music whenever possible; eager to know something of the musician, the thought processes, philosophical leanings; hoping to look behind the mask. Possessing a stubborn belief that an artist and the music are two sides of an alchemic essence.
McAll texted me his address and I ventured out into the heat, trying to make sense of the train system. I got off somewhere in the outer suburbs; prophetically, somewhere near Mooroolbark. There was a bing and I looked at my phone. The text read, ‘Round the back your grace – ignore the dog’. McAll greeted me warmly and we went inside for a Vegemite crumpet. As he was wearing military-style camouflage, I didn’t dare tell him that Kiwis only eat Marmite (look up the great Marmageddon debate which erupted after the Christchurch earthquake). It is always a pleasure talking to McAll, but unforeseen things occur when your guard is down. He played me some new compositions, showed me a video he was working on and we discussed the coming year’s projects. Then unexpectedly, I found myself the subject. Being interviewed about my poetry and the duty of creative artists to get their work out there. As we talked, and as if it were the most natural thing in the world, he handed me a grinning ventriloquist’s dummy and sat another in the next chair. The discussion continued, was filmed in real time; two child-sized puppets and me; and the McAll directing it Fellini fashion. For more about McAll’s recent ‘Hearing The Blood’ album or his catalogue, go to iTunes, Spotify or www.extracelestialarts.bandcamp.com – read my recent blog post, December 4, 2017.
While I was there, McAll phoned Julien Wilson to find out his gig schedule for me. There was a gig of his on in Northcote and so I dashed back to the Jazz Corner hotel before heading out into the warm Melbourne night. It was an auspicious night to be out and about in Melbourne as the divisive and ill-considered same-sex marriage plebiscite had delivered a resounding yes vote. Whole inner suburbs were closed as revellers partied. Adding to the celebratory mood, a significant World Cup qualifying match was underway (which the Aussies subsequently won to the chagrin of Kiwis who lost their qualifying match). All of the above spells happy chaos in an art and sports-mad city. And I had music happening – lots of it. A scarfed man sitting opposite me on the tram was laughing and crying in turns. He was so drunk that his eyes revolved in opposite directions. Someone asked him if he was anticipating a win and he nodded chuckling, then just as quickly he cried inconsolably – ‘Cats are bastards’ he mumbled – ‘I just fell over one and hurt my arm’.
Jules Wilson is a tall friendly man and he plays like he lives with his heart on his sleeve. I have followed his Facebook posts and listened to his music for years; no-one is ever left wondering what his worldview is. Like many musicians, he loathes injustice or inequality and you can hear this manifest in his sound. Not in an angry way but in an earnest cajoling way, demanding that humanity ups it’s game. Creating original improvised music taps into a deep well of experience and with mature players, their character oozes through the notes. A lot of modern saxophonists have a raspiness to their tone and often produce a vibrato-less sound. Wilson has a rich full-bodied sound and it touches on an era when the tenor giants ruled the world. Appropriately there is often some breathy vibrato at the end of a phrase. This is not to say that he is an old-fashioned player because he isn’t. It is rather that the history is in that tone – ancient to modern.
There is another factor which could influence his tenor sound – he doubles on clarinet. The clarinet is the first horn he mastered. While many saxophonists treat that horn like a difficult inlaw, Wilson perseveres, regarding it with a begrudging affection. I was stunned by the beauty of his clarinet playing and how modern the instrument sounded in his hands (he played a fast-paced bop classic, not a ballad). I asked him in the break how he felt about the horn – “it’s a punishing unforgiving instrument, but I can’t bring myself to abandon it” he told me.
Wilson came sharply onto my radar with McAll’s extraordinary Mooroolbark album but he has long been one of Australia’s most successful Jazz Musicians. Winning the National Jazz Award in 1994, The Music Council of Australia Freedman Fellowship in 2006, The 2008 Bell Award – Artist of the Year, a Bell Award trifecta in 2014 and the APRA Art Music Award for Excellence in 2016. I have recently been listening to his back catalogue which is available on Band Camp (some CD albums are also still available). His output is diverse and all of it interesting – an edgy album with Jim Black, Mark Hellas and Steve Magnussen – several recordings with his popular trio (Stephen Grant on accordion and Stephen Magnusson on guitar) – an extraordinary couple of albums featuring Barney McAll on piano, Jonathan Zwartz bass and Allan Browne on drums. There are around twenty albums in all. All are worth a listen but his ‘This is Always’ album is an absolute gem (the live ‘This Narrow Isthmus’ which followed, likewise). The former harks back to a specific era in the best possible way – not as a tribute album, but as a rekindling of a bright flame.
The story behind the album is instructive as it takes us to the heart of an in-the-moment creative process. The musicians wanted to capture the vibe and style of the famous Prestige Meeting Sessions. McAll and Wilson swapped a few charts but had no detailed discussions – no rehearsals were scheduled. On the day of recording, the four turned up at the studio with a ‘first-take’ approach. No baffles and no headphones were used. This allowed for a sense of immediacy and real-time heightened interaction. McAll reimagining the piano styles of the era in passing – some Evans like intros and even using the locked hand’s style briefly. Wilson sending forth a flurry of swoon-worthy fat warm tones. None of this sounded contrived – it sounded like the present and past fused into a cohesive whole. The album is an important milestone in Australian music and no antipodean Jazz lover should be without a copy. It should not be regarded as a trip down memory lane, but as a testament to the eternal now. The unsuspecting will believe it to be a loved classic album of the Prestige-era and scratch their heads to place it.
When Bennetts Lane passed into history, the Melbourne club scene rose to the challenge. The Bennetts management (or some of them but minus the name – it’s a complicated story) opened a new club in the industrial heartland of Brunswick. The JazzLab is a stunning venue. Situated in a basement, it has all that old-school Jazz Club vibe but not at the expense of good taste. It is comfortable but not over-decorated (I have seen some shockers in other countries, trying so hard to be cool that they end up as museums to kitsch). More importantly, the sight lines are good and the acoustics great. I attended the JazzLab with expat Auckland musician Matt Steele and my son Jeremy and the gig was a treat. It was the album release of ‘Finding The Balance’ by the Paul Williamson Quintet. This was a solid unit with an inexhaustible array of talented firepower and good tunes. All were new to me except Jamie Oehlers, who I see perform regularly.
The unit had swags of punch and plenty of textural contrasts. It was big enough to sound like a larger ensemble at times, but the writing allowed individuals to shine. Oehlers was on fire, hitting sweet spot after sweet spot during solos – carving his path through the air like a titan. Closer to earth, but equally attention-grabbing was the leader Williamson – his sound control impressive – his trumpet speaking a very human dialect. I had not encountered Andrea Keller before, but her tasteful minimalist approach also caught my attention – it contrasted nicely with the fulsome horns. The remaining musicians a six-string electric bass player Christopher Hale and a very tasty drummer James Mclean. It was a great launch in an interesting venue – what could be better.
Keller, in particular, intrigued me, so I looked through the gig guide to see if she was playing elsewhere. My luck was in as she was leading an interesting trio at the Uptown Jazz Cafe in Fitzroy. The next night, was a warm one, and I walked to Fitzroy, pausing to eat street food on the way. Finally, I stumbled up the stairs to a very warm Uptown Jazz Cafe. The venue was not air-conditioned and ill-lit, but the gloom and the heat added to the ambiance. As the band set up, a shaft of dim orange light beamed on them, illuminating the trio as ghostly orange specters – enlarging and distorting their forms as it projected them onto a screen. The music bordered on avant-garde and the setting was therefore perfect.
The trio of piano, violin, and electric bass didn’t disappoint. Keller’s serialist credentials were very much on-show as she spun out a filigree of wonderfully intricate patterns. At first, appearing to be repeating motifs, but a more careful listening revealing otherwise. Finely detailed changes to the underlying structure guided the ear into a finely wrought lace work of notes. In this, I detected the influence of Riley or other adventurous souls. The violin and bass meeting the challenge, adding colour, texture, and melodic contrast (I didn’t catch their names). I had recently been listening to Terry Riley’s ‘Lazy Afternoon Among the Crocodiles’, so this gig was very pleasing to my ear.
I saw other gigs during the week, but the standouts were those mentioned. Melbourne is a city of the arts and a very European styled city. It is therefore not surprising that Jazz flourishes there. I have traveled through many of the worlds great cities in the past year, but this city is as Jazz rich as the best.
Just before the Aria winning Mooroolbark album was released I travelled to Australia and interviewed Barney McAll. He had not long returned from New York to take up his year-long Glanville Hicks Residency and at some point during the morning, he played me a few pieces he was working on. Some of that material has ended up on ‘Hearing the blood’. Listening to McAll developing a tune is not something that you forget. His preternatural fluency leaves images hanging in the air, where they linger long afterwards. As he worked through ideas, each one appeared as if fully formed and I wondered; how can these phrases possibly be improved on? The finished album answers that question. The act of creation is never fixed in time. A good composition opens up possibilities and lives on in the minds of those who receive it. The virtuous triangle of creator, music and listener.
Everything McAll does is eagerly anticipated and this album is no exception. The palette is broader than anything he has done before and unlike its predecessors, it is mostly an Australian affair. Albums like this are often referred to as a journey and while that can be an accurate descriptor, the term is hopelessly clichéd. Hearing the blood is more than that, it is a vast and interesting landscape. A place evoking fleeting memories and above all hope; the raw energy of life and landscape distilled. It is also a commentary on the human condition, honest but never judgemental, stories in chiaroscuro. At times the flow of tunes is interrupted by something surprisingly different, but the atypically juxtaposed tracks never detract from the overall impact. Hearing the Blood is also littered with coded messages. The landscape it portrays while ancient to modern is somehow eternally present. Where musical genres or subgenres are referenced, they are just as casually brushed aside; the exploration of ideas being more important than barriers. The listeners are invited to step outside of their comfort zone and some will baulk at that. Jazz listeners are all too inclined to swaddle themselves in the familiar and in doing so they can lose connection with the now. In a year when dialogue has been debased beyond recognition by a petulant child President, we need other forms of communication. Hearing The Blood is a refreshing place to start in our re-evaluation of the world. For those who have the ears to hear they will find a subtle humour and a joy pervading every corner; as with Mooroolbark, the trickster lurks at every turn.
It is hard to single out just one track for posting so I will embed two sound clips. The first clip is ‘Nock Code’ (a tribute to the admired Jazz pianist Mike Nock). The tune begins with the opening bars Nock’s composition ‘The Sybiline Fragrance’. Many will recognise the tune as it featured on Nock’s ‘Hear & Know’ album (and other earlier albums). In McAll’s hands, the homage is perfection. He does what he did in ‘The Mother of Dreams and Secrets’ and in his trio rendering of ‘Why did I Choose You’. He slows everything down and from out of the altered space, emerges an essence that drips through the consciousness like honey. As the tune unfolds he makes other references including his earlier recorded self. When the body of the tune is given to Morgan on guitar it soars wonderfully. The second sound clip is ‘Sorrow Horse’; a tune which showcases his skilful arranging. There is an ABC film Clip of ‘Dog Face Now’ which is hard to find. That track is an altogether wilder ride; at times more of a conduction, complete with flashcards, worth hunting for.
From the earlier Mooroolbark album are bassist Jonathan Zwartz and Hamish Stuart on drums. Also on this album are Mike Rivett on tenor saxophone, Carl Morgan guitar, Adrian Sherriff trombone and Scott MCConnache alto saxophone – Daniel Merriweather vocals on ‘Love is the Blood’, ‘That Which Provides’, Jade Talbot vocals on ‘Sorrow Horse’ with McAll – on the outro of ‘Love is the Blood’ is Ben Vanderwal on drums, Jenn Gavito is on Flute in ‘Nock Code’ and on ‘Echoless Shore’ are: Gian Slater, Ben Monder, Maeve Gilchrist and the Invenio Singers: Miriam Crelin, Louisa Rankin, Allra Wilson and Edward Farlie. On Piano, Keyboards, vocals and Chucky – Barney McAll (most of the compositions and arrangements are his).
McAll is a significant creative force on the planet. When his name comes up among musicians he is spoken of in reverential tones. The album liner notes by Kurt Rosenwinkel reinforce this point nicely. Another New York musician who had worked with him put it this way. “With Barney McAll you get creativity and musicianship of the highest order, but there is something profound behind that. He somehow rises above the workaday aspects of the industry, all of the scuffling, and he lives his life as a creative artist should. He and the people around him value the creative spirit beyond all else and that is exceedingly rare”.
To buy the album or to hear a few streamed clips, go to McAll’s Exracelestialarts Bandcamp site. It is also available on iTunes and Spotify. I urge everyone to sign up for Bandcamp and order CD’s or downloads directly. On that platform, the artists have better control of the revenue stream. I saw him again a few weeks ago and he was preparing for an album release at Birds Basement on the 8th December. You really should get yourselves there Melbourne people. Magic is in short supply this year.
Sydney means two things to me; family and music. I get there as often as I can. One sultry night about two years ago I was listening to Mike Nock playing the blues (as only Mike can). It was a catchy new tune titled ‘Start up Blues’. I collared him during the break and asked him about it. “I composed it for the Foundry opening” he said. “Do you know about the Foundry 616”? I didn’t and so he filled in the details. He spoke warmly of it so I determined to visit the next time I was in Sydney.
The Foundry 616 is located in Ultimo on a stretch of Harris road, almost lost between a maze of under and over-passes. It is (or was) the newest addition to Sydney’s Jazz scene. The difficulty in locating it is amply rewarded the minute you step inside. It is spacious, it serves tasty food and the acoustics are surprising good for such a large uneven space. It is also a friendly place, tolerant of visiting Kiwi photographers and reviewers like me. I always feel welcomed.During my first visit I caught the amazing New York based guitarist Mike Moreno. Attending a gig featuring Moreno had long been on my bucket list and I was not disappointed. He was happy to allow non-flash photography and I had a seat at the front table; perfect. For his Australian tour he employed two gifted local musicians: Ben Vanderwal drums and Alex Boneham bass (both familiar to New Zealand audiences). I have many recordings featuring Moreno, but what really struck me was that his best on recordings, is exactly how he sounds in person. Given the sound control in modern recording studios and given the expanse and quirky shape of the room, this is surprising. I was later to experience the same clarity at other Foundry 616 gigs. The venue sound technician and the sound system get a big tick. Sound quality matters and especially with artists of this quality. To my thinking Moreno is the most lyrical of modern guitarists. Clean flowing lines, fresh ideas and an astonishing clarity of tone. As moves through the pieces, often at breakneck speed, and even when glissing, his fluidity is unbroken. There is a hint of mournfulness to his tone which is most attractive. I hear many gifted Jazz guitarists, but to date this gig remains the highlight. His set list traversed recent albums as he played a mix of lesser known standards and originals; ‘I have a dream’ (Hancock) being the standout. While his demeanour is quiet, perhaps even a little serious, his playing denotes unalloyed joy and exuberance.My second visit was to see premier Australian Jazz vocalist Vince Jones. I have a deep liking for male Jazz singers but sadly there are not that many to choose from these days. Our younger selves do not sound like our older selves and in Vince Jones this sits extremely well. His is a lived in voice, full of rich life experience. An honest voice and above all a true Jazz voice. He can make you smile and cry in turns and his lyrics are like no one else’s. If you listen carefully the realisation comes; Jones is jazz protest singer. He is closer in sentiment to Gil Scott Heron or perhaps Billy Bragg and Bob Dylan than to any torch-song crooner. His recordings while marvellous don’t prepare you for the experience of hearing him in person. He has a compelling stage presence, exuding the vulnerability that Chet radiated. Unlike Chet he also exudes real human warmth and empathy.As he tells personal stories about his grandparents, his budgerigars, women deserving of respect, his environmental concerns, you feel deeply connected. When he shakes his fist at the ‘big end of town’, calls for kindness towards refugees and gives voice to your innermost feelings, you shake your fist along with him. Since that visit I have transcribed some of his lyrics. I would now add gifted poet to the list of his accomplishments. Jones writes most of his own material (often in collaboration with his accompanists like Matt McMahon or Sam Keevers). Both were present that night as was an old friend, bass player Brett Hirst; James Hauptmann was on drums. Fine musicians and great company. Earlier in the day I caught up with Barney McAll and interviewed him regarding his stunning Mooroolbark album. He was to premier that at the Foundry in a few weeks. I was sorely tempted to delay my departure, but work called me back to New Zealand. McAll was once an accompanist to Jones as well.My third and most recent visit naturally brought me back to the Foundry. A pianist/singer Rodric White was on the bill. White was unknown to me, but again I enjoyed the gig. He opened with a few tributes and it surprised me to hear him announce a Keith Jarrett number. Even more so when he played an extract from the Koln Concert. That took guts and he did it well. Later he played some of his own compositions, plus Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, the Beatles and several Sting numbers. He was disarmingly dismissive of his vocal abilities but he sang well. Stylistically he is close to the classic Jazz singers. Accompanying him was Hugh Fraser (bass), Steve Ley (drums) with guests Paul Cutlan (tenor & soprano saxophones) and Jenny Marie Lang (guitar & vocals). Paul Cutlan was the only name I knew, a well-respected session saxophonist. During the second half White called for pianist Chris Cody to come to the bandstand. I first met Cody in New Zealand and we are now friends. I have a deep respect for him as an artist and as a human being. This rounded out the evening nicely. Cody an internationally recognised artist, is back in Sydney for a while. There is something about his approach and his innate sense of pulse that sets him apart. He understands the importance of leaving space between notes; easily moving inside and out during a solo. He oozes Paris cool. With Cody on piano and White on keys the enjoyment was complete.There are any number of excellent improvising musicians in Australia and New Zealand and we are lucky that they are so accessible. There are also thousands of people who love improvised music, but here’s the rub. The enthusiasts don’t always make the effort to attend gigs. The consequences of taking the local Jazz scene for granted are too dreadful to contemplate. If we support local Jazz we need to commit. In spite of the many world-class musicians in Australasia the music is more precarious than we think. Running clubs like the ‘Foundry 616’, the ‘505’ or the ‘CJC (Creative Jazz Club)’ is high risk and if the clubs struggle, so does the music. It is quite possible that I’m a fanatic, but I’ve attended more than 250 Jazz gigs in the last four years. If you read this, it’s because you love this music with all its variability. Value what you have people and make a point of supporting your local Jazz clubs and gigs. Some amazing musicians depend on you.
Mooroolbark is a place, an album and a state of mind. It is an intersection of worlds and a testament to Barney McAll’s writing skills .
There is a special place where artistic expression transcends the immediate, a place where archetypes become manifest in varied and subtle ways. This is a place where unexpected journeys begin. Where the eyes, ears, touch, smell and feel guide you inexorably toward ancient and modern shared memories. Jung spoke of this as the ‘collective unconscious mind’ (or the ‘universal mind’). This is a mysterious well of ‘unknowing’ and the best improvising artists navigate its depths. McAll is a musician eminently qualified to navigate this journey.
He is a storyteller and a fearless explorer. Revealing seemingly endless worlds as the patina of time and space reveal new layers note by note. The trick of this is the subtle cues left along the path. If the listener comes with open ears and mind, new depths unfold. In truth these are ancient devices, long the preserve of poets, painters, improvisers and prehistoric cave artists. McAll and ASIO use these subliminal cues to confound, tease and cajole. All is revealed and all is not what it seems. We listen, we enjoy, but there is always a Siren to lure us deeper. ASIO tantalises with motifs that sound familiar, but which often dissolve into something else upon closer examination; echoes from the future as much as the past. These are the archetypes of sound and silence. #ASIO stands for the Australian Symbiotic Improvisers Orbit, but even in the title the story deepens? Another ASIO comes to mind, as hard-won Australian freedoms vanish in the eternal quest for security. At a pre-release gig in Sydney’s Basement the band donned high-viz vests with #ASIO stencilled on them; high visibility music juxtaposed with secretive worlds. This #ASIO has some answers. The landscape of McAll’s new album ‘Mooroolbark’ is littered with these potent images and if you let your preconceptions go, they will come to you. These musical parables are modern ‘song lines’; age old stories told afresh. ‘Mooroolbark’ completes a circle. A return to familiar physical and spiritual landscapes. A reappraisal of the journey with old musical friends.
McAll is a thinker and perhaps a trickster as much as he is a musician. To quote from Jungian sources “In mythology, and in the study of folklore and religion, a trickster exhibits a great degree of intellect or secret knowledge and uses it to play tricks or otherwise disobey normal rules and conventional behaviour.”
While his previous albums have featured New York luminaries like Kurt Rosenwinkel, Gary Bartz, Ben Monder, Josh Roseman, Billy Harper and others this is mostly an Australian affair. The one exception is percussionist Mino Cinelu. McAll’s collaborations with Dewey Redman, Fred Wesley, Jimmy Cobb and others have brought him much deserved attention. Now the story moves to his home country. The Mooroolbark personnel are McAll (piano, compositions, vocals), Julien Wilson (tenor, alto clarinet), Stephen Magnusson (guitars), Jonathan Zwatrz (bass), Simon Barker (drums, percussion), Mino Cinelu (percussion), Hamish Stuart (drums), Shannon Barnett (trombone). These are well-known gifted musicians, but everyone checked their egos in at the door. This unit performs as if they are one entity. Every note serves the project rather than the individuals. The sum is greater than its considerably impressive parts. I have seen McAll perform a number of times and his sense of dynamics is always impressive He can favour the darkly percussive; using those trademark voicings to reel us in, then just as suddenly turn on a dime and with the lightest of touch occupy a gentle minimalism. On Mooroolbark everyone’s touch is light and airy, open space between notes, a crystal clarity that surprisingly yields an almost orchestral feel. Avoiding an excess of notes and making a virtue out of this is especially evident as they play off the ostinato passages (i.e ‘Non Compliance).
Because they work in such a unified fashion it is almost a sin to single out solos. Inescapable however are the solos by McAll on ‘Nectar Spur and on the dark ballad ‘Poverty’; which has incandescent beauty. Wilson on the moody atmospheric ‘Coast Road’, and above all Magnusson and McAll on ‘Non-Compliance’. I am familiar with this composition and I love the new arrangement here. A transformation has occurred with ‘Non Compliance’; morphing from a tour de force trio piece into an other-worldly trippy sonic exploration. All of the musicians fit perfectly into the mix and this is a tribute to the arrangements and to the artists. Zwartz (an expat Kiwi who has a strong presence here) holds the groove to perfection and the drummers and percussionists, far from getting in each others way, lay down subtle interactive layers; revealing texture and colour. Barker on drums and percussion is highly respected on the Australian scene (as are all of these musicians). Adding the New York percussionist Mino Cinelu gives that added punch. On tracks 6 & 7 noted trombonist Shannon Barnett adds her magic and Hamish Stewart is on drums for the last track.
A sense of place may pervade these tunes, but there is also a question mark. This is not a place set in aspic but a query. Places or ideas dissolve into merged realities like the music that references them. Layers upon layers again.
This is art music, street music and musical theatre of the highest order. Everything that you hear, see and experience serves the music in some way. It is a bittersweet commentary on the human experience. A scientist on New Zealand National Radio said that exploring the dark unseen areas of space is the new magic. I think that he is right. This album is replete with trickster references but the intent is deadly serious. This music turns the arrows of listening back on us like a Zen Koan. Barney McAll is an award-winning, Grammy nominated Jazz Musician based in New York. He was recently awarded a one year Peggy Glanville-Hicks Composers Residency and he currently resides at the Paddington residency house in Sydney, Australia.
I would urge you to buy the ‘Mooroolbark’ album at source rather than purchase it on iTunes. The cover art and the messages are a trip in themselves. Available June 5th.
I took the photos of Barney McAll during a two-hour interview with him in Sydney April 2015. I chose not to use the traditional question and answer format as this begged a different approach. For better or worse getting inside a story Gonzo style is what I do. The first and last pictures are from the ‘Mooroolbark’ album artwork by Allan Henderson & Jenny Gavito and Andre Shrimski. The bird is the wonderful Frogmouth Owl (shedding the old New York skyline from its plumage).
The Album: ‘Mooroolbark’ – Barney McAll (piano, compositions, vocal), Julien Wilson (tenor sax, alto clarinet), Stephen Magnusson (guitars), Jonathan Zwartz (bass), Simon Barker (drums, percussion), Mino Cinelu (percussion), Hamish Stuart (drums ), Shannon Barnett (trombone [6, 7]) – released 2015 by abcmusic