Allan Browne Quintet and Trio, Chapel Off Chapel, May 22, Stonnington Jazz 2011
Allan Browne drums, Eugene Ball trumpet, Phil Noy saxophone, Geoff Hughes guitar, Nick Haywood bass, Marc Hannaford piano
Given Allan Browne’s love of poetry and whimsical sense of humour — often displayed at Bennetts Lane on Monday evenings — I was expecting quite a bit of humour and maybe some of the stream-of-consciousness outpourings of that ilk at this gig. Instead we were treated to a trip down memory lane in quite a serious vein, with a fair amount of emotion amid the recollections, and some concise and deeply expressive verse. As well, the musical responses to Allan’s words were some of the most expressive compositions I’ve heard, though that was no surprise given the calibre and imagination of these musicians. Marc Hannaford, Eugene Ball, Geoff Hughes, Phil Noy and Al Browne were the originators of the music played in two sets that seemed to race past. Luckily, these evolving works will be recorded, and they should rank with suites such as The Drunken Boat, Une Saison En Enfer and Stu Hunter’s works The Gathering and The Muse (both of the latter to be played during this festival on Wednesday and Thursday this week).
The pieces were tributes to artists Browne had played with and who had visited Australia. Marc Hannaford’s Suite for Swing Street was for pianist Teddy Wilson, who recalled for Allan the era of 42nd street and Kansas City big bands. His verse included the lines “The sound of art changing the brain, And the quip of course, It’s confectionery”.
I think the suite carried on into For Art Hodes, a late twenties pianist with whom Browne enjoyed “great kinship”. Hughes and Haywood had top solos in this. Eugene Ball’s A Short Verse for A Tall Man was for vibraphonist Milt Jackson, who AB described as “a tremendously swinging person”. After the piece he described Ball’s composition as having “an Ellington sound … lush”. Marc Hannaford’s solo stood out for me in this.
Before the break the ensemble played Firefly, Geoff Hughes’ tribute to Emily Remler, a “truly inspiring young guitarist” with whom AB said he had a similar close relationship apart from the music, but who “didn’t make it back to America”. She died at age 32 while on tour in Australia. One of her sayings was that despite her tiny frame “inside I’m a big black man”. This piece began with Hughes playing behind the words. Then came solos from Hughes, Ball, Haywood and Browne. Moving stuff.
After the break came Browne’s Wild Bill, for trumpet player Wild Bill Davison. AB recalled playing in the 100 Club in London when Davison came in, and launching into one of his pieces, Hysterics Rag. Davison played at the Limerick Arms in Melbourne with AB’s New Orleans band, but asked to sit in with his quartet, which was a lot different, and was happy because “normally I have to play with tubas and banjos”. Ball and Hannaford had solos in this.
The highlight of the night for me was Hannaford’s The Flooding, for pianist Mal Waldron. AB told of going to Sydney with bassist and close mate Gary Costello, very nervous about playing with Waldron and asking what they would be playing. “When I nod my head, just play”, was Waldron’s response, so they did — for more than an hour and then for another set after the break. “It was all completely different and a great introduction for me to playing free”, AB recalled. Marc Hannaford’s solo in this was a delight, and the following cacophony superb.
Phil Noy’s piece Johnny Griffin was a tribute to the tenor saxophonist AB described as “an amazing cat” and “totally happening”. He recalled playing Just Friends with Griffin, Paul Grabowsky and Gary Costello and Griffin “starting so far ahead of the beat that we ended up playing the whole thing at double time”. At the end, Griffin must have said, “Phew, that was not the tempo I expected.” AB said Griffin had influenced him tremendously and that being able to play Cherokee for 20 minutes was “handy these days when playing with (saxophonist) George Garzone“.
As soon as the applause died away to close the gig I wanted to have the band start all over so that I could hear Al Browne’s verses and again marvel at the strength of these compositions, which are so evocative and full of interest. We do have not only really talented musicians in this country, but composers overflowing with originality.
So that’s enough waxing lyrical. Another top Stonnington gig. Vastly different to the youthful vigour of Sarah McKenzie‘s opener, but deeply satisfying. It’s just a little sad that not more people get to hear this material, but as Allan Browne would point out, it’s available at gigs in Melbourne most nights and not only during festivals.