SUSTENANCE FOR THE SOUL

The Gravity Project

The Gravity Project                      Image: Roger Mitchell

REVIEW

Melbourne International Jazz Festival, 1 – 10 June 2018

Paul Grabowsky AO wrote Tokyo Overpass with Haruki Murakami’s novel IQ84 as inspiration — the story of a young woman who climbs down a ladder from an elevated highway when her taxi is stuck in a traffic jam and enters a parallel universe.

That could be a metaphor for this festival’s engrossing opening concert, The Gravity Project, a cross-cultural exchange with the Tokyo Jazz Festival featuring Japan’s Kuniko Obina on koto, Masaki Nakamura on shakuhachi and Tokyo resident Aaron Choulai on laptop/electronics.

In three pieces — Beat Hayashi, Tokyo Overpass and Plum Rain (the latter allegedly conjuring Burt Bacharach as a manga character) — this octet with Grabowsky (piano), Rob Burke (reeds), Niran Dasika (trumpet), Marty Holoubek (bass) and James McLean (drums) took us to a very different and exciting place that commanded attention and demanded immediate designation as a festival highlight.

This was riveting, abstract and at times surreal music, bristling with sometimes piercing shakuhachi notes, electronic squeaks, bent-note “gulps”, stuttering voices (a la Max Headroom), disruptive horns and koto notes tangible enough to touch. Yet amid the complexity, drama and tension there were periods of exquisitely beautiful simplicity. What a magnificent way to begin 10 days of music. This was indeed a highlight.

Also compelling were the pieces played when reedsman Tony Malaby (US) joined Kris Davis (Canada) on piano and Simon Barker (Australia) for a take-no-prisoners outing on Monday 4 June at The Jazzlab. There were tunes — Alechinsky, Kei’s Dream, Warblepeck, Bird Call and Remolino — but, as Malaby said in a 2015 interview, “I’m not writing tunes, but providing an opening sentence or paragraph.” All three musicians needed no more.

This was not a concert for the faint-hearted. But the audience probably knew what to expect, which was the unexpected — music challenging in its abstractness and complexity.

I was reminded of my experience when reading that magnificent novel Lincoln in the Bardo: difficult to get into at first and then totally consuming once I had entered that world. All made sense once my frame of reference shifted.

Some in the audience no doubt heard in Malaby’s work elements of Lovano, Coltrane, Ayler or Shepp. Instead, I valued many facets of this outing: patterns, contrasts, mayhem, beauty, responsiveness, intensity, variations in dynamics, sharp edges, peaceful interludes, sprinklings of notes (Davis), lashings of sound, guttural growlings, rumbling cascades, shifts in rhythm and tempo, disrupting abruptness of drums, airy resonance of reeds, gradual serenity, release and relief.

On 6 June at the same venue Malaby and Davis joined Scott Tinkler (Tasmania) and the Monash Art Ensemble to play Davis’s arrangements of music from Malaby’s Novela project. As the nonet played Floating Head, Mother’s Love, Warblepeck, Floral and Herbaceous, and Remolino, I marvelled at the exquisite intricacy, textural richness and encapsulated imagery in this wonderful music, delivered so well by students and their mentors. Again I was feeling the notes in 3D, tangible enough to touch. Tinkler, muted and otherwise, was superb, as were Rob Burke on bass clarinet, Josh Bennier on trombone, Jared Becker on baritone, and — so often — Dan Gordon on tuba. (It would be great to see women students in the Monash Art Ensemble, but I understand that the gender imbalance has deeper roots than university level.)

Quite a few festival gigs were sold out. Two concerts on 7 June brought the London club scene to The Jazzlab in a warmly energetic and engaging outing by tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia and her killer band — Joe Armon-Jones on piano, Daniel Casimir on double bass and Femi Koleoso on drums. There were solos —including Garcia’s in the closing piece that took her tenor, which was never harsh or abrasive, into deep, resonant territory — but this was very much a team effort, attentiveness and responsiveness built in. The rhythm section was a treat to hear on its own and Koleoso’s intensity never let up. This group made me want to check out the London scene, soon.

Another set of concerts that were sold out were four at The Jazzlab on 9 & 10 June featuring frequent visitor to Australia, bassist Christian McBride, with his piano-less band New JawnMarcus Strickland on bass clarinet, soprano and tenor saxes, Josh Evans on trumpet and Nasheet Waits on drums.

McBride was characteristically engaging at the mic between songs, but as the band worked through Walkin’ Funny (McBride), Sightseeing (Shorter), Kush (Waits), Seek the Source (Strickland), the tribute to a departed friend John Day (McBride) and a jaunty version of The Good Life (Ornette Coleman) I felt that these accomplished players could really have done it all in their sleep and possibly needed some.

Waits’ work stood out throughout and especially behind the impressive Evans’s solos, and John Day featured McBride in a great duo with Strickland on bass clarinet. But there wasn’t quite the intensity and drive, or the fire, that I’d hoped for from this line-up on the night. Others will probably disagree — I doubt that many patrons left dissatisfied.

About now a warm glow suffuses across this review as I recall two similarly packed 9.30pm concerts at The Jazzlab —on Sunday 3 June, featuring Terri Lyne Carrington & Social Science, and, on Tuesday 5 June, Harry James Angus’s Struggle With Glory.

The lighting was the only possible complaint about the Social Science outing, Debo Ray passionately delivering emotive vocals in the near darkness while interacting with the rapid yet smooth moves of white-clad Kassa Overall, who was in full glare of a spotlight for his cryptic rap. Carrington at the drum kit was the linchpin of this sextet, which also featured Aaron Parks on keys, Morgan Guerin on sax and Matthew Stevens on guitar, but she sought none of the limelight as they gently, but potently explored racism, discrimination, police killings and the need “to pray the hate away”.

Outside afterwards a couple of shockingly racist would-be patrons brought to the fore our similar problems in this country, but I left the gig with the feeling that I’d attended a left-wing, justice-fired prayer meeting and been cleansed by the power of good vibes. This was gentle persuasion by music rather than words, but it was a reassuring and awakening in equal measure.

A more fervent vibe infused Struggle With Glory, in which Harry James Angus (Cat Empire) on trumpet and vocals managed the unlikely marriage of Greco-Roman myths with old-time jazz and gospel vibes. It worked, partly because he took the time to engagingly explain the stories and partly because his band delivered with feeling.

In eight pieces from the album released in March, this band — Ben Gillespie on trombone, Monique Di Mattina on piano, Freyja Hooper on drums, Tamara Murphy on bass and Lachlan Mitchell on guitar — wowed the audience with their musicianship and vocal harmonies. And HJA’s excellent whistling. Again this was a feel-good gig that will hopefully encourage more people to come out for live music.

Two other MIJF concerts filled with energy, exemplary musicianship and toe-tapping beats featured Daniel Susnjar’s new Afro-Peruvian Jazz Group (The Jazzlab, 9.30pm Monday 4 June) and Steve Sedergreen’s Points in Time (The Jazzlab, 9.30pm Wednesday 6 June). For me, these concerts came immediately after the two Tony Malaby gigs mentioned, so it wasn’t easy to adjust, but in each case audience approval was clear.

It’s part of a festival’s job to entertain, but also to challenge. One of the experimental concerts this year, as is always the case, came with the PBS Young Elder of Jazz commission concert on at 9.30pm on Friday 1 June at The Jazzlab by pianist Brenton Foster, entitled Love, As We Know It.

Foster — in a quartet with Gideon Brazil (flute, clarinet, saxophone), Stephen Magnusson (guitar), Jordan Tarento (bass) and Aaron McCullough (drums) — composed music to accompany sung adaptations of poems by Christopher Pointdexter (known for delivering his words via typewriter on Instagram). This was difficult music played very well indeed, but it was a tough task to communicate the compressed ideas in the poetry in a way that would permit an audience to grasp their full import. Yet Foster’s compositions had unexpected strength and drama obviously meant to pick up on the torments and dramas of lives and loves.

I believe this concert would have benefited greatly from a visual display of the poet’s text in some way while the words were sung and accompanying music played.

An even greater challenge came on Friday 8 June at The Substation in Three Solos performed sequentially by Tony Buck (The Necks), Peter Knight (Australian Art Orchestra artistic director) and experimental Norwegian guitarist Kim Myhr. After many evenings of performances by musicians under lights handing us their music on a platter, so to speak, it was hard to be left in the dark, literally, amid the amplified crackles, tiny tinklings, abrasive static, plinks and plonks created by the black “bee-suited” figure with wind-chime hat who sat facing away from the audience. Buck must have intended us to listen attentively rather than watch to see how he created these sounds — something most of us were not attuned to doing.

Minutiae also was surely the intent of Knight’s delicate explorations of sound generated with water in his trumpet and the recording and amplification — with the help of a Revox B77 reel-to-reel tape machine and other devices — of grains of rice falling. When the audience later turned full circle to hear Myhr on 12-string guitar, his instrument hidden behind a table of electronic equipment, the subtlety of variations as he strummed and adjusted settings may well have escaped all but the most diligent listeners.

These three solos were challenging not merely because they took us out of our comfort zones, but because of the risk that we would find too little in each to provoke a response, whether love or hate. That said, a lot of work goes into these performances and the artistic endeavour deserves to be acknowledged — perhaps in this case more as art than music.

On the following evening, the Australian Art Orchestra performed the world premiere of an orchestral work by Myhr. The ensemble comprised Myhr (guitar), Knight (trumpet, electronics, hammered dulcimer), Buck (drums, percussion), Aviva Endean (bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, zither), Lizzy Welsh (violin), Erkki Veltheim (viola), Jacques Emery (contra bass, zither), Joe Talia (Revox B77 reel-to-reel tape machine, electronics) and Jem Savage (live sound, associate producer).

This was truly a work for ensemble as collective. Over three parts of 16, 21 and 17 minutes respectively, all contributed to creating a multi-layered and highly finessed whole that enveloped and drifted above us in the large space.

The first part employed the strings in a slow, regular configuration that evolved into wave formations conjuring, for me, phosphorescent ocean swells in moonlight. The second had more structure, movement and change, building intensity in its complexity. The third part contrasted fast, light and intricate work at the drum kit with waves of vibrato shimmer while moving gradually to a long denouement. This was carefully crafted and intricately executed music that caressed rather than challenged.

I did not get to many of the festival concerts, including those at larger venues. But the 12 gigs I did attend were enough to demonstrate there are many ways to present and appreciate this music we loosely call jazz. But the excitement of live music is deeply sustaining.

I attended two of the jam sessions hosted by The Rookies and had a great time at each, bailing out only after 2am. These gatherings of musicians and fans also provide much enjoyment and lasting sustenance for the soul.

ROGER MITCHELL

Note: Images will be added to this post in due course.

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