The Following albums are all adventurous in their own way. All reach beyond the strict confines of genre and while each approaches from a unique vantage point, they offer a cross-section of trans-Tasman pandemic era music. The music may or may not have been influenced by the lockdown itself, but the association resonates. We are on a long journey. Moving from isolation towards an unfamiliar landscape. We will inevitably cling to yesterday, but we will hopefully also take the braver step of jettisoning what has become superfluous. We do not need bankers and snake oil merchants to guide us, but we do need adventurous musicians.
Dark Energy: Paul Williamson Quartet
A few years ago a visit to Melbourne coincided with the launch of Paul Williamson’s ‘Finding The Balance’ album at JazzLab. There was a lot to like about the album and I wrote a review after I had returned to New Zealand. Now in the midst of the pandemic, Williamson has released a new album titled ‘Dark Energy’. This time he invokes different spirits and in doing so he taps into new and exciting realities.
This is an edgy and forward-looking album and although it offers glimpses of the familiar, it quickly strikes out for freer air. Popular music seldom strays beyond the angst of loves lost, but Australasian improvisers increasingly move beyond the confines of gravity. In fact, astrophysics is often an inspirational touchstone for our down-under improvisers. In the early seventies, these themes were convincingly referenced by the likes of Bennie Maupin and Eddie Henderson. Dark Energy picks up the batten, combining galactic revelations with the discovery of wondrous interior worlds.
On certain tracks, Williamson’s trumpet playing contains hints of Tomasz Stanko or perhaps the quieter moments of Kenny Wheeler. A wistful moody quality is evident and especially on tracks like Al-egance; his tone is especially gorgeous in these settings. On the more ethereal tracks, he utilises extended technique and skilfully embeds the instrument into the spectrum of the bands sound. In all of these explorations, his band is in lock-step. Letting the compositions speak with clarity, and understanding, that close confinement is unnecessary in space.
On guitar, Theo Carbo displays a deft touch, clean and appropriate to the task in hand. Again there is a gentle moodiness and one which owes much to improvised Americana. The bass and drums also strike the right balance, never overreaching, and yet every voice and flurry is heard perfectly.
Paul Williamson (trumpet, compositions), Theo Carbo (guitar), Hiroki Hoshino (double bass), Miles Henry (drums)
‘Wind and Wire’ is a third of a set of solo albums that Alan Brown has released. His first two albums teased out the subtitles of an acoustic piano, and they did so in a setting which allowed the acoustics of the room to inform the improvisations. This album compliments the earlier albums while expanding the sonic possibilities. With keyboards and digital enhancements come fresh choices, and this is a logical progression for which Brown is well-fitted. He is an acknowledged master of the digital and analogue keyboard, and he understands how to judiciously apply enhancements.
The album is a set of 10 improvised pieces and the titles set up the mood for each. ‘Mood’ is an important ingredient in any ambient composition for it is the mood and not melody or rhythm which invites us inside a piece. Brown is always careful to establish this. His improvisational development follows a logic evolved from the preceding phrases. It is more than sound shaping as it flows like a river from start to finish, and this in spite of being unconfined by written charts or cycles of scales.
In Wind and Wire, there are varying moods and not all are quiet or reflective. Where you start is not always where you expect to finish. There are surprises embedded within. While these are essentially interior landscapes they are no less real for that. They invoke vistas and engage with our ever-changing realities. Something we have hopefully learned to value in these days of inner reflection.
A few days ago ‘Trouble Spots’ appeared in the Rattle Records Bandcamp catalogue. I listened and was captivated. Because humans are hard-wired to categorise I looked for descriptors. Among the tags were: acoustic instrumental, experimental, atmospheric, improvised. I listened to the rest of the album and then once through again. Wow, I thought, this is engaging but it studiously evades categorisation. How can something so enjoyable and so strangely familiar remain so elusive?
The cover art was also mesmerising. So much so, that for a while I failed to register, that the album was the result of a long collaboration between Steve Garden and Ivan Zagni. Garden, the local Manfred Eicher, the presiding spirit of Rattle Records (and what is often overlooked, a fine drummer and percussionist). Zagni is the co-leader and a significant figure in the music world, long acknowledged as a gifted multi-genre experimentalist. Born in London and moving to New Zealand many years ago where he soon became a significant presence on the local scene. The Rattle label grew out of Garden’s early work with Zagni and Don McGlashan.
Keen to get the low-down I contacted Garden and during our conversation, he suggested some additional tags for the album: absurdist, filmic, musical jokes, sonic circus, accidental improvisation, sonic collages and experimental music. Most musical disciplines have a vocabulary and the listener is therefore accustomed to locating fixed reference points; seeking out the elements that indicate genre. If a style is too rigid however, then that implies stasis and the improvising arts are the antitheses of stylistic inertia.
So this is an album that tells wonderful stories and the stories are best constructed (or deconstructed) in our heads. The music here facilitates that with its evocative but elusive cover image, it’s glimpses of Beirut or Nicaragua, of Punch & Judy, Cat & Mouse. Think of it as musical Dada or a Zen Koan. There is serious intent and good musicianship here, but that should not prevent us from laughing in pure delight.
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.