Category Archives: MIJF 2009

Melbourne International Jazz Festival — Day 7

Ethan Iverson’s Cocktail Hour

Ethan Iverson

If this really is a tradition of Iverson’s, it’s a pretty nice one. Upstairs at The Forum seemed a comfy enough place to sip something strongish and let the piano man play. So, after assuring us that America invented jazz and the cocktail, Iverson said he always played standards, that Mood Indigo and I Remember You were already on his list — “It is very important to have these lists” — and that he welcomed requests. They flooded in: Autumn Leaves, Lover Man, I Can’t Get Started, Where or When, Dancing in the Dark (“Beautiful, but I don’t really know that”), Tenderly, Moonlight in Vermont (“That would be like a karate session”), Green Dolphin Street, Summertime (“I might expire”), Giant Steps (“Oh, great. No.”), You Don’t Know What Love Is

Iverson said he would pick from the list, play without a break and anyone who needed a cocktail was allowed to get one. Then he began, relaxed, right into the music, playing one-handed while consulting his list and taking a drink from the floor, playing with such an easy, flowing feel. From time to time his head was thrown back, momentarily avoiding the harsh, hard shadow cast across his head by the spotlight.

For many jazz lovers much more familiar with standards than me — I cringe momentarily at my paucity of knowledge, but there’s no point in trying to hide it — part of the joy would have been in recognising the tunes Iverson picked. I believe from the requests he played Lover Man, Tenderly, Green Dolphin Street and finished  with deep, grumbling take on I Can’t Get Started. Anyway, it seemed to me that his standards were high (sorry) and it was a very laid-back and pleasant way to begin a gig. All we needed was a Manhattan skyline out the window.

Julien Wilson Quintet with Jim Black

Julien Wilson Quintet

Wilson’s quintet was welcomed warmly — understandably given the line-up: Julien on saxophones, Colin Hopkins on piano (great to hear him again), the ubiquitous and talented Stephen Magnusson on guitar and popular Sam Anning on bass. Wilson welcomed visiting drummer Jim Black, with whom he had recently recorded an album. I am slightly confused, but believe their opening track for the night — Magnusson‘s Euge, a tribute to trumpeter Eugene Ball — is titled “Missing” on the provisional instalment of CDs.

After that, the quintet plus Black played “five or six tracks we recorded yesterday” as a suite, Always the Engineer, dedicated to Wilson’s father, Warwick. So this was hot off the studio.

The suite was an engrossing, long journey of sustained beauty and great power. There were dark passages and it was at times mournful, at other times relentless and unremitting. Highlights included the moving introduction by Wilson and Magnusson, drawn-out soprano sax notes in contrast to the drums and guitar pedal effects, deep anguish or thought suggested by Wilson back on tenor sax, a bass solo in which Anning was plucking two strings, and a slow, expressive solo from Magnusson towards the end.

Colin Hopkins and Sam Anning

Hopkins happily plucked a few piano strings and Black used a bow on the hi-hat edge, as well as dangling bells from his mouth and moving objects across the drum skins.

I found that the suite lost its way at one point, and perhaps was a little long. Magnusson’s guitar seemed to get lost at times. And to be honest I found Jim Black a bit overwhelming, but I think there are some great local drummers, such as Niko Schauble and Ken Edie — so I’m probably biased.

But no one could come away from this performance without being moved. Bring on the album, Julien.

The BBC  — Nels Cline, Tim Berne, Jim Black Trio

Berne, Black, Cline

It was surreal under star-studded, translucent blue skies and beneath the lofty, lush palace facades of the Forum Theatre to walk, late, into such sonic frenzy. Tim Berne stayed rock solid, moving only his fingers, Jim Black was going bananas on drums and Nels Cline spent almost as much time adjusting his guitar pedals as he did playing.

In a maelstrom of sound, with all instruments struggling for ascendancy, no player’s notes were clearly audible. An absence of form and structure seemed to be the aim — if so, it was achieved. As one of Black’s sticks flew up and away backstage and Cline bent repeatedly to fine tune his devices, I had to close my eyes to avoid distraction.

This short set — it lasted about half an hour — finished tightly and with flourish. It was the sort of audio extravagance that could work well if you were in the mood — or not as the case might be. I don’t suppose I was.

The Bill Frisell Trio

Bill Frisell Trio

Bill Frisell came on stage to warm applause, accompanied by Tony Scherr, sporting a borrowed, custom-made and unusually slim acoustic bass, and Kenny Wolleson on drums. The program blurb said Frisell “mixes the mastery of jazz, warmth of folk and country, the abstraction of avant garde and the raw emotion of blues and rock” — a tall order — but we began with country blues: Leon Payne’s Lost Highway as sung by Hank Williams. What a contrast to the previous set. Frisell’s lyrical guitar was a joy and there was much interaction between the musicians.

The trio eschewed solos, playing almost all the time as a trio throughout the set. As they moved on to Frisell’s Strange Meeting, the guitar was fragile and minimalist. All the impetus seemed to come from Frisell, and at first I thought Scherr and Wolleson were not strongly influencing the result. But it was more that they were not trying to grab the limelight. Over time during Strange Meeting they built up a real swing feel by subtly introducing pauses and adjusting timing. The piece featured lush chords from Frisell and was allowed to subside gracefully, without hurry and with great finesse.

On Lee Konitz’s Subconscious Lee, which was upbeat and slightly faster, Frisell’s playing seemed to contribute so much to the result. Scherr was getting into it, Wolleson showed he was not into histrionics and Frisell continued to drive the piece in his unassuming way — as if he was listening more than leading. These guys were never going to have us up on the seats and cheering, but they were pretty cool nonetheless.

Bill Frisell

The trio played Ron Carter’s Mood, Henry Mancini’s The Days of Wine and Roses (in which Frisell did solo), Boubacar Traore’s Baba Drame and Frisell’s Keep Your Eyes Open. During these I decided Frisell would probably like the Goldberg Variations without the variations. He seems to love repeating patterns. Baba Drame became involving because of the repetition, taking hold as it developed a tribal feel. Wolleson was integral. I decided the trio was about growth, evolution, the gradual development of each piece.

In two encore appearances they played Love Sick Blues, What the World Needs Now, and Frisell’s That Was Then. At last Frisell boosted the volume slightly, which was fantastic.

Obviously this trio’s largely restrained set wowed the audience in the packed downstairs area at the Forum. But I could not help wanting the trio to break out and set the room on fire — a fitting end, surely, for a pretty successful Melbourne International Jazz Festival.

As it was, I went home to find some more tissues and cough supressant.

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.

Melbourne International Jazz Festival — Day 5

Joshua Redman Trio

Josh Redman Trio

A nasty cold and sore throat had me laid low all day, so I chose to miss the Zac Hurren Trio and arrive at the Melbourne Recital Centre in time for Redman on saxophones, Reuben Rogers on bass and Greg Hutchinson on drums.

A number of words come to mind immediately as fitting descriptions for this trio: slick, polished, precise, elegant, athletic, smooth and exacting. Redman said it had been almost 10 years since he’d been in Melbourne and “I forgot how hip y’all are”.  Yeah, man. That was after the trio had played The Surrey with the Fringe On Top and East of the Sun (West of the Moon), so pretty soon he had to take his tongue out of his cheek to play the sublimely haunting Ghost, from the Compass album said to be heavily influenced by Sonny Rollins. I silently defied anyone — jazz fan or not — to remain unmoved. Redman seemed enmeshed in the power of the song.

Identity Thief was edgy and exciting, making me long for a smaller venue where the audience could get up close. Thelonius Monk’s Trinkle Tinkle had Redman sitting out during a bass and drums interlude, contributing an occasional seemingly casual, but perfectly timed note on the side. There was plenty of substance, but definite icing-on-the-cake style here that Redman had exhibited throughout with his frequent knee-up “parp” punctuating bursts of play.

Josh Redman Trio

On soprano sax for Zarafah, another from his Back East album and dedicated to his mother, Redman played with great expression and dignity — the sound was as I’d imagined the nightingale of Keats’s ode to have sung, “… pouring forth thy soul abroad in such an ecstasy”. (Yes, I was getting carried away, deciding then that I had to buy that album.)

Somehow Redman draws the attention in this trio, but on the night the skills of Rogers and Hutchinson did not go unnoticed. In Insomnomaniac, Rogers’s solo was a cracker and there was so much energy pouring from the trio that it seemed no wonder sleep was impossible … anywhere. Before an encore I think might have been Moonlight — a slower piece that reworks Beethoven’s sonata — Redman promised to return in eight and a half years, presumably because us cats are so cool here in Melbourne, man.

Can a man, or a trio, be any more hip?