jazz and improvised music


Gig Reviews
Summer jazz: Phillip johnston - page of madness suite with special support by gary daley & paul cutlan

Page of Madness review: Phillip Johnston surprises
Sound Lounge, February 11

Sydney Morning Herald, February 12 2017

If a sense of surprise courses from the heart of much good music, then Phillip Johnston sliced open an artery to flood this work with the stuff. Composition and improvisation have shared a bed since music was born, but often the former has constrained the latter or the latter has rendered the former redundant.

The Holy Grail has been to find a way to create contexts and structures within which improvisers may be given their heads, so the piece is completely different with each iteration, yet remains recognisable.

Johnston takes a 50-minute swig from that Holy Grail with Page of Madness: Suite for Improvisers. Originally conceived as the soundtrack for a Teinosuke Kinugasa 1926 silent movie, it has grown into a concert work for 12 improvisers.

Johnston plays composer in the conventional sense of strewing enchanting themes through the work, and in the less conventional sense of calling for free improvisations of specified durations and instrument combinations. While playing soprano saxophone he also conducted, controlling dynamics, density, intensity and entry and exit points for individuals.

His sophisticated conception demanded these individuals be exceptional, and Peter Farrar, Sandy Evans and Andrew Robson (saxophones), Jason Noble and Paul Cutlan (clarinets), James Greening and Alex Silver (trombones), Daryl Pratt (vibraphone), Matt McMahon (piano), Lloyd Swanton (bass) and Hamish Stuart (drums) nailed it.

It was a rendition that bounced between highlights as happily as a child in a toyshop. Among them were Farrar's alto saxophone exploding with look-mum-no-hands daring and thrilling improbability, Robson tearing the music's surface apart with his baritone, McMahon summoning up a churning ocean of sound, and a Swanton solo of understated sorrow that was as good as anything I've heard the bassist do in 37 years of hearing him.

Perhaps in moving the work away from its filmic roots Johnston could have massaged some of the "jump-cuts" into transitions, but otherwise this was heroic. The stage for it was set by exquisite duets between Cutlan (bass clarinet) and Gary Daley (piano and accordion).

SUMMER JAZZ: MIke Nock & Laurence Pike with special support by alon ilsar & Sandy Evans

FEBRUARY 4, Sound Lounge, Seymour Centre

Duet: Alon Ilsar drum kit, air sticks  Sandy Evans saxophones (8pm)

One of many wonderful things about art is that it can incorporate current technology to the point of appearing or sounding like the magical or extra-terrestrial  and it can tap into the tools and techniques of the ages to call up the deepest feelings of the race. To some the first experience of the didgeridoo was as startling as the sounds issuing from, say the Fairlight synthesiser. Yes, it activated samples rather than combining forests of sine waves. I throw the second example in in because I was the music editor of Electronics Today and Hi Fi and Music and worked alongside the son of the owner of the publishing company, who with a close friend was creating the very contraption that would be bought by Stevie Wonder and many others. The magazines were published down near Rushcutters Bay in Sydney. Golden days, oh yes.

I advance these commonplace thoughts because I have just heard a concert in SIMA's Summer  Jazz series, in which the now long established saxophone duetted  with Alon Ilsar's virtually invisible drums and "air sticks"  A vibrating reed within the saxophone activates a series of standing waves. Everyone knows that. But how to explain the magic of Ilsar's gear. Incidentally, he used to play the actual drums with my late son, and he did likewise with Sandy on this night. As to how the air sticks draw drum strikes and patterns from the air –in fact, the authentic sounds of snare, cymbals et al.  Well, forget my pathetic explanation, which I've suddenly abandoned. The program before me refers to Ilsar's innovative sampling technology and mastery of his custom gestural controller. That will do.

As it happens, the first duet did not include any percussion sounds. While Sandy responded brilliantly Alon Ilsar swayed and conducted gracefully, calling up several atmospheres that embraced the pair on stage. Sometimes they stood (and swayed) before a dark smooth curtain, which was sometimes disturbed gently by turning eddies and slow moving winds. There was sometimes murmuring in there, and with a click on one of the two controls (like hand grenades that fit snugly in his hands) Alon sent one of these nebulous articulations down to a region about four octaves below.
I was startled by the recollection this started of a memorable phrase from a radio show called "Behind The Creeking Door" that we listened to way back in the 1940s. Here is the phrase: "The dark cloak of impending doom". I can't match that.
There followed an agitated duet in which Sandy produced whipping twisting squealing sounds that were often remarkably similar to electronic productions.

Duet: Laurence Pike, drums sampler  Mike Nock, piano keyboards (9pm)

The main act of the evening had much to equal. It did more than that. This was the well-established duet  of the truly great pianist Mike Nock and brilliant young drummer Laurence Pike. Pike's presence was not strongly felt for a while because Nock had taken off like a startled deer, racing and retarding, bass and treble conversing then running independently. While the patterns, the cascades, harmonic and jagged atonal runs were often racing, the underlying pulse was often slow and meditative. Sometimes it sounded as if Nock was playing a written concerto, powerful and meditative by turns and sometimes seemingly simultaneously. I have heard Mike often reach a level of transport or abandon, but this was exceptional. Soon enough Pike found the right wormholes from which to draw the perfect commentary of sharp sweet pings and the ringing of fragile bells like little tunnels of crystal.
There were times when I - and another with whom I conferred felt that this was the best music I had heard (them too) and times when I at least thought perhaps this has gone on too long. But not for long. Free form thunder or ethereal reaches of snowy adrenalin sat us straight in our seats. At times, especially at the end, Nock shifted to his electric keyboard and that is how it ended: in a luminous peace.

There are several more Saturdays to come. Google SIMA or get yourself a program. It is clear that any young musician entering what might broadly be defined as jazz will find many areas still to explore.

summer jazz: Andrew Robson's child ballads with support by bree van reyk & veronique serret

Andrew Robson's blood-curdling ballads get modern musical treatment
The Sound Lounge, December 10

Sydney Morning Herald, December 11 2016

Had Lady Macbeth penned ballads rather than sleepwalking she may have bequeathed us some bonny wee ditties of daggers, ghosts and bloody hands. Happily others filled that particular need across the centuries, and these traditional English and Scottish ballads were collected in their hundreds by the nineteenth-century American academic F.J. Child. The original tunes for some were traced, but not all.

Enter Andrew Robson, who has taken eight ballads that were musical orphans and turned them into striking songs, cushioning or heightening their Gothic horror with his own alto and baritone saxophones, Llew Kiek's acoustic guitar and bouzouki, Steve Elphick's double bass and Mara Kiek's tapan drum. Above it all coursed the latter's voice. Kiek hurled herself into the gore and grotesqueness with such theatrical relish that there was more than a hint of Lady Macbeth about her, anyway. Often the Scots patois and wealth of unfamiliar words conspired against our total comprehension, but enough of the bloody deeds and jealous rages emerged to chill the blood and trigger the peculiar fascination that horror (and Scandinavian crime drama) seems to hold for our species.

Robson's music was of at least equal interest. The bass and tapan often carried such primal force as to scythe their own way through the assorted obstacles to love and honour. Then saxophone solos would blaze up like a warrior's anger, or cry laments for one cut down, poisoned, drowned or dismembered. Erlington had Llew Kiek's acoustic guitar glinting like sun on the armour of the 15 knights the hero dispatches to save his lady love. The darkest of all, Child Owlet (whose fate, despite his innocence, is to be torn limb from limb by four horses), began with skin-crawling arco bass and was capped by volcanic baritone.

Before, The Child Ballads (now available as an album) vibraphonist Bree van Reyk and violinist Veronique Serret enchanted us with extraordinarily diaphanous improvisations on pieces penned by van Reyk or a certain J.S. Bach. Little did we know of the horror to follow.

summer jazz: the catholics with special support by chris cody

The catholics review: Still fizzing after 25 years
Foundry 616, December 3


All music that is not idle display is a dialogue of sorts. Across this night came dialogues between music and room, music and audience, players and compositions, players and their instruments, improvisers and their collaborators and even between the first act and the second.

In a superb piece of programming Chris Cody played a solo piano set before The catholics, and here the dialogue was often between left hand and right. Rolling left-hand ostinato figures carrying whiffs of North Africa underpinned and interacted with right-hand lines bearing vague echoes of Ravel, Debussy and Satie, and more overtly a wistfulness suggesting veiled regret or loss. On the one standard, Lover Man, Cody's touch and dynamics were as telling as an exceptional singer whispering poignant lines of lyric in your ear.

He was such an ideal foil for The catholics because his music was like a one-man encapsulation of the dialogue that bassist Lloyd Swanton's band has been having for 25 years between jazzy improvisation and grooves derived from Africa and the Americas.

Amid inevitable personnel changes only Swanton, saxophonist Sandy Evans and trombonist James Greening have survived from the outset, yet in terms of breadth of colour and depth of groove this is surely the septet's finest incarnation.

Adding weight to the repertoire Swanton has incorporated pieces from his heartfelt masterwork Ambon, originally scored for a dozen players (including members of The catholics), notably Darkest Days, a 12/8 lament that could also be construed as hymn to resilience, featuring sand-blasted tenor saxophone from Evans.

There were several striking solos from guitarist Jon Pease, a plunger-mute solo from Greening to live in the memory and, alongside his work on accordion, a delightful melodica solo from Gary Daley.

Drummer Hamish Stuart and percussionist Fabian Hevia ensured every rhythm fizzed, but more telling than any individual performance was the abiding sense of the band having a collective heart as big as a house. And it was this heart that was having the dialogue with the audience.