ALLAN BROWNE CELEBRATES 50 YEARS IN JAZZ
at Chapel Off Chapel
Two sets, two eras. Allan Browne took us back in time with his favourite in jazz combinations, the trio. Then, with his quintet and his usual devilry, he showed us the beauty of an interlude in hell. Or was it a glimpse of heaven?
Margie Lou Dyer, Allan Browne, Jo Stevenson
The audiences at Stonnington Jazz seem to be more advanced in years than those at, say, Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival or Melbourne International Jazz Festival, though I have no hard data on that. So the first set of traditionally flavoured classics from Jelly Roll Morton, George Lewis and Duke Ellington may have been the main attraction of the afternoon. I met my wife, Debra, at the Lord Napier jazz pub in Thornton Heath, south of London years ago, but that was much more brassy, bold and full-on than what we heard from Al Browne, his wife Margie Lou Dyer on piano and vocals, and Jo Stevenson on clarinet and bass saxophone. This was light, bright and full of fun, zest and whimsy.
Allan Browne and Margie Lou Dyer
As always, Browne’s drum work was relaxed and reflected his obvious sense of enjoyment in the occasion and the music. Dyer’s smoky vocals carried us into a dimly lit nightclub and Stevenson’s lyrical clarinet streamed notes as fluid as quicksilver. There was plenty of energy, but no bid to blast us away or smash and crash. This was a delightfully sensitive interpretation of the music that Browne first loved, played by musicians steeped in that tradition and with a long history of playing together.
The trio — Al Browne said it was his favourite form — began with Bogalosa Stomp (Sam Morgan), then played Morton’s Buddy Bolden’s Blues (Morton), High Society, Sidewalk Blues (Morton) and Mood Indigo, a Duke Ellington tribute to clarinetist Barney Bigard.
Browne on washboard
For Oriental Man (referred to in earlier days as “Ornamental Pan”, the pride of the dunny, Browne related), the drummer took up the washboard, emulating his hero Baby Dodds, and it was a hoot. Stevenson played soprano sax on Dyer’s commissioned calypso Bechet, which she said was related to “people who took their clothes off to fast music”.
Vintage clarinet: Jo Stevenson
Stevenson’s clarinet was shining in George Lewis‘s Burgundy St Blues, before Dyer delivered a suitably gravelly rendition of Gimme a Pig Foot (Bessie Smith).
Trio joins quintet
And in augmented finale, quintet members Geoff Hughes (guitar), Phil Noy (alto sax), Eugene Ball (trumpet) and Nick Haywood (bass) joined the trio, with Stevenson switching to bass saxophone, for the fun-filled, exuberant Magpie Stomp (Browne).
Jo Stevenson digs deep
After our trip to toe-tapping, swinging New orleans, it was time to go to hell.
UNE SAISON EN ENFER (A SEASON IN HELL)
Allan Browne Quintet
The quintet played this suite in the order replicated on the album. There are eight compositions, four each by Eugene Ball and Geoff Hughes. The only possible criticism, IMHO, is that if this represents hell, or the torment of Arthur Rimbaud as he fled across Europe with lover Paul Verlaine, it is more benign than I had imagined. That’s not meant to be flippant — before hearing this music (on CD) I had expected passages that would be hard to take because they were drawn from images of a harrowing, horrifying inferno. Instead, though this is undeniably dark music — as Browne said, “It’s very dark. We like it dark.” — it is often beautiful, reflective or wistful in mood rather than being in any way difficult to enjoy.
That said, the suite is superb and a worthy successor to The Drunken Boat, which is also based on the verse of Rimbaud. And I must now read Une Saison en Enfer, to explore how it has inspired Ball and Hughes, and the quintet. For reasons known only to themselves, a number of patrons felt compelled to walk out during this set. They may have had commitments, or they may not have liked this style of music. But it is a pity the seating design at Chapel Off Chapel does not allow for people to leave without walking down through the audience and across in front of the musicians. This was a piece of music that deserved to be experienced without interruption.
In Nuit de l’enfer, Hughes’s solo guitar was great, but seemed too pleasant for an inferno. Song from the Highest Tower opened regally and included an exquisite solo by Phil Noy. And Browne’s use of what looked like long springs to produce a sharp, metallic sound from the cymbals was effective over Hughes’s guitar. Embers of Silk was appropriately serene, with Ball in splendidly resonant flight.
A real highlight for me was I Dance the Sabbath and Chorale, with some fine interplay between the trumpet and sax. If anything, Ball seemed more constrained in his trumpet attacks than on the recording. Sleepwalker saw Noy move to baritone sax. Hughes’s solo was great in this piece. A Life Too Light brought the set to a close.
I’m not sure whether it was the crowd or the venue or both, or my fertile imagination, but I did not feel there was a real buzz of appreciation for this set, which I thought was exquisite, despite the absence of any gnashing of teeth. But this was an afternoon of music that ideally suited the 50-year career of an unassuming musician who has the ability to make his presence felt through the lightest, most tender of touches and the greatest of poetic passions. And Allan Browne never takes himself too seriously.
Browne reminded us a few times about his residency at Bennetts Lane on Mondays, and that on August 1 at Uptown Jazz Cafe in the afternoon there will be a launch of the album Une Season en Enfer. And on August 8 at Bennetts Lane at 2pm the Red Onions Jazz Band will hold an informal reunion to mark its 50th anniversary.