Tag Archives: Barre Phillips



Ausjazz blog picks some highlights from the 2012 Melbourne International Jazz Festival:

Haaken Mjasset Johansen with Motif

A festival highlight: Haaken Mjasset Johansen with Motif from Norway.

All up, Ausjazz went to all or part of 15 MIJF gigs this year. This is an attempt to pick out some highlights, though there will be posts about individual concerts when time permits. A few explanatory notes: First, I chose not to review the Opening Gala: The Way You Look Tonight or the final evening’s Dee Dee Bridgewater Sings, because those concerts were not my cup of tea. That is not any reflection on the musicians involved.

Second, for reasons beyond my control I could not make any gigs from Monday, June 4 to Wednesday, June 6 inclusive. Again, that had nothing to do with the calibre of the music on offer. Third, I did not make it to any of the master classes, though I have heard from many who did that these were definite highlights.

Of the concerts I attended, there were none that I did not enjoy — perhaps I am easily pleased, but I believe this festival followed the usual rule by delivering more delights than may have been anticipated upon first glance at the program. It was not too adventurous — certainly not as “out there” as recent years under the direction of Sophie Brous. I did miss that aspect. The most experimental outings were Peter Knight‘s Fish Boast of Fishing and Andrea Keller‘s work with Genevieve Lacey and Joe Talia — both at the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Salon and both involving Australian artists. From overseas, the Robert Glasper Experiment strayed from the conventional, as did the Norwegian quintet Motif, but the latter was the standout of these two for me.

Before I discuss highlights, it’s probably worth exploring the value or otherwise of reviews. Unlike reviews of opening night stage productions, with MIJF commentary there is in most cases no season ahead in which potential punters can decide to go or not go on the basis of what’s written. Most concerts are unrepeated or already sold out before reviews hit the airwaves, streets or online haunts. I see reviews as one way to build an archive or record of what a festival has succeeded in delivering. That record may provide some context to those who attended various concerts or merely arouse the interest of readers who may seek out that music in some form later, possibly even live if the artist or band returns.

So, in consecutive order by date rather than any (futile) rating, my highlights were as follows: I found Bernie McGann‘s quartet at Bennetts Lane on the opening Friday night deeply satisfying, not only because of McGann’s saxophone work, but because of what the other players in the band — Marc Hannaford, Phillip Rex and Dave Beck — contributed.

On the following night, at the same venue, Murphy’s Law impressed with Tamara Murphy‘s suite “Big Creatures Little Creatures”. At The Forum later that evening, the Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra showed its class with visiting saxophonist Chris Potter, but the standouts for me were the Andy Fiddes composition Gathering Momentum, some trumpet excellence from Phil Slater in the third piece (the name of which I did not catch) and Potter’s darker sax in the encore Rumination. Later still, back at Bennetts Lane, the Eli Degibri Quartet from Israel had a smooth fluidity and swing that definitely had me wanting more, especially from the 16-year-old pianist Gadi Lehavri.

What can I say about McCoy Tyner‘s concert on Sunday in the Melbourne Town Hall? The only basis I have for comparing the pianist now with his illustrious past playing is via recordings, and on that basis he is not quite in that league now. And I think Jose James could not act as a substitute for Johnny Hartman. I enjoyed the outing, and I don’t see much point in comparisons when you have a chance to hear a musician of Tyner’s stature. But this was not a festival highlight for me.

By contrast, Terence Blanchard‘s quintet on Thursday at Melbourne Recital Centre was a real standout. It’s definitely no criticism of Rob Burke, Tony Gould, Tony Floyd and Nick Haywood, who opened this gig, but I did think as Blanchard’s band opened with Derrick’s Choice that a band with a local trumpeter such as Scott Tinkler or Phil Slater would have been ideal.

In the quintet’s set I would have been satisfied just to hear Fabian Almazan‘s contribution on piano, but Blanchard’s playing was inventive, fluid and piercingly penetrating, with sampled audio from Dr Cornel West and some echo among the special effects. Blanchard’s tone did not really dig into the guttural until shortly before the inevitable encore and his sound was not as fat as I’d expected. Brice Winston on tenor sax was superb in the Almazan piece Pet Step Sitter’s Theme.

In terms of musicianship, Renaud Garcia-Fons on bass with the Arcoluz Trio at the MRC on Friday night stood out. I’d regretted having to miss the solo bass gig at Bennetts Lane mid week, but in a way this trio concert was a vehicle for Garcia-Fons to show his amazing talents. On his five-stringed instrument Garcia-Fons uses a range of techniques with and without bow, recalling Barre Phillips‘ solo performance at Wangaratta Jazz last year, but it’s a totally different experience. I could only marvel at Garcia-Fons’s skill, but, by contrast with Phillips, his music lacked the tension and resolution (or lack of it) that is so compelling in jazz improvisation. Also, I would have liked to hear more from Kiko Rulz on flamenco guitar, who in brief bursts only whetted my appetite to hear more. I could not help but wish that Pascal Rollando on percussion would contribute more fire and inventiveness. That said, this concert was a highlight.

Even more so was Dr Lonnie Smith in his trio with Jonathan Kreisberg on guitar and Jamire Williams on drums at Bennetts Lane late on Friday. I love the Hammond B3 and Smith was enjoying every moment of his time on Tim Neal‘s beautiful instrument. This was a therapeutic experience and just what the Doctor ordered for me. Kreisberg’s playing was exciting and intense, and the organ was just a thrill and a joy to hear. The notes from a Hammond can be felt deep in the body and seem to free the spirit. I’ll be hanging out for Smith’s new album, Healer, due in a few weeks. But an album is not the same as being there and feeling the B3 vibrations at close quarters.

OK, I’m waxing too lyrical. On the second Saturday of the festival I made it to four gigs. Peter Knight and his ensemble’s Fish Boast of Fishing at the Salon, MRC, took me out of my comfort zone and into an emerging, growing, developing experience in which I felt there was a contradiction of sorts. There was definitely tension. There was complexity and coordination in the way sounds were produced, but when I closed my eyes the experience was of something organic, almost living and breathing. Perhaps that was the point.

Norwegian band Motif

Norwegian band Motif

Next came another real highlight for me and I would have missed it if I had not had a recommendation from ABC presenter Jessica Nicholas. The Norwegian outfit Motif was a standout. I always think European bands can be counted on to bring something significantly different to their music and Motif was no exception. This was intelligent, quirky and engrossing jazz, with extreme variations in dynamics and pretty well anything you could imagine. There was ferocity and solemnity. There was pandemonium and space. What a hoot! This was the night’s highlight. There was another great set to follow I’m sure. It was hard to leave.

But Tarbaby at the Comedy Theatre — with Oliver Lake on alto sax, Eric Revis on bass, Orrin Evans on piano and Nasheet Waits on drums — served up a set of take-no-prisoners hard-driving jazz. This was a top rhythm section that took me full circle back to the Bernie McGann concert at the festival’s start. Apart from Lake’s robust playing, what I loved most was Evans’s command of the piano in Paul Motian‘s Abacus. This set would have topped the night for me, but I still had Motif ringing in my consciousness and I wasn’t letting that go in a hurry.

I did queue up for a long, cold wait to hear some of the Robert Glasper Experiment, but it was too hi-tech for me. I just wanted to chill and listen to Glasper on piano, but the crowd at Bennetts Lane was all fired up. They probably had a highlight at this outing, but not me.

On Sunday, the final night, I caught the first set of Sandy Evans with Toby Hall and Lloyd Swanton. It was the perfect wind-down.

All in all, there was plenty to get excited about in the MIJF 2012. The crowds were out listening to live music and many venues seemed to be full.

Next year? Well, maybe a few more European bands and a little more experimentation. But, after all, there is the Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival for that.



Ausjazz blog reviews the most memorable performances on day two of the Wangaratta Jazz and Blues Festival 2011

Grabowsky and Evans

Moving partnership: Paul Grabowsky and Sandy Evans

Radio DJs used to spruik their wares with the words “recorded live”, which always seemed an oxymoron. If I say music grips me most if it’s “created live” that is similarly nonsensical in one sense, so to speak, but nevertheless has meaning. Imagine being with a band as a song is born and you may get my drift. It would be exciting.

The prospect of more than 12 hours of almost non-stop music performed by local and international musicians on day two of the 2011 Wangaratta Jazz and Blues Festival was exciting. But which gigs would be memorable highlights?

Of course it’s subjective. For example, I walked into St Patrick’s Hall to sample Thirsty Merc singer, guitarist and keyboard player Rai Thistlewayte in a rare solo concert, waited for far too few minutes to be fair to him before departing. It wasn’t my cup of tea. Those who stayed, I’m told, were absolutely wowed by Thistlewayte’s talent as vocalist, pianist and entertainer. They loved him.

Earlier, when Barre Phillips performed a solo bass set in the magnificent setting of the Holy Trinity Cathedral, I was surprised to see members of the audience streaming towards the door each time there was a break in his playing. It was not their cup of tea.

Three concerts emerged as highlights for me on Saturday — two completely composed on the run and two bringing together duos in noteworthy collaborations. One fitted both categories.

In 2008, when the festival had to erect elaborate marquees to replace venues lost to make way for the new Wangaratta Performing Arts Centre, Lost and Found — pianist/composer Paul Grabowsky, saxophonist Jamie Oehlers and drummer Dave Beck — treated us to an hour of spontaneous composition that was riveting and inspired. The trio did it again on Saturday at 11am in the WPAC Theatre, in an expressive, captivating and creative outpouring that made me realise how much I love being able to watch truly live music. This was thrilling. We were seeing, and hearing, a work evolve in real time.

I am fascinated by how these three achieve the structure, coherence and degree of assurance in their work, which never seems to waver. The piece was alternately building and waning in intensity as Grabowsky, Oehlers and Beck at times each appeared to do their own thing, but were each always in a state of alertness, listening and responding. Grabowsky would contribute a quick chord that spiked into the narrative, starting something that took the players in a new direction. Later, the piano evoked bell chimes as the intensity subsided, leaving only fluid, liquid sax.

There was suspense in this thriller, the trio keeping us waiting and creating a sense of expectation that kept us engrossed. Grabowsky’s playing created the space to feed this audience anticipation. Beck’s contributions were always in tune with the changing moods. I had another concert to get to, but could not leave. I had to wait until the end.

At 5pm Saturday, also in the WPAC Theatre, bassist Barre Phillips reunited with pianist Mike Nock, with whom he had played years ago in New York, for another engrossing concert of music created in the moment. Their encounter began as a light-hearted competition to see who could be more minimalist, then grew more serious.

To me, this — as did Lost and Found — captured the essence of jazz’s essential appeal: the excitement of what might happen next, always present in any improvisation, but more purely expressed in these totally unscripted encounters. Between Phillips and Nock there was tension. There was also delicacy, space and patience, exceptional clarity, sparseness and an artist’s palette of dynamics and timbre. There was rhythmic warfare, or at least a skirmish or two, before glorious congruence. It was a symphony, if at times an agitated one, with the players prompting the audience to wonder “What will each intervention produce?” and “Will it completely change the mood?”

At one point Phillips was clawing his fingers up the strings, his double bass weeping. Nock’s response was a grumbling and growling piano. And until the end of this engrossing encounter, both were ever attentive, ever watchful.

Before waxing lyrical on the third of the day’s highlights, I will mention Barre Phillips’ solo bass concert in Holy Trinity Cathedral at noon. I had hoped to hear lots of bowed bass from the maestro, but after his first piece he delivered a cornucopia of techniques — all we ever imagined could be done with an upright bass, but were afraid to ask.

He strummed close to the neck and down beside the bridge, he slapped the wood, he played pizzicato on the upper strings, he cut the heel of his hand into the strings and slid it down, he tapped strings with the bow handle and slid it down a little (delicacy) and a lot (drama), he rubbed the bow handle against the edges of the f-hole, in circles over the bass body and strings, he tapped the bow stick against the bridge and the end of its handle on the strings and he rattled the bow against the back of the stem and top of the instrument’s body.

In the penultimate piece, Phillips produced peaceful, calming sounds, letting the sound of strummed strings reverberate in the vaulted cathedral space. In the last, his moth-like fluttering hand gave way to fast strumming as the piece built and subsided.

It was an amazing exhibition of technique. Yet it did not move or engage me in the way that Phillips’ encounter with Nock would do later that day. Perhaps it lacked a sense of tension and development or evolution.

The third highlight of the day was the pairing of Paul Grabowsky on piano with Sandy Evans on saxophones. These two consummate musicians had never performed together as a duo before.

It was fitting that they included three tracks from Grabowsky’s Love’s Calendar suite on his Hush Collection album (with the late Gary Costello on bass and Andrew Gander on drums) for the children’s hospitals — born out of the pianist’s wish to give something back after his son Guy’s treatment for a serious illness in 2004. Evans’ latest album, When the Sky Cries Rainbows, is a response to her musician husband Tony Gorman’s illness.

Their set opened and closed with April. In between they played September, Mountview (Evans), I Want to Talk About You (standard), Heartbeat (Evans) and March.

There was no sentimentality. To me this felt like a journey through life taken by longtime and very close friends who delight in each other’s company and still have plenty to say to each other, at times engaging in vigorous debate. It was also balm for the soul, because parts of this memorable exchange were so beautiful.

Just one notch down from these highlights of Saturday were performances by the Fabian Almazan Trio, Les Society Des Antipodes, Gian Slater and Linda Oh, and the Josh Roseman Unit. Perhaps it’s best to add another post about these.


Note: Pictures will be added gradually.



Barre Phillips

Going it alone: Barre Phillips (Picture supplied)

To talk with Barre Phillips is to tap a deep mine with rich veins of jazz history.

“You probably like a story,” the exponent of solo bass begins with delight as he relates the tale of his brother Peter’s first “big hit” as a composer, The Survivors, which premiered at the first Monterey Jazz Festival in 1958.

Written for symphony orchestra and a large percussion section, the piece called for three drummers. There were no rehearsals and when the drummers — Joe Morello, Max Roach and Art Blakey — got together Morello said “I’m almost blind” and “to play this I’d need a copy of the score in very big print to be able to see it”.

As Phillips tells it, and he was there at age 24 to play in the orchestra, “Art Blakey said ‘You’ve got to be kidding, there’s no way I can deal with this’. But Max Roach said ‘No problem. I’ll play all three parts’, and did. And so my brother ended up working quite a lot after that with Max — brass quintet, string quartet music.”

Phillips was at school when the instrument with which he would make the world’s first solo bass recording seemed to be chosen for him. In “a strong psychic experience which I can never explain” he had a vision of his name up in lights on a marquee as a bass player, so his hand shot up to select that instrument in the school orchestra. Years later, in 1978, he was in Milan when that vision materialised at a venue where he was on the bill.

His professional music career began late, after years of study culminating in a master’s degree in romance languages. He loved linguistics, semantics, poetry and philology, and was helped to delve into the dusty realms of Sanskrit and Aramaic by a Russian emigre teacher at the University of California Berkeley. At age 25, after “a real crisis”, Phillips chose to abandon his double life, stop his studies and continue life as a musician.

But his interest in language helped prepare him for a workshop he was asked to conduct much later in 1976, for a jazz festival, on what he would say about music. “I had a year to think about ‘what happens, what is this exchange, when we play music?’,” Phillips recalls.

He has been conducting workshops ever since. “There are lots of answers because there are lots of different purposes, but the one that really touches us most, in a nutshell, is sharing with another those parts of your life and being that you can’t describe with words. That’s as far as I’ve got so far. That’s the whole dangerous area of things that are spiritual — I say dangerous because nobody agrees on the vocabulary to use.”

Phillips met Ornette Coleman before he made his mark in New York, when Coleman came to meet Don Cherry and other members of the Modern Jazz Quartet, who were playing clubs in Los Angeles. But his pivotal encounter with the free jazz innovator came when Coleman sat in with Phillips’ band, which was playing six nights a week in Berkeley, and asked, ‘‘How come you’re playing this school music? Why don’t you play your own music?”

“The piano player and I agreed with him,” Phillips recalls. “We said, ‘You’re right, why are we playing this music? We had our own music to some extent. The other two guys said, ‘No, no no. That’s not on at all.’ And a week later the band was dead. It was all over. So I knew it was time to go to New York.”

At lot was happening in contemporary music and improvisation then in New York, so Phillips stayed from 1962 to 1967. But Europe drew him away gradually, initially with the George Russell Sextet, then three times with guitarist Attila Zoller, once with clarinet and sax player Jimmy Giuffre, and on two trips in a commercial jazz trio with pianist Peter Nero.

In 1967 he had friends take over his flat in New York for two months, but there was a lot of free jazz work in Germany and France and he found people “were asking me to play what I wanted to play and not as a professional bass player who can take care of the job, which was how I survived in New York”. So Europe became his home.

The idea of playing solo bass was not Phillips’ idea.

“American contemporary music composer Max Schubel was in London and wanted sound source to make tape music for Columbia University’s new electronic studios. He thought bass sounds would be great. He asked me would I record it and I did, and he said, ‘That is incredible, what you played’ and he had a small label, Opus One, and he said ‘I would like to put it out’. After much hesitation, I said, OK.”

The recording, Journal Violone, was the first solo bass album recorded. It has become a classic.

Then came Phillips’ chance at a movie role. After he had played a Sunday afternoon concert with avant garde saxophonist Marion Brown at the American Centre in Paris, two men introduced themselves. Alain Corneau, who loved free jazz, was assisting director Marcel Camus on a film, Un Ete Sauvage, and convinced him this was ideal for the soundtrack. Camus also persuaded Phillips, despite his lack of French, to play the role of a bass player in the film.

After that “it was silly to stay in New York”, so Phillips recalls, so he took up an invitation by theatre people to move into a huge flat in Paris. His time in London had been fruitful. He had worked with English jazz saxophone, bass clarinet and synthesizer player and composer John Surman, free-improvising saxophoist Evan Parker, avant garde guitarist Derek Bailey, drummer John Stevens and pianist/composer Mike Westbrook.

Barre Phillips

More impetus for his solo work came when Phillips was hired for three months rehearsing and then playing solo bass for a touring French theatre production. “The director wanted it to be very avant garde, and it was,” he recalls. “I’d never had something like that, to play my own thing and to work every day all day playing solo for three months … it was fantastic.

“The director told me, ‘You should play solo. I want to organise you a tour’. I couldn’t believe it. There were six concerts in real theatres with the real public. I wasn’t anywhere ready to do my thing, so I prepared a program — Bach, a bass sonata by my brother, and a piece for tape and bass by Charles Whittenberg, and, in the second half, my own stuff, some improvisations and some compositions. And that’s where it all started, with the outside world saying come and play solo.”
Phillips’ move into solo bass performances was, he insists, not his idea.

“I did make the decision at 25 years old — better to play music and starve to death, if that’s what it’s got to be, rather than live a false life. That was me deciding, but all the rest came to me. I didn’t have any ideas of wanting to be a great soloist. I just wanted to play. I didn’t even have enough experience at that point to realise that when you’re playing with people who have a lot more experience than you it’s so much more fun than when you’re not.”

The bassist says his work is about honesty and avoiding being too analytical.

“I did learn that to find out what your thing is as a composer or as a player, all the myriad ways there are to do your thing, you can’t be evaluating it at the same time saying ‘this is good, this is no good, this is mediocre’. You can’t. The work is about whether you are being truthful with your self. If it’s a playing thing, it’s, ‘Are you being honest with the playing thing?’, if it’s a composing thing it’s, ‘Is this what you really hear? Is this as close to it as you can get at this moment?’

“You can’t be saying, ‘This is really good, let’s go, let’s go, or this is really crap, let’s stop, let’s stop’. It’s not about that. But when the outside world says, ‘This is great, you should do this’, well then, OK, if it works, I’ll take that as a green light. I can accept that.”

Phillips believes the key to playing any music is to ensure “what you are hearing in your head, in your inner ear, corresponds with what is coming out of the instrument”.

“I had to learn that,” he recalls. “I was led to a wonderful teacher in New York and I stayed with him for three years — as it happened those were the last years of Frederich Zimmermann’s life. He brought me a lot to myself.”
Phillips says musicians need to hear the sound that naturally what comes out when they play and not allow any psychological problem to prevent that.

“Many people do not actually hear what they’re doing. When you can hear what you’re doing, your ego can intervene in a positive way with the making of music, and the influence of your environment and the people you’re working with, that can all function.
“But to be able to hear you can’t judge,” Phillips says. “You have to give up judgement and let the ear work, without you controlling it.

“To tune an instrument by ear you have to have faith in your ear, to let your ear work. You cannot control your ear. In the rest of our lives — with eating, with sex, with the use of the eyes and taking information from a painting, from reading poetry or words — we can let go and let the information come and be taken by the information. That is to me essential for a musician to be able to develop. And we don’t have anything about that in our music education.

The bass player recalls being a spaced out youth, and he is still in that zone.

“I had the ability as a kid to space out in the sound world, to lose perspective of where I am. You know, when kids are spaced out and we say, ‘Yoo hoo, where are you, you’ve gone somplace else’. I was like that with sound. The solo experience is to create a space in the acoustic space where we are together, I’m playing and you’re listening, where we can all get into this mode, which is a mood, or a psychological state where everything is happening through the ears. To me, there’s no more blah blah blah intellectual part. The nervous system is at rest. It’s just the hearing consciousness.”

Barre Phillips will play solo bass in the vaulted acoustic space of the Holy Trinity Cathedral on the Saturday and Sunday of Wangaratta Jazz and Blues Festival.

He will also play one concert with pianist Mike Nock, who he knew in New York.

They have had a chance to catch up and play together in Sydney, but Wangaratta’s reunion is one concert not to miss.