Melbourne International Jazz Festival — Day 6

Paul Grabowsky: Shirley Avenue — Grand Organ Commission

The picture below shows the wilds of Shirley Avenue, Glen Waverley, the place that inspired Paul Grabowsky’s composition for the Melbourne Town Hall grand organ or, as he put it, “the street where I grew up”. The Google Maps version lacks historic integrity, but I was inspired to place it here by a post on Miriam Zolin’s blog stating that, “If it (Shirley Avenue) is as this music describes, it is a street in a dark forest, a road to where the wild things are.”

Shirley Avenue

Of course I am being silly, because the relationship between the street of Grabowsky’s youth and the music he played with Scott Tinkler (trumpet, bucket and water), Genevieve Lacey (recorders) and Niko Schauble (drums) must be much more complex. But it might indeed have been, as Miriam Zolan suggests, a dark forest with wild creatures in the mind of a boy. I certainly recall inventing large and varied landscapes in the wilds of yet-to-be-developed Clayton, and even imagining hiding places in the long grass beside unmade roads.

Grabowsky comission concert

But what of the music played on the instrument with 8000 pipes on Friday evening? I don’t believe I can do justice to the piece, mainly for the banal reason that I was sucking assorted cough suppressants in a desperate bid to quell that noisy urge, and feeling pretty awful. Despite having looked forward greatly to hearing what Grabowsky would do with the organ, I was not able to let it sink in and came away wishing I could hear the composition again.

That is of so little help to anyone unable to be there that I will make a few observations. Grabowsky showed how talented he is on all style of keyboards, energetically using the foot pedals and letting nimble fingers roam the keys of the organ. Lacey’s use of the contrabass recorder was intriguing, and also how much she seemed joined to her instruments as she played — almost as if there was an organic connection. But I did not always pick up the sound of the recorders over the other instruments.

Tinkler / Lacey

Tinkler’s trumpet in a bucket, whether with bubbling or without, inevitably caused some merriment among those who had not witnessed it previously. I recall a Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival concert in the Atrium at Fed Square, when Tinkler played to an enthusiastic audience of about half a dozen on a weekday night as most people were heading home. And his solo album Backwards features some of this, and it was not bucketed by critics.

The highlight of Shirley Avenue for me was how well the grand organ and a grand drummer worked together. These musicians have a long history, and at times I thought Grabowsky’s score made use of the organ as if it were a grander version of a Hammond B3, which it is — though much grander. At other times, Grabowsky had the instrument perform more as a generator of pure sounds. But whenever drums and organ came together, it seemed a perfect fit, and this might have been largely due to the understanding between Grabowsky and Schauble, who are world class performers — or at least pretty damn good, because what does “world class” mean?

It was a dark piece at times, and complex. It did not thrill by using the immense power of the organ, which I had probably hoped to hear, or feel. But, and this is not giving the commission its due, I would like to hear it performed again — without the urge to cough.

Charlie Haden, Bill Frisell, Ethan Iverson Trio

Haden, Frisell, Iverson

It may seem strange to begin with the end, which is what the image above shows. Actually it was taken before the encore. But it is the dynamic between these players that interests me. Pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Charlie Haden and guitarist Bill Frisell had played together previously only at last year’s Newport Jazz Festival, and that might have influenced the Melbourne Town Hall gig. Accorded respect by Iverson and Frisell, Haden seemed not to be fully involved. Perhaps he was merely concentrating.

It’s unwise to read too much into one image, but Haden in thumbs-up mode (above) seems to be almost on automatic pilot, while Iverson and Frisell are sharing the moment. And Haden’s lack of engagement seemed to be evident during this concert.

Haden and Frisell

Perhaps the trio’s lack of experience together had an effect, or perhaps Haden was festival-lagged. But it often seemed that Haden was looking down, concentrating, or looking at the chart, while Frisell was characteristically facing away from his audience and open to what Haden was doing. Frisell was physically separated, and that seemed also to reduce the interaction. Of course, such superb musicians can play great music in most circumstances, so this is not a claim that their performances were poor.

The whole gig had a much lighter feel than I had expected, and Frisell probably had much to do with that. They played the bebop number What (light, bouncy, muted guitar), Haden’s First Song (in which Frisell and Iverson seemed to accord Haden great respect), and Ornette Coleman’s Humpty Dumpty (faster, with some great solos). The followed a sequence of three duos. Frisell’s intro to Bill’s Song, played with Haden, was beautiful.

Ethan Iverson

Paul Motian’s The Storyteller on piano and guitar brought a welcome change from the sweetness, with some distortion, contrasting tempos and notes that clashed and jarred — great stuff. Haden and Iverson played Broken Shadows with simplicity, but the piano was a little lost behind the bass until Iverson took off on a solo journey. Then there was a swinging trio piece (name unknown) in which I became more aware of Frisell being attentive to Haden, but the bassist concentrating on the chart or looking into space. In the encore, Frisell’s guitar was melodic, lyrical and delicate.

Perhaps I had wrongly expected more fireworks, more interaction and more spark from these three, given their musical pedigrees. After all, Haden played with Ornette Coleman and Iverson with the Bad Plus. But it was still fine music.

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