James Ryan is a Sydney based tenor player and he has appeared at the CJC before. On Wednesday nights gig he fronted a trio of saxophone, drums and bass. In configurations like this where chordal instruments are absent, a band is taking a more adventurous route. Guitars, pianos, horn-sections and jazz orchestras provide a safety net for horn soloists and in addition they tend to fill in much of the soundscape with colour and a variety of textures. Without this underpinning, clean open spaces can be revealed and the bones of melodies can be unraveled or looked at afresh in their raw beauty. This is jazz without a parachute.
The precedent for such trios goes back a long way. Gerry Mulligan came close with his famous piano-less quartet of the 1950’s, but the addition of another horn (Chet Baker or Bobby Brookmeyer) allowed for chords and complex counterpoint. The most notable historic piano-less trios were Sonny Rollins ‘Way Out West‘, Lee Konitz, ‘Motion’ and the drummer led Elvin Jones ‘Ultimate’. There are many others and I should also mention the Max Roach–Dizzy Gillespie duos with just trumpet and drums. Our own Roger Manins has also explored saxophone trios and his well received album ‘Hip Flask’ is a notable example.
I did not hear James the last time he appeared, but I was soon to be impressed by what was on offer. His choice of band-mates proved to be fortuitous as Tom Botting (bass) and Ron Samsom (drums) rose to the challenge with enthusiasm. In this blue-sky environment each artist knew what needed to be done and more importantly what must be avoided. The was no overplaying and the flow of musical ideas was engaging.
James introduced the first set by playing solo for a number of bars and we could hear immediately that he was brim full of interesting ideas. This was a good way to open because when the bass and drums came in, their addition filled the space with possibilities. The fourth tune of the night ‘Micky B’ (Ryan) was a good example of this interplay. In this case the tune had been set up by the bass and it soon developed into a hard-driving bluesy exploration of the theme. James drove deeper and deeper into the changes and freed of the need to avoid piano or guitar, he took the music where he wanted it to go. While James took care of business Tom Botting found just the right responses and Ron Samsom showed us again why he is a master of the drum kit.
After a number of interesting originals had been performed the band switched seamlessly to the well-known standard ‘You and The Night And The Music”. James explained afterward that this had not been on the set list, but because Tom had quoted from it during an earlier bass solo he added it on impulse. It is when we hear a standard that we can form the strongest views and make comparisons. The audience will know where the tune has gone before and be interested to see just where this band is taking it. This particular exploration was inventive without being disrespectful. It had an element of surprise in the familiar and that is what the best Jazz is about.
As is so often the case when Ron Samsom is on the bandstand, the percussion work was extraordinary. His use of mallets and his inventiveness riveted the audience again and again. He can play tightly in the pocket or with an understated but completely engaging looseness. We saw him as more than a drummer in this set up. He was an instrumentalist capable of filling any space.
There was one free number during the night and it was a riot. James announced that he would play a tune of his titled ‘Rocket No 7’. This was an homage to Sun Ra and his much admired composition ‘Rocket No 9’. A few bars in James just let rip and the band quickly followed him into what were obviously unchartered waters. This decoupling from the changes was soon evident and the organic freedom took us on a wild and delightful ride. While the music was as free as a skylark it was never directionless. Both band and audience were smiling at the end and everyone in the room knew that they had experienced something special.
After the number James wiped the sweat from his brow and pulled the mike towards him. “That was nothing like ‘Rocket No 7” he said to our delight.
As with many of the Australian visitors we look forward to his return.