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 & Wire: Alan Brown solo piano
‘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.
Trouble Spots: Ivan Zagni/Steve Garden)
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.