Double bill — Leigh Barker and the New Sheiks with Geoff Bull and the Finer Cuts
Sydney: 505, 280 Cleveland Street, Surry Hills, Thursday, December 6 at 8.30pm, $20 ($15)
Melbourne: The Flying Saucer Club 4 St Georges Rd, Elsternwick, on December 16, 3pm until 6pm, $29 table bookings, $22 standing room bookings, $25 at the door
Ausjazz Blog puts some questions to two protagonists in the coming contest for hottest young band playing music that swings:
The traditional sparring between Sydney and Melbourne will play out in two gigs this month as two bands battle it out for honours in a contest to get audiences up dancing.
Melbourne’s Leigh Barker and the New Sheiks will play off against Sydney’s Geoff Bull and the Finer Cuts in friendly rivalry for honours in their renditions of Delta blues tunes, New Orleans classics or just about anything that swings.
The New Sheiks and Finer Cuts are young musicians who love delving into the lexicon of traditional jazz and delivering it with love, passion and often a new approach.
Music is not all that’s on offer. Patrons are invited to “dance your arse off” first at 505 in Sydney and 10 days later at The Flying Saucer Club in the Melbourne suburb of Elsternwick. The southern gig will include presentations by world champion swing dancer Ramona Staffeld, tap king Grant Swift and vintage jazz dancers The Uptown Strutters.
There will be separate sets, but New Sheiks band leader Barker says by the end of each concert both bands will be on stage together — sporting two basses, maybe two pianos, two trumpets, two trombones, a sax, guitar, fiddle and vocals — leaving the audiences to decide whether Sydney or Melbourne wins.
Barker says the idea of the double bill arose after the Sheiks played two concerts with the Cope Street Parade, which shares Finer Cuts band members Justin Fermino, Grant Arthur and Ben Panucci.
“We had an excellent gig at Camelot in Sydney where they have two stages and we did a proper battle, tune for tune — sometimes at the same time. We definitely won,” Barker says.
A New Sheiks show can include deep dark Delta blues, a New Orleans classic, or just a 21st century take on anything from the great jazz canon. The band comprises award-winning vocalist and violinist Heather Stewart, Eamon McNelis and Don Stewart on horns, Steve Grant on piano, Barker on double bass and Sam Young on the drums.
Geoff Bull formed his first New Orleans style band, the “Olympia” Jazz Band in the very early 1960s when he was 20. Now, 50 years on, Geoff (on trumpet and vocals) has joined young musicians — Justin Fermino reeds and vocals, Grant Arthur trombone and vocals, Harry Sutherland piano, Ben Panucci on guitar, tenor banjo and vocals, and Sam Dobson on double bass and vocals — to keep the tradition alive and give it a breath of fresh air.
Playing traditional tunes and originals, Bull and the Finer Cuts have two highly successful Sydney residencies a week and cut their first album early this year.
Leigh Barker and Ben Panucci took time out from their music to improvise some responses to questions from Ausjazz blog. Here they are, slightly mixed and remastered:
Ausjazz: The New Sheiks do a wide range of material. Is that true of The Cuts?
Barker: Not sure what material the Cuts will be be playing, but I’m sure it will be swinging its tits off (slightly less than us of course). They write their own songs, like us, and mix it with classic jazz repertoire from all eras.
Panucci: Lately the band has been experimenting with rapping from our bass player/MC (no joke)
Ausjazz: Usually traditional forms of jazz are played by older musicians (though of course they were young once). Is that changing? Is there a wish to hand on the baton or bring this music to younger audiences?
Barker: I would love to play this music to “younger audiences”, but frankly anyone and everyone should buy tickets. I don’t really believe in dividing up audiences into demographics. The venues end up doing that for you — we played at a big rock festival (Harvest) a few weeks ago and it was hard to know exactly what they made of us! The next week I was at the Phillip Island Jazz Festival, which was pretty much the total opposite in audience age.
Panucci: There have always been young people involved in the music and there always will be. Whether younger audiences decide to listen will depend on trends as well as how well we as musicians can market ourselves and use technology etc in our favour.
Ausjazz: Is there a future for more traditional jazz/improvised music? Will audiences warm to it?
Barker: They already do, and have, and always will. Swing and blues is always primarily an optimistic and inclusive music. It makes everyone in the room participants. The more the band is swinging, the less it feels like ‘here’s the band, and there’s the audience’. There is a future for this way of playing as long as we play it right… get to the right feeling, which gets people moving in their seats…. and dancing of course… then you can throw in a cerebral ballad to give them a bit of a rest!
Panucci: I feel that audiences are warming to it. Something that considerably changes people’s experience of music, I believe, is the context within which it is heard. If the music can be played in places that already attract discerning people, the music will speak for itself.
Ausjazz: When the Red Onions had a reunion a few years back there were long queues. Are your two bands following that tradition or do you see it as being quite different?
Barker: We all are influenced by the Red Onions, and there are many groups between them and us for instance The Hoodangers, George Washingmachine, Graeme Bell, the Shuffle Club, C.W. Stoneking. Australia has a long and rich history of swing and blues music. We don’t really play that sort of style, as they were striving — I think. Have to ask Al Browne! — for a very authentic New Orleans sound. The New Sheiks are far more eclectic and likely to play something from pretty much any period in jazz, including right now, or even older than jazz. We do some 19th century American folk tunes and songs I wrote last week.
Panucci: Our queues will be longer, our audiences will be younger and more attractive.
Ausjazz: Both these bands seem to pay attention to how they dress, at least in the publicity material. I’m not saying other jazz musicians are sloppy, but, well, they are more casual. Is this just PR or an important part of playing this sort of material?
Barker: One should always dress as good as one can. Or as good as you want to. I think Monk said something like that? There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that when you see a well dressed band you think ‘shit they look good’. Even though of course it makes no difference to the ‘sound’ of the band – it does make a huge difference to the social experience. Makes it feel like more of an event. I started dressing better when I saw ‘The Godfather’ series all the way through a few years back. Those guys look dangerous (in a good way).
Panucci: It obviously makes no difference to how you play, but it does help improve the atmosphere of a venue, which in turn improves the impact the music has. Plus, there’s nothing wrong with looking good.
Ausjazz: What about instrumentation? We don’t hear so much clarinet these days, yet I would love to hear more. In putting these bands together, was it about who was keen and available, or also about what instruments they could bring to the bands?
Barker: I can’t afford a reeds player, but sometimes we get to that feeling by having the fiddle, trumpet and trombone out front. I think in the future we will definitely do some shows and/or recordings as a seven-piece, and clarinet would definitely be up there as a first choice.
Panucci: It was about people who were keen, swinging, friends and interested in playing the music with respect for all of its stylistic idiosyncrasies.
Ausjazz: How do younger audiences react? Do they get up and dance? Can young people dance in the way that folk used to back in the days when dance halls and swing bands were where people went for entertainment?
Panucci: From my experience, if there’s space to dance and the band is swinging, everyone loves to dance in their own way. I’m sure if we played in a daggy RSL young people wouldn’t consider it, but within the context of a hip bar where everyone has had a few drinks dancing ensues. And yes, there are groups of dancers who are young and into keeping the dance style alive.
Barker: Oh yeah people dance. If we’re playing it right. Ultimate test. When people start moving, then you know, ‘we’re doing it right’. Happened a bit at the rock festival. But they won’t dance really well in those vintage styles unless they’ve taken classes. It’s a great thing, that people are studying those styles and coming to gigs, because it is a huge part of the music. But it’s like anything — you have to practise it to be good, so you can’t really compare it with a teenager from the ’30s who probably went dancing every night.
Ausjazz: The lyrics of some songs may not be PC. For example, “Closer to the Bone” arguably talks about slim women as meat. Are these songs just fun and not meant to be taken seriously, or are they likely to get a cool reception from audiences who are conscious of misogyny and women asserting their rights not be sex objects? I found a dancer’s blog which made reference to this song.
Barker: A lot of the lyrics are very, very dirty. That example you cited is probably medium-high on the filth-o-meter. There are things that Jelly Roll Morton sang in the ’20s that would make rappers blush. But I think most of the time people aren’t listening to the words at all, they’re just ‘pitched mouth noises’. Albert Murray argues that lyrics in blues are secondary to the timbre and feeling being sung, and that the blues singers deliberately obscured the lyrics with slang and strong accents to de-emphasise them. Some people get a good giggle out of them though.
[Panucci preferred not to comment on this without a chance to discuss it with the band.]
Ausjazz: How does each group choose material? Is it mostly old songs, old ones re-worked or new ones in the style of Delta blues or New Orleans songs?
Barker: I pick songs that are a little left of centre and that are structurally interesting. And things that Heather Stewart wants to sing. That’s why I started writing my own because then you don’t have to go looking for something if you want a certain tempo or vibe — you just write the tune how you want it!
Panucci: Geoff generally brings in most of the standard repertoire we play and some of us also write original music or teach the band a song we’ve heard that we would like to sing/play. We also try to keep track of songs that are particularly well received.
Ausjazz: What is the appeal of this music for young members of the two bands? Is it more fun to play? Is it an escape from the cool modern jazz that does not necessarily swing, or set toes tapping or get people up dancing? Has jazz gone too far towards serious stuff that people may have to work at before they can appreciate?
Panucci: It is fun. There is a genuine rapport that can be felt between the band and the audience and, yes, it isn’t too serious (in relation to more modern jazz styles). Most of us play many styles of music from modern jazz through to soul, hip hop, bluegrass and rock. This is just one of the many delicious fruits to be savoured on the tree of music.
Barker: This is the big scary controversial question. I feel more and more that when a musician gets up in the morning, they should be thinking, “What sort of music do I absolutely have to play no matter what because my soul would wither if I didn’t?” and then do that sort of music at 110 per cent all the time. Why waste precious time and resources on music you’re only half hearted about? So whatever you’re in to — do it with as much love and passion as possible.
So it’s not an ‘escape’ from other ways of playing, just shouting to the world, “This is what rocks my world, check it out”.
‘Cool’ is an interesting choice of words, because allegedly Lester Young invented it, but I think the best jazz is when its ‘hot’ (regardless of style). Cool has a lot to answer for…
Ausjazz: I may have misused “cool”. Dispassionate perhaps, but that does not capture it. Kind of like the difference between a party and a really engrossing lecture.
No, no that’s what I meant: ‘being cool’ is still a good thing, but ‘playing cool’ I think has become problematic as an aesthetic for playing. Only in that there isn’t so much of a balance — (there’s) not enough ‘hot’ music these days!