REVIEW: A Day at the Fair, Andrew Robson Trio, The Grainger Museum, Melbourne, Sunday, October 20, 2.30pm
Next performance: Thursday, October 24, 6.30pm, Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Macquarie Street, Sydney
What a treat to hear the world premiere of this song cycle in the hallowed space of the Percy Grainger Museum. But what a pity that a larger audience did not turn up to hear the result of saxophonist Andrew Robson‘s discovery that at the beginning of the 20th century Grainger collected folk songs “listening and transcribing this music in the way that jazz musicians develop their craft”.
Before the performance, also featuring James Greening on trombone and pocket trumpet, Alister Spence on Grainger’s harmonium and a Nord keyboard, Brett Hirst on bass and Toby Hall on drums, Robson said Grainger took advantage of early excursions into the recording of music, in 1908 taking his favourite folk singer Joseph Taylor into a London studio to lay down 12 songs on wax cylinders.
Robson found 11 of the songs, but sought help from Dr Jennifer Hall at the Grainger Museum to find a wax cylinder version of the final song, Georgie. He then transcribed the originals and put together this quintet to provide a flavour of the music and “a taste of the way in which we approach music”.
The song cycle A Day at the Fair also includes three of Robson’s compositions inspired by Grainger’s transcriptions.
In the opening A Sprig of Time, which segued into Died for Love, I was reminded of Robson’s album Bearing the Bell, based on the hymns of Thomas Tallis, due to the sumptuous, velvety feel of the horns and harmonium.
The band fired up in more of a jazzy mode, with Spence on keyboard, for Robson’s I Wish I Wish, and the energy continued into Lord Bateman, with Greening on pocket trumpet and Spence on harmonium.
Creeping Jane, which featured an excellent Spence solo, was melodic folk delivered brightly, robustly and with vigour. The band members were obviously enjoying themselves, with Greening voicing his glee with the words, “I like Melbourne”.
The Murder of Maria Marten brought soaring, dipping, diving and interwoven horns. Robson’s Ballad of the Red Barn, inspired by Maria Marten, was slower and more dramatic.
Robson contributed a fiery solo to open The Gypsy’s Wedding Day, followed by Greening on the pocket trumpet and Spence on keyboard. This was fast and tight. Hall featured along with resplendent horns in Rufford Park Poachers, Robson played with dynamics to great effect in his Brigg Fair solo and Spence played with space and great beauty on the Nord in Bold William Taylor, which felt like a lament.
The White Hare seemed to encapsulate the atmosphere of a country fair, with rasping trombone and great work by the rhythm section to build a bouncy, rollicking feel. This piece tailed off with exquisite gentleness.
Georgie, which Robson reminded the band “follows the chart”, featured energetic solos from Robson and Greening on ‘bone, but a Hirst solo set the mood in the reflective Worcester City, which was topped off with a fantastic pocket trumpet finish.
The harmonium was the star of Robson’s By Night and By Day and the closing reprise of A Sprig in Thyme, demonstrating how its presence can rise gradually to prominence — in a word, swelling — and providing the satisfying hymn-like sense of fullness to a piece. In the Robson composition, Greening’s opening trombone solo was mellifluous and Hirst gave strong underpinning.
This was an entrancing concert celebrating the work of a musician who, I’m told, was a fitness fanatic who used to run between towns on his tours after sending the gear on ahead. It also exemplified the talent that Robson has assembled in this quintet.
It is to be hoped that A Day at the Fair will be performed as part of festival in future, but Sydney patrons should not let this slip past.
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