Melbourne International Jazz Festival double bill at the Forum Upstairs, Friday, June 10, 6pm
First set: Los Totopos
Tim Berne alto saxophone, Oscar Noriega clarinet and bass clarinet, Matt Mitchell piano, Ches Smith drums
Second set: Jason Moran piano, keys, drums; Scott Tinkler trumpet; Simon Barker drums, percussion
It seems a funny place to start blogging a festival, but there’s been so much music and so little time. Posts about earlier gigs will come in time, but on a cool but dry Melbourne Friday evening (balmy in contrast to chilly Canberra, where I was during the week) the Forum upstairs was a cosy prospect.
My mind went back to Tim Berne’s Adobe Probe Melbourne at Bennetts Lane on May 3, 2009, when a few locals (Tinkler, Magnusson, Barker, Hannaford) joined Berne to take us on an unforgettable ride which killed off a duck and left me redefining the term “ballad”. But this Berne outing was much more restrained.
To cut to the chase, two things stood out for me from this double bill. First, the music of Los Totopos seemed quite structured and, though of course there was group improvisation, there never seemed to be any lack of direction throughout. The pieces (Simple City, Yield, Scanners, Spare Parts) felt as if they were carefully crafted. By contrast, the Moran/Tinkler/Barker set that followed had an extra edge to it because there was a feeling that anything could happen. There did not seem to be a plan, or at least not a highly prescriptive one, so it was happening on the run.
Second, in both sets the limelight seemed to be stolen by band members other than the “big names”. I’m not at all suggesting that Tim Berne or Jason Moran are out to take the kudos or that they are not collaborative. I mean merely that Berne and Moran are movers and shakers, yet on the night the focus was on Smith and Noriega in the first set, and on Barker and Tinkler in the second. And these four musicians were, I reckon, the ones that stood out.
In Los Totopos, I thought Ches Smith was fantastic throughout the set. Sitting behind an array of gongs and microphone stands, he commanded attention because of his inventiveness, energy and timely interventions.
Noriega — whether on clarinet or bass clarinet — contributed to the building of tension (in Scanners, Spare Parts) yet produced some periods of delicate beauty. This has been a festival in which the clarinet has excelled, through Noriega and Anat Cohen (see post to come).
Of course the contributions of Matt Mitchell and Tim Berne were integral to the four pieces, which were each like a journey. Simple City was gestational; Yield was more emphatic and insistent, with all four players following interwoven pathways; Scanners was much more abrasive, with short runs and a bit of helter skelter, much tension and not too much melody; and Spare Parts again provided a gradual development of tension, but did not follow a linear path from A to B.
In a corner of my brain I was disappointed that Berne had not fired up. But Smith and Noriega had, and the whole band presented us with a cohesive set full of interest. I wanted to hear more of Ches Smith, and, as it turned out, I would — that night.
Now for the much less structured set. I had to miss Moran’s concert on Wednesday (the icy winds of Canberra beckoned) so I was keen to see what he’d do with Tinkler and Barker. Well, I think Moran was really appreciative of what the other two gave him to work with, but I think they were the stars on the night. Moran played piano, keyboard, a small drum set and used a laptop and a bell at times.
As mentioned, this set seemed to be a seat-of-the-pants outing, and there some spectacular highlights. Barker’s intensity and propulsion is, if anything, growing stronger as this festival goes on. He is fascinating to watch and amazing to hear, his playing full of drama and the output drawn from deep within as he responds to the other musicians.
Tinkler, also, is in top form and can be subtly musing one minute and pouring fluid sound into the heavens the next. The test, I think, is how well other musicians can react to Tinkler’s input so that it integrates into the whole.
Some of Moran’s keyboard work and percussion was great, but he certainly did not stand out as the main driving force. It was collaborative, largely unscripted (it seemed to me) and had that uncertainty and expectancy that kept the audience in thrall. But it did not work all the time. It did not always hang together, so in the end it seemed to have been an experiment of considerable interest, but one that did not always succeed.
So, we saw Tim Berne and Jason Moran quite happy not to hog the limelight, and others in these bands who became the focus of attention because of their playing. That’s a good result, surely.