By any measure, Andrea Keller is an extraordinary musician and her latest release, ‘Life is Brut[if]al’ is the proof of the pudding. This is music for our times, and it reflects her well-documented and highly original creative journey. Keller is Melbourne based and like most musicians in recent months, her activities have been severely curtailed. The insidious grip of the virus is causing ever tighter lockdown restrictions, but creatives are used to working in challenging conditions, and happily, her prodigious output continues. This artist has a work ethic that few can equal, and we are the beneficiaries.
The term tune is wholly inadequate to describe how the pieces unfold and although the substitute term journey is somewhat cliched, it is accurate. As we listen, we find ourselves in a world located far from the mundane, a world full of intricacy and wonder, but revealed via the medium of minimalism and kaleidoscopic shifting patterns. This is Keller’s preferred space as her various influences have led her here. She is an extraordinary pianist with a deft touch, but her compositional skills are very much to the forefront in this work.
As one would expect, Keller has gathered some of Melbourne’s finest musicians about her for this project. Her ensemble writing is always about collaboration: Scott McConnachie (soprano and alto saxophone), Julien Wilson (tenor, saxophone and bass clarinet) and Jim Keller (voice), alongside Five Below band members Stephen Magnusson (guitar), Sam Anning (double bass), Mick Meagher (electric bass), James McLean (drums). Andrea Keller plays piano throughout.
The first piece ‘Meditations on Light’ is the longest and it is the perfect opener as it invites a reflective mood before diving deeper. It opens with a soft pulse, followed by guitar; the latter evoking the sound of a wine-soaked finger rubbed on crystal. Then you hear Keller, moving slowly and purposefully; a T. E. Lawrence riding out of the distant desert haze. By this point, anyone with open ears and a receptive heart will be fully engaged. You listen and the realities and cares outside the door fade into obscurity. The soprano, when it enters, soars ecstatically above the drums and bass. It has the feel of a Fellini movie and the album is worth buying for this track alone.
The second track ‘Dear John/Joan’ is more somber and mysterious. It reminded me of church bells and mourners in an Italian village, and again it is eerily filmic. Perhaps it reflects the loss of connection that the world is currently experiencing. Bley and Burton achieved a similar effect with ‘A Very Tang Funeral’. That is followed by the title track ‘Life is Brut[if]al’; a powerful track which takes a freer path over a long earthy vamp. I love this track, especially, as the freedom seeking soprano dances so unbound. This track best sums up that happy place where freer music talks to its growing audience. An intersection for the adventurous and a place where the finest of improvised music is headed.
After that comes ‘Suicidal Snails’ and ‘Blip ‘the former featuring reeds in unison and the latter, a short but sweet segment featuring tenor saxophone. The penultimate, ‘Youth Unleashed’ finds us exploring the free again.
The final track incorporates portions of Rainer Maria Rilke’s profound prose, from ‘Letters to a young poet’. The track is ‘Love in Solitude (disassembled)’. This intertextuality is the icing on the cake and perhaps the point where the album makes its strongest claim to greatness. This is art music and it is timeless.
Born of Czech parents and growing up in the ethnically and musically diverse city of Melbourne, Keller has been gifted an ecumenical viewpoint. Her album speaks to the world and beyond, and due to its originality, depth and fluid interplay it is a five-star achievement. This album and its predecessor ‘The Composers Circle’ are part of her ‘Monday Nights at Jazzlab’ series. ‘Five Bellow Live’ won the 2019 Jazz Bell Award for the best Jazz Ensemble.
Keller is a multi-award winner, renowned educator and mentor. She was contemplating a visit to New Zealand in the New Year, but travel restrictions will likely prevent that. Until then, I will remember Keller performing at the Uptown Jazz Cafe (and the night before at Jazzlab). They were wonderful performances, and my photographs and these albums, reinforce that memory.
During the writing of this post, an email arrived in my inbox, informing me that Keller is about to release yet another album; this time of solo piano titled ‘Journey Home’. There is also a related film to be released on DVD. The latter, a collaboration with filmmaker Hayley Miro Browne; a tale of their fathers, fleshed out with graphics and Erik Keller’s photographs of the 70’s Czech Republic. Again, this speaks to the work ethic and the creativity of this gifted artist. I have my order in. To purchase the above or any of Keller’s self-released albums, visit her Bandcamp site. It is a treasure trove. There is also merchandise available, and who could resist that gorgeous artwork by Luke Fraser. AndreaKeller.Bandcamp.com
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.