Australian and Oceania based bands, Piano Jazz, Review

Overdue Album Reviews

 

Grey Wing Trio – Amoroso

AmorosoIt is not very often that an album like this comes along and more’s the pity. This is an album for those who are properly engaged, who listen deeply; offering ample rewards to those who pay due attention. While there is a hint of the freedom of the 1961-62 Giuffre/Bley/Swallow albums, this is an album of the now. It tells a modern Australian story while claiming a portion of the space occupied by the sparse Nordic improvisers. People might find this darker approach unexpected as the Australian landscape resonates bright light and pastel colours. While not the norm there are recent precedents such as the astonishingly atmospheric ‘Kindred Spirits’ by Mike Nock. Pianist Luke Sweeting shows us from the first few notes that he truly understands form and dynamics. As he moves about the piano his fingers tease out endless shades of colour; the sort found in the shadows. The name Grey Wing Trio is apt too, because the subtlety of the shadings are endless here. Like the wing of a sparrow, what appears as mono-toned becomes multi-hued upon closer examination.

The lightness of Sweeting’s touch gifts him the opportunity to cycle through one crystalline moment after another and the echoes of each chord hang in the air with delicate subtlety. The music has dynamic richness – this in spite of the dominance of quieter moments. Trumpeter Ken Allars excels in this space. Few trumpeters play as he does and few have his tonal or dynamic diversity. He can say as much with a breathy whisper as he can with his gentle flute-like notes or sudden squalls. This references the territory of the Nordic improvisers like Arve Henriksen and Allars does it convincingly. The less is more approach has always served Jazz well and this is another proof. I am familiar with Sweeting and Allars as I have seen them perform on several  occasions. The drummer Finn Ryan is new to me. Again he is perfect for the job in hand. A true colourist and able to match the others in subtlety. His use of mallets and fluttering brushwork contrasting nicely with the stick work.

Running through the tracks is an over-arching thread of minimalism. Themes emerge, then evaporate into floating motifs. Realities form and dissolve as if mirages. What remains is deep evanescent beauty. (The sound clip from the album is Chords).

Grey Wing Trio – Luke Sweeting (piano, compositions), Ken Allars (trumpet), Finn Ryan (drums). Order from http://www.jazzhead.com or www.lukesweeting.com

The Voyage of William and Mary – Matt McMahon

Amorosa:mcmohanI knew of Matt McMahon long before I met him in the Foundry 616. Australian and New Zealand Jazz lovers respect him as an artist and his name often comes up when improvising musicians talk. In 2008 I picked up a copy of his Ellipsis album during a visit to Sydney. My album collection then as now, was out of control and so after listening to it, I filed the album with the intention of obtaining more by the artist later. Because my cataloging skills are poorly developed it soon slipped out of sight and did not resurface until 2015. That was the year I met McMahon at The Foundry. His gig was as the regular pianist and arranger/co-composer for the Vince Jones band. I liked his playing and noted my impressions of man and pianist on the back of my program; ‘friendly, of quiet demeanour – a pianist with a deft touch – uses beautiful crisp voicings. The perfect accompanist, serving the singer and the song and never his ego‘. We talked for some time after the gig and before I left he handed me a copy of his ‘The Voyage of William and Mary’ album.

As soon as I got back to New Zealand I played the album and loved its depth and scope. Solo piano albums seldom achieve this themed narrative quality. While all of the tracks appear to describe a journey experienced by his Irish ancestors William and Mary, the narrative is deeper and wider than that. It acknowledges McMahon’s Irish roots in subtle ways, but more particularly it outlines a musical journey experienced by the artist. This is the wonder of deep improvisation, a place where all is not what it seems. Each note here is a revelation; not just to the listener but perhaps to the artist as well. Solo albums are the hardest to pull off, as the musician must search deep within. In doing so there is often the risk of unapproachable introspection or worse still self-indulgent noodling. McMahon has convincingly avoided those traps.

Each time I listen to ‘Island of Destiny’ thoughts of my own seafaring ancestors overwhelm me; their imaginings, hopes fears. So much is encapsulated in a piece that somehow transcends itself. What ever the images this beautiful music evokes it is a tribute to McMahon. He shares his vision in a way that allows us to become absorbed and to feel like participants. That is no mean feat.

Matt McMahon (solo piano, compositions) PathsandStreams Records Foundry 616 (8)

 

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CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs

Antipodes Tour 2015

AntipodesThe Antipodes project is an innovative one; well conceived and excellent in its realisation. It is a young group but you wouldn’t think so to listen to them. Musical maturity is generally equated with time served on the bandstand, but if the right musicians come together, surprising synergies can occur; artists collectively punching above their weight. Antipodes hits the mark on a number of levels. Firstly the writing is superb. The musicianship is also great but for me it is the communication of a shared vision that lifts them above the ordinary. Given that three members of the band are new to project, that is surprising.  Antipodes (9)At the epicentre of this group are the core members: Jake Baxendale, Luke Sweeting and Callum Allardice. The original lineup featured respected Australian trumpeter Ken Allars. Allars is at present on tour somewhere in a distant corner of the globe – replacing him is Simon Ferenci. It might be supposed that the absence of Allars changed the dynamic, but Ferenci fitted in as if he’d always been there – a trumpet player I had not heard before, but one I will be happy to hear anytime in future. Also new are the bass player Max Alduca and drummer Harry Day. Like Fereci both terrific players and in synch with the over-arching vibe. Without the cushioning bass work and often edgy drum fills the band would be less interesting. Their contributions were on the mark. Antipodes (4)I have long admired Baxendale’s alto playing, featuring as altoist in some of the best New Zealand line-ups (The Jac, Richter City Rebels, Wellington Mingus Ensemble, JB3 etc). Baxendale pulled off some blinding solos in this gig and I have posted a clip which demonstrates his mastery and inherent lyricism. He is a player with depth. I am also glad that Luke Sweeting was touring with the Antipodes again. Sweeting is the sort of pianist who captivates in numerous ways and his solo bravura on a good number can leave audiences open-mouthed. Perhaps more than anyone else in the ensemble he brings out that trademark Aussie-European aesthetic. The first time I heard Antipodes I identified Ken Allars as being the link to a particular Scandinavian sound; his command of extended technique, but moreover his low volume ambient groove-tone. Now I am revising that view as Sweeting has exactly encapsulated that sound, while doing it in a uniquely Australian way. Antipodes (6)The other central figure is guitarist Allardice. Often sitting quietly in the mix as his warm comping lifts the others without ever crowding them out. Then out of nowhere, unexpectedly, those heart stopping solos, souring and as fluid as silk in the breeze. Allardice is a fine composer, as are Sweeting and Baxendale. Antipodes (2)There are shades of meaning to the word ‘Antipodes’. It comes from the Greek ‘to set ones foot upon an opposite place’. If you live in London then the Antipodes Islands of New Zealand are the opposite land mass. For Southern Europe and North Africa it is in Australia. The reverse also applies. Given the musical linkages and especially given the geographical linkages the band is perfectly named (conceived by Australasians living in Germany). This project revives on a regular basis and on current form it stands every chance of becoming an institution. I certainly hope so. Antipodes (5)Antipodes: Jake Baxendale (alto), Luke Sweeting (piano), Callum Allardice (guitar), Simon Ferenci (trumpet), Max Alduca (bass), Harry Day (drums).

At the CJC (Creative Jazz Club), Britomart, Auckland 30th September 2015

Australian and Oceania based bands, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Post Millenium

‘The Antipodean 6tet’ Tour @ CJC

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There are a number of factors that make music special to a listener and for most it is the familiar that attracts them.  Improvised music is a different beast and the most valued quality is what Jazz essayist Whitney Balliet termed “the sound of surprise”.  When Jazz listeners are fully engaged it is seldom the melody line or a familiar riff that holds their attention.  While melody, chord voicings or an ostinato groove bring us to the moment, it is the promise of the new that creates a state of joyous anticipation.   So it was with the ‘Antipodean 6tet’ and the rewards were immediately evident.  Mike Nock told me recently that some of the young Australian bands are on a par with the best of what’s on offer in America.  A statement like that from a person of Mike’s undisputed authority causes you to take notice.  Some of the members of this group were among those mentioned by him.

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The idea for the ‘Antipodean 6tet’ was conceived in Berlin when Jake Baxendale, Aiden Lowe and Luke Sweeting decided to create a vehicle for their music.  By the time of the Australasian tour they had added Ken Allars, James Haezelwood Dale and Callum Allardice.

Those of us who pay close attention to Australian and New Zealand Jazz knew that we were in for something out of the ordinary.  A heightened sense of anticipation followed the tour announcement.  Earlier this year Rattle records released JAC’s ‘NERVE’ album.  The album featured Wellington musicians Jake Baxendale (alto, compositions) and Callum Allardice (guitar, compositions).  Many saw Jake as he toured with JAC during the launch tour and enjoyed his alto playing.   Callum Allardice was in Germany at the time of the launch, but his compositions and arrangements were also appreciated.   These two musicians form the New Zealand contingent of ‘The Antipodean 6tet’.

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Luke Sweeting is an Australian pianist who conveys more with his light touch than many do by playing percussively.   His playing is thoughtful, airy and interesting.   He has previously composed for sextets and is obviously central to the bands well crafted ensemble sound.  Sweeting, Aiden Lowe (drums), James Heazelwood Dale (bass) and Ken Allars (trumpet) are well established on the Australian scene with the former two having toured Europe extensively.  They have all attracted positive attention around Australia.  All have worked as leaders, but melded into an ensemble the instruments speak in a unified authoritative voice.  IMG_0060 - Version 2 

A Sydney bass player contacted me a few weeks ago saying that I would be mad to miss this innovative band.  He was right in his estimation of their impact, as they appear to bring something fresh and exciting to the scene.  northern European aesthetic with an authentic Australasian feel.

To best illustrate the above I must focus on Ken Allars.   I have been aware of Allars for some years but it was probably his compelling trumpet work on Mike Nock’s critically acclaimed 2011 album, ‘Here and Know’ that first grabbed my attention.  I received a review copy shortly after the 2011 release and was immediately struck by his use of dynamics and strong improvisational abilities.  Later I saw him in the horn-line of the JMO (Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra) when it toured Auckland with Darcey James Argue.  Now seeing him with ‘The Antipodean 6tet’ my positive first impression is reconfirmed.  On the opening number we saw his use of extended technique.  Not so much the usual growls or smears, but a skilful deployment of flutter tonguing and airstream effects.  The whistles, breathy explorations and pops augmented the contributions of Jake Baxendale who wove in quiet upper register ostinato responses (like Evan Parker in the opening few bars of ‘The Lady and the Sea’ – Kenny Wheeler).  So controlled was the sound production that at times Allars sounded like he was playing a flute.  When he did blast out a phrase it was doubly effective as it contrasted with the softer moments.

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I have seen bands who lower the volume for a ballad or a thoughtful meditative piece, but never quite like this.  They skilfully utilised the pianissimo and piano and diminuendo to impart an infinite array of subtleties and within that space communicated a world of information.  Earlier I mentioned the European aesthetic and perhaps I refer more specifically to the Norwegian ECM sound.  I detected a strong influence of this future-facing aspect of modern Jazz in Allars playing.  Later I asked him whether he had listened much to the modern Norwegian trumpeters.  Yes he had checked them out in person.  We then discussed people like Arve Hendriksen, Nils Petter Molvaer, Mathias Eick and others.   While Molvaer and Eick often use electronics and loops there were no such effects used by Allars.  IMG_0099 - Version 2

This band is purely acoustic and the impressive range of sounds and effects at their disposal will have pedal manufacturers smiting their brows in frustration.  Because of the sound balance, the imaginative drum work and the punchy bass lines are as strong in the mix as the other instruments.

They are due to record shortly and I look forward to that.   I urge anyone who can to catch this tour or subsequent outings.  I guarantee that you will not regret it.

What: ‘The Antipodean Sextet’ Luke Sweeting (piano), Jake Baxendale (alto saxophone), Ken Allars (trumpet), James Heazelwood Dale (bass), Aiden Lowe (drums), – in New Zealand – Callum Allardice (guitar).

Where: The CJC (Creative Jazz Club) Britomart 1885 building, Auckland.  26th March 2014