Ethan Iverson’s Cocktail Hour
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
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.
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
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 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.
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.