Australian Improvisers 2019

 

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The number of quality Jazz albums coming out of Australia these days is impressive and considering the lack of support from the mainstream music industry, surprising.  I have met a number of Australian improvisers over the years and the best of them have one thing in common, a burning desire to reach beyond the mundane. They communicate this passion in spite of the obstacles and they do it convincingly. The best of these are respected across the wider Jazz world. They are a cohort that brings joy to those hear them and the least we can do is pay them our fullest attention. In November 2019, I became aware of four recent Australian albums: Andrea Kellers ‘Transients, volumes 1 & 2,’  ’This World’ (a collaboration between Mike Nock, Julian Wilson, Hamish Stuart and Jonathan Zwartz) and ‘Stock’ by Julien Wilson. A common denominator linking the above recordings is Wilson, who appears on all four albums (and is the founder of the Melbourne based Lionshare Records). Christopher Hale appears in three of them.

This World: Anyone who has followed pianist Mike Nock over the years will always be hungry for more of his artistry. He never disappoints. A few years ago Wilson confided that he had been planing a collaboration with Nock but that prior commitments always seemed to get in the way. Then in 2018 disaster struck when Nock was hit by a car on a pedestrian crossing. Many feared that his injuries could curtail his career and his fans hoped for a swift recovery. Not long after he left the hospital (and against the odds), he joined Wilson, Stuart and Zwartz for a standards gig. They sounded so good together that they agreed to record an album of originals (with each contributing compositions). Next, Zwartz obtained an arts council grant, and they headed for Sony Studios.

While the results of the two-day session are a testament to their compositional skills, it is their tasteful interplay that remains with you. The album is a thing of soulful beauty, with the compositions coexisting in happy juxtaposition. For example, the cheerfully reflective tune Old’s Cool (Nock) is followed by the moody In The Night Comes The Rain (Zwartz). If you follow the tracklist in chronological order you could be forgiven for thinking that the album is about Nock’s accident. In the Night Comes The Rain – Home – The Dirge – Aftermath  – We shall Rise Again; perhaps that is not the case at all, but whatever the motivation the album is an essential addition to any Jazz collection. What musical heavy-weights these musicians are and how effortlessly they weave their magic. There is a hint of ECM about this recording and not least due to the amazing cover artwork by the Icelandic earth photographer Polly Ambermoon. 

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Transients volume 1 & 2: Late last year I came across the Transients albums by the multi-award-winning pianist and composer Andrea Keller. I first encountered Keller two years ago while I was visiting family in Melbourne. Her compelling stylistic originality intrigued me and I made a point of attending several of her performances in a row; resolving to keep an eye on her output from then on. On the first night she was decidedly minimalist and embedded deep within an ensemble; the second night a fearless explorer in a serialist vein. These two albums offer variety, innovation. The Transients project began in 2016 and since that time a series of interlinking trios have appeared, culminating in these extraordinary 2019 albums.

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This is music that requires your engagement and it is deeply rewarding when you listen properly. It is clear evidence that Australian music is developing its own distinct voice. The opening track on the first album is titled Musings and it is the perfect hook to draw you deep inside an intriguing world. As the tracks unfold you realise that you are listening kaleidoscopically. Phrases form and change along with mood. It is an interesting approach as the various trios sound like a band that could be playing as a larger ensemble. less is more. It is as if it is a bigger unit but with instruments redacted to achieve greater clarity. In spite of the contrasting moods and instrumental configurations, there is a unified heart; so much so that you can easily imagine how each piece would sound if the alternate trios played the piece. On volume two this is realised. On volume 1 you experience the journey while on volume two you are invited to examine it afresh. Many of the tunes like Saint Misha and Sleep Cycles are later reimagined, familiar but not familiar.

 

It is hard to praise the Transients albums enough and while it is obviously Keller who deserves the lions share of the accolades, the individual musicians excel themselves under her guidance. Wilson on tenor saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet has long been a favourite of mine. He and the astonishing Stephen Magnusson have previously stunned us when appearing on recordings (notably with Barney McAll). With the addition of James Macaulay on trombone, Sam Anning or Christopher Hale on bass, James McLean or Leigh Fischer on drums and Flora Carbo on Alto, Keller has found the right mix of colours for her masterwork. 

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Stock: Like This World, Stock was released by Julien Wilson’s Lionshare Records. It is a joyful, freedom embracing, open-hearted exploration of sonic possibilities. It enhances sound, but the electronic effects which it utilises to good advantage are tastefully deployed. This is an album which immediately brings a smile to your lips, exuding as it often does the sounds of a perfect summer (a happier summer than Australia is experiencing at present). It was recorded in 2019 and released by the artists on New Year’s Day 2020. It is the sound of now and I was delighted to hear in the new decade with this gem. Some, wrong-headedly, think that post-millennium Jazz like this has abandoned past learnings; they are mistaken. These artists have no need to look over their shoulder because the past has been absorbed into and informs everything they do as they move the music forward. While Stock is Wilson’s concept it is clearly a collaborative effort. No one creates at this level unless they are inside each other’s heads. The quartet has performed a while but this was a time to share their vision with a wider audience. The tracks cover many moods – here I have posted a joyfully ‘out’ track.

Wilson is noted for his skilful articulation; an artist who can wring new tears out of old ballads and carve scorching pathways through an up-number; one of the few Australasian reeds players who maintains his clarinet chops at this level. This feels like a fruitful direction for him as the step change has a rightness about it. As the album progresses, moving from the filmic to the elegiac, you marvel at the inventiveness. Yes, guitarist Craig Fermanis has a Metheny vibe, but this is an original offering and beholden to no one. He is magnificent throughout and able to create nuance out of controlled chaos, and Christopher Hale’s electric bass work and Hugh Harvey’s drums or percussion are so integrated that the band presents as a single fluid entity. It is the integration of the voices and of ideas within a free-flowing framework that worked for me. It plots an interesting path forward and in doing so brings us along with it.   

My last word is about the presentation and the sound quality of the above albums. The recording and mixing standards here are very high. All have eye-grabbing artwork but in the case of the Lionshare albums, the standard is extraordinary. Wilson has an eye for great cover art, intuitively understanding that the relationship between the eye and the ear is important. Music is about more than just sound. I know that he gives careful consideration to such matters, whether it’s the eerily atmospheric work of the Icelandic earth photographer Polly Ambermoon or the marvellous creations of Dale Cox. The albums are all released on Bandcamp. We should all purchase whatever we can through the Bandcamp platform as the artists share is considerably greater there. In addition, we get streaming at Hi-Fi quality and the albums and other merch can be accessed directly. The two Lionshare Albums are also available in 24bit/96kHz audiophile quality and are downloadable for burning. If you have a high-end audio system you should grab the 24bit versions as these are the best quality available to us.  

This World: Mike Nock (piano), Hamish Stuart (drums), Julien Wilson (reeds) Jonathan Zwartz (bass). Transients 1&2: Andrea Keller (piano), Julien Wilson (tenor saxophone & clarinet), James Macaulay (trombone), Stephen Magnusson (guitar), Floro Carbo (alto saxophone), Sam Anning (double bass), Christopher Hale (bass guitar), Leigh Fisher (drums), James McLean (drums). Stock: Julien Wilson (reeds, effects), Craig Fermanis (guitar), Christopher Hale (bass guitar), Hugh Harvey (drums & percussion)

https://julienwilson.bandcamp.com    https://andreakeller.bandcamp.com

Viata (Dilworth) + Zephyrix (McAll)

IMG_0434Viata: 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.

IMG_0435Zephyrix: 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.

Barney McAll – ‘Hearing the Blood’

a0201921582_16Just 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. 0011413817_10Hearing 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”. IMG_0069

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

McAll – #ASIO Mooroolbark

Barney McAll 2 071 (1)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.  Barney McAll 2 072 (1)#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.  Barney McAll 2 071This 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.  Barney McAll 2 071 (2)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 2 072Barney 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.

For two sample tracks on ‘Soundcloud’ go to: https:\\soundcloud.com/barneymcall

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 [8]), Shannon Barnett (trombone [6, 7]) – released 2015 by abcmusic

Purchase information: http://extracelestialarts.bandcamp.com/

Biographical information @ www.barneymcall.com

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