REVIEW: Bernie McGann Quartet — Marc Hannaford piano, Bernie McGann alto sax, Phillip Rex bass, Dave Beck drums — at Bennetts Lane, Melbourne, Friday, June 1 at 8pm for Melbourne International Jazz Festival 2012

Bernie McGann celebrates his 75th birthday at Bennetts Lane

Bernie McGann celebrates his 75th birthday at Bennetts Lane.

When you think about it, there’s a hell of a lot of saxophonists in this year’s MIJF. The revered Bernie McGann‘s 75th birthday celebration was the first of the Club Sessions at Bennetts Lane jazz club, followed by Jamie Oehlers in a quartet with US bassist Robert Hurst. The following night the Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra would have the talents of tenor player Chris Potter on display, and back at Bennetts later there would be Eli Degibri from Israel in a quartet. As things turned out, I caught all of these players. It’s fascinating to see and hear the different approaches and styles.

I’ll be honest. Bernie McGann’s outing was the standout for me. On the other saxophonist’s performances, as they used to say on ABC radio, more on that story later.

Bernie McGann enjoys his band at work.

Bernie McGann gets into the swing of Hannaford, Rex and Beck.

I’ve never been so entranced by McGann’s playing as I was in these two sets. Of course appreciation of any gig is subjective and has a lot to do with what mood you’re in, the type of music played and whether the two gel. But I reckon there was some special magic happening from McGann on the night. Right from the opening rendition of Ellington’s What Am I Here For?, he seemed to produce that magic  so simply, without fuss. He stands, immobile, and delivers. Then he sits and listens, getting into the swing of the work being done by his fellow musicians.

Marc Hannaford

Marc Hannaford

And what a class band McGann had to help him celebrate. Paul Grabowsky was listed on the program, but Marc Hannaford was at the piano instead. Think about it … Phil Rex on bass, Hannaford on piano and Dave Beck on drums. A few minutes of listening was enough to show that these guys were on fire. Well, that’s a cliche. More specifically they were attentive, responsive and absolutely integrated, so that when McGann sat out for a time in each piece, no one missed the saxophone.

Bernie McGann

Bernie McGann

But we didn’t have to miss out on the sax. McGann’s interpretation of Monk’s In Walked Bud was something special. Sonny Rehe from Uptown Jazz Cafe has heard McGann perform many, many times and at the break he mentioned that the saxophonist had contributed something exceptional in Bud. I concurred.  All members of the band had superb solos in this, with Hannaford making deft touches. McGann played with a such ease throughout the piece, yet there was clearly focus and concentration. Beck was awesome.

Dave Beck

Dave Beck

I didn’t know all the pieces played on the night, but in the second set the second had McGann making minimalist, but effective contributions (I was reminded a little of Wayne Shorter at the Palais a few years ago, but this was much better), Hannaford contributing complexity and McGann finishing unaccompanied in spectacular fashion.

Bernie McGann

Bernie McGann

During each piece, McGann — possibly in a concession to his advancing years — took a breather on a chair on stage and seemed to just absorb the music.

Phillip Rex

Phillip Rex

The closing piece was faster and we were treated to great solos. The band was on fire (there’s that cliche again) and I swear the audience was bathed in sweat from just listening. It’s odd to say that, in hindsight, because the following session with Oehlers and Hurst was to be more full-on than McGann’s quartet. But the fire in Bernie’s belly was the smouldering sort that had really hot coals — no need for flames, but plenty of heat. I loved it.

Dave Beck

Dave Beck

I confess to being insular and biased, but every time I hear overseas jazz greats perform, particularly in larger venues, I think that our local performers stack up pretty well. OK, so in time we do lose many of our own to New York or other overseas jazz hot spots, and we reap rewards when they return on visits, but there is an originality here that is to be valued. I reckon Hannaford, Rex and Beck, not to mention McGann, are hard to beat.

Happy birthday Bernie McGann.


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