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THREE TURKS & A WASP / FRAN SWINN QUARTET & ROCKIE STONE: INFORM

Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival’s APRA Composer Commission Concert at BMW Edge, Friday May 6, 2011

Andrew Walker

Jazzhead's Andrew Walker introduces the gig.

Commission concerts are always a highlight of the Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival, but by their nature they involve taking risks. Whether it is Ren Walters carefully placing a group of musicians in the Iwaki Auditorium and giving them minimal guidelines in a work that could go anywhere, or Gian Slater bringing 13 singers to BMW Edge in a work for voices designed to explore the notion of communication between and without words, the works commissioned are always going to venture into new territory. And it is worth keeping in mind that the winner of the commission has been chosen from among proposals that may have been more daring, or may have been less risky, but perhaps more likely to come into being with or without the help of APRA and the MJFF.

Fran Swinn‘s project, “inform” was a huge ask in a practical sense, calling for rehearsals in a much different space, last-minute rigging and a run-through in the relatively unknown conditions at BMW Edge, and all the safety precautions required for an acrobat / aerialist.

But to warm up the crowd, Andrew Walker introduced “three turks and a wasp” for a lively set. The crowd was smallish, but building.

First set: Allan Browne drums, Phil Noy alto sax, Steve Grant cornet, Sam Pankhurst bass

Al Browne's "three turks and a wasp"

Al Browne's "three turks and a wasp"

I’m not too sure where the “turks” and “wasp” originated, except that bassist Ben Robertson, guitarist Geoff Hughes and drummer Allan Browne used to play in the famous Melbourne restaurant Mietta’s in the 1990s. Apparently they were often known as “Two turks and a Wasp”. Why? I’m sure someone can enlighten me. Meanwhile this new incarnation got stuck straight in with I’m Not Much But I’m All I Think About, followed by the melodic bush epic The Magpie Stomp (Al Browne insisted the band members had studied Magpie language at the VCA). An improvisation on Duke Ellington’s Mood Indigo followed and the set closed with a track I didn’t catch, but there was a great exchange between drums and bass towards the end. It was a lively, bright opening in what seemed sound-wise to be a lively, bright auditorium, though Steve Grant said there were some odd currents floating around which were a little hard to predict.

Phil Noy and Al Browne

Phil Noy and Al Browne

Second set: “Inform” by Fran Swinn, featuring Rockie Stone, with Fran Swinn guitar, Tamara Murphy bass, Ben Hendry drums, Eugene Ball trumpet

Rockie Stone and Fran Swinn Quartet

Rockie Stone and Fran Swinn Quartet

Now for the main event in the “big top”. We were on the edge of our seats. And what I was wondering, between distracting interludes in which I worried about why I could not seem to get even the band members in focus, was whether we would see a circus act accompanied by music or music accompanied by circus acrobatics. I must say that the task of taking pictures claimed enough of my attention to rule out proper judgement, but nevertheless I was from the beginning struck by the coherence of what we saw and heard.

I’ll let the pictures tell their story, leaving out many that were completely out of focus. But I felt tension and fluidity in the music, though I would say that the edgy aspect was most apparent to me. Rockie Stone performed amazing feats, but I’m fairly certain we could have seen similar skills on display at Circus Oz.

What I found enthralling about Rockie’s performance was the sense of poise and smoothness of transition. Movements were deliberate and careful, unhurried and definitely part of a continuum. I felt there was as much interest in the way that Rockie placed chairs or bottles; in the way she moved a row of chairs and the way she moved through chairs as there was in the more daring deeds. In other words, though the feats of exquisite balance and rope work were worthy of our admiration and applause, there was a clear commitment to this being much more than a collection of virtuosic actions.

Three chairs meeting Rockie Stone

Three chairs meeting Rockie Stone

Rockie Stone leads a meeting of chairs

Rockie Stone leads a meeting of chairs

Rockie Stone well balanced in her chairing

Rockie Stone well balanced in her chairing

For me, the music and the spectacle were inseparable. As for what deeper meanings or emotions could be drawn for this congruence, it is hard to say. To read what Fran Swinn had in mind, read Alice Body’s interview commissioned by extempore.

I think probably this was an experience in which music and actions fused into a continuum in which the audience could become totally engrossed, totally focused, without any need to seek interpretations, but simply to marvel at the human body in motion.

Inversion therapy  — Rockie Stone

Inversion therapy — Rockie Stone

Eugene Ball observes Rockie Stone in the chair

Eugene Ball observes Rockie Stone in the chair.

There were moments of stricture, of enclosure and of escape. But there seemed always to be a smooth progression from restriction to freedom.

Rockie Stone emerges from the chair

Rockie Stone leaves the chair

Rockie Stone in a hands-on chairing role.

Rockie Stone in a hands-on chairing role.

I found the walking on bottles one of the most elegant and potentially catastrophic of Stone’s feats, not because there was the prospect of falling from a great height (though that may have been a possibility), but because at every step there was a tiny test that had to be passed. In the event, Stone did appear to lose balance once or twice, but simply resumed her bottle-top walk. Apparently she was finding the reflections of herself in the glass walls disconcerting, but we did not know that then. There was gentle humour when Ben Hendry walked behind her, knocking over the bottles, leaving only one, which Stone casually nudged aside with her foot.

Rockie Stone walks on wine (bottles).

Rockie Stone walks on wine (bottles).

Rockie Stone sets up a few bottles.

Rockie Stone sets up a few bottles.

Stone seemed studious in the placement of the four bottles on which she would mount her monument to meetings — the tower of chairs. I thought momentarily of meeting-lovers everywhere, especially those who aspire to be in the chair.

Rockie Stone on the edge of her chair

Rockie Stone on the edge of her chair.

The high point of Rockie's chairing.

The high point of Rockie's chairing.

Time to vacate the chairs.

Time to vacate the chairs.

Of course I was changing lenses when Hendry took one of the bottles away, but there was no change to the stability of Stone. She descended, with care, and took to the rope.

How did I get roped into this?

How did I get roped into this?

Hanging around for a little longer.

Hanging around for a little longer.

All that needs to be said now that this commissioned work has been exposed to an audience is that it must be performed again — preferably before a larger crowd, but one that will give it the attention it was given on this occasion. Full marks to Fran Swinn, Rockie Stone and the quartet, and also to those who took a risk with this concert. Commission accomplished.

Commission accomplished.

Commission accomplished.

ROGER MITCHELL

THE OUTER LIMITS

Preview: Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival, April 29 to May 8, 2011

Mastaneh Nazarian

Mastaneh Nazarian barely contains her love for her Parker guitar

Yes, the image above is unashamedly a bid to attract attention to this preview of this year’s MJFF, but in my defence it is the picture guitarist Mastaneh Nazarian chose to be used on the Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival website, which is where all the details of this festival can be found. Nazarian, who migrated from Teheran, Iran to the US and suffered “mild malnutrition” in Boston in the mid ’90s, will feature in a double bill with Jonathan Dimond‘s Loops and her group Kafka Pony, which she named after reading lots of Kafka, dreaming of a pink penguin and waking with the word “pony” on her lips.

Anyway, speaking of matters barely contained, my excitement is mounting about what’s on offer this year. Details are on the website, but here’s a quick glimpse of some highlights. First, because it is first, is the opening concert on Friday, April 29 at the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Salon, which will give us a chance to hear a work so far aired at only in parts, at least in Melbourne and at Wangaratta. Andrea Keller Quartet, with two violins, viola and a cello, will perform Place, a 60-minute commissioned work in seven parts that draws inspiration from the area surrounding Bermagui NSW, and explores notions of belonging and identity. The quartet employs electronics, improvisation, preparations and acoustic instruments in the piece.

We’ve had two tantalising tastes of this work — at Uptown Jazz Cafe in August last year, when the quartet played Guluga and Belonging, and in the WPAC Theatre at Wangaratta Jazz 2010, when Belonging closed the set. I loved these tidbits and look forward to hearing the whole piece. The icing on the cake will be special guests Stephen Magnusson and Raj Jayaweera performing as a duo.

I have to keep this short and avoid mentioning every gig, tempting as that is. So, on Saturday, there’s a wild night in a warehouse opening with Ronny Ferella and Sam Price, who make up Peon, no doubt playing some similar material to what’s on their album Real Time, and ending in an iPhone mash-up — an app-created orgy of sounds under the watchful ear of Myles Mumford. You have to be there.

After Loops and Kafka Pony on Sunday, and Sam Bates Trio on Monday, a real highlight for me will be Band of Five Names on Tuesday, May 3, at Bennetts Lane. When this group (Phil Slater on trumpet and laptop, Matt McMahon on piano and Nord, Carl Dewhurst on guitar, Simon Barker on drums and percussion) performed at at Alpine MDF Theatre, Wangaratta in 2009, I thought of it as entering a musical space of light and shade, frenzy and reflection, and at times absolute simplicity. The ensemble was affective, slowly evolving and highly involving. I thought then, “How can a Nord sound so gentle?” and “Stillness can take root here”.

Zoe Scoglio‘s audio visual evening on Wednesday will be a treat for the ears, because Stephen Magnusson (guitar), Stephen Grant (cornet) and James McLean (drums) will accompany what Zoe has in store.

And in an unprecedented move, MJFF this year has some gigs out west, which is fantastic for those of us who believe more music should happen where so many of those who create it reside. The first performance at the Dancing Dog Cafe/Bar, on Thursday, May 5, features award-winning Peter Knight (trumpet and laptop electronics) and the irrepressible Motion. The second, on Saturday, May 7, features Nat Grant (solo percussion and electronics) and Kewti with “wild black metal experimental microtonal tropical jazz”. How can you resist that?

“What about the famous MJFF commission concert?”, you ask. Well, yes, it’s on at BMW Edge on Friday, May 6 and it must not be missed. That rascal Allan Browne will open with his “three turks and a wasp”. The drummer has a new piano-less quartet with Phillip Noy (alto sax), Sam Pankhurst (bass) and Stephen Grant (cornet) in dialogue, using new material written for the Fringe plus “compositions from the Duke and Jelly Roll”.

And for the main act, Fran Swinn, winner of this year’s APRA Composer Commission, has written Inform for jazz quartet and corde lisse (aerial circus act involving acrobatics on a vertically hanging rope). Circus Oz virtuoso acrobat/aerialist Rockie Stone (pictured below courtesy of Seth Gulob) will perform with the Fran Swinn Quartet (Swinn on guitar, Tamara Murphy on double bass, Ben Hendry on drums), and guest soloist Eugene Ball on trumpet.

Rockie

Rockie Stone at Circus Oz (Picture by Seth Gulob)

Swinn’s work promises to “integrate the forms and structures inherent in Jazz and improvised music with the forms and structures integral to a circus act” and acknowledges influences from dance, theatre and clowning as well as the music of Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman and Bill Frisell.

What could top that? Well, after such high-flying aerial pursuits it has to be time to sit. So Big Arse Sunday is exactly what’s needed. This year it’s at Cafe 303, 303 High Street, Northcote, from 2pm until about 9pm and the line-up includes Collider, Make Up Sex, Tinkler/Pankhurst/McLean, and 12 Tone Diamonds. And if you need a break from the music, the musicians you’ve heard or will hear later will probably be selling some nibbles or sitting on the door, so there’s a chance to chat.

With all these highlights, you may as well give in and decide you’ll never make it home before midnight during the Melboune Jazz Fringe Festival. This is a real grass roots festival run by musicians who volunteer lots of time to make it happen. If you’ve never dipped your toe in, try it. You won’t regret it.

ROGER MITCHELL

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL JAZZ FESTIVAL — DAY 8

Please scroll down for Sangam review

CONVERSATIONS: ON TRADITION AND PROGRESS at The Wheeler Centre
with ADRIAN JACKSON, JASON MORAN, SOPHIE BROUS, JOHN McBEATH, SCOTT TINKLER

Post to come

THE CLAUDIA QUINTET at BMW Edge

Post to come

THE MUSIC OF JOHN HOLLENBECK: JOYS AND DESIRES at BMW Edge
with Theo Bleckmann and the Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra

Post to come

SANGAM: CHARLES LLOYD WITH ZAKIR HUSSAIN AND ERIC HARLAND at Melbourne Town Hall

Opening set: STEPHEN MAGNUSSON / EUGENE BALL DUO

Post to come

SANGAM: CHARLES LLOYD WITH ZAKIR HUSSAIN, ERIC HARLAND and guests

Zakir Hussain
Zakir Hussain

THE final concert of Melbourne International Jazz Festival was announced as a confluence of three artists, but it ended as much more.

Sangam — the name that saxophone, flute and tarogato player Charles Lloyd, drummer Eric Harland and tabla maestro Zakir Hussain have given their musical collaboration — is Sanskrit for confluence.

But in the spirit of India’s revered meeting near Allahabad of three rivers, one of which — the Saraswati — is hidden, this musical meeting had much to reveal.
It began unpredictably enough, with Lloyd playing elegant, beautiful piano notes to open Hussain’s composition, Guman. Harland joined him at the piano, freeing his drum kit to be occupied by Lloyd on gentle percussion before he took up his alto flute, Hussain responding vocally and on tabla as the piece built in intensity.

Zakir Hussain
Virtuosity: Zakir Hussain

As they moved through Dancing on One Foot, Sangam and Tales of Rumi, all Lloyd’s compositions, virtuosity was paramount. Hussain brought his tablas to life in a dizzying display of dissonant pitches. This was music to feed the body.

Deep emotional fulfilment came during Kuti, when Lloyd’s quartet members Jason Moran and Reuben Rogers joined the confluence unexpectedly, but on cue, to inject new life.

Hussain, Moran and Lloyd
Hussain, Moran and Lloyd

Moran played sensitively on piano as Lloyd spoke excerpts from Lord Krishna’s words in the Bhagavad-Gita on the manner in which an illumined soul lives in the world.

He knows bliss in the Atman
And wants nothing else.
Cravings torment the heart:
He renounces cravings.
I call him illumined.

Not shaken by adversity,
Not hankering after happiness:
Free from fear, free from anger,
Free from the things of desire.
I call him a seer, and illumined.

The bonds of his flesh are broken.
He is lucky, and does not rejoice:
He is unlucky, and does not weep
I call him illumined.

The tortoise can draw in its legs:
The seer can draw in his senses.
I call him illumined.

The abstinent run away from what they desire
But carry their desires with them:
When a man enters Reality,
He leaves his desires behind him.

Reuben Rogers
Reuben Rogers

Hymn to the Mother brought a gradual evolution in mood and pace, beginning with Moran’s eloquent piano, Rogers’ bowed bass and Hussain’s quiet vocals illuminating Lloyd’s fluent sax.

Lloyd illumined as Moran plays.
Lloyd illumined as Moran plays.

The encore, The Blessing, saw Lloyd attain new heights in his standout solo for the evening. Moran’s piano was exquisite and Harland, with one stick and a tambourine, showed great sensitivity.

Charles Lloyd
Standout solo: Charles Lloyd

This was a fitting end to a festival with many highlights. The only thing to do after such a sangam was to go home and replay the experience deep within the soul. It was akin to discovering the Saraswati River.