Tag Archives: Jo Stevenson


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
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
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
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
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
Jo Stevenson digs deep

After our trip to toe-tapping, swinging New orleans, it was time to go to hell.

Allan Browne Quintet

Allan Browne

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.

Allan Browne Quintet

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.

Phil Noy et al

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.

Eugene Ball et al

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.

Allan Browne Quintet

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.



Allan Browne

Before his quintet ushers the Stonnington Jazz audience into
A Season In Hell, Allan Browne tells ROGER MITCHELL of his personal journey to the brink

ALLAN Browne has had his season in hell. In 2002 the drummer was staring death in the face and escaped by undergoing a lung transplant operation that meant time away from his beloved drum kit.

But the self-taught and self-effacing musician, who was consumed by a love for traditional jazz before being enticed away by the freedom he saw in Jack DeJohnette’s interaction with pianist Keith Jarrett in the late 1960s, found serious illness had some benefits.

Enforced idleness enabled Browne to reawaken his interest in poetry and literature that years of “living fast” had put on hold.

“Being very sick was an enormous help, because I was just at home,” Browne says. “I read Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past in a year at home and it was a really beautiful, sustaining thing because I thought I was dying, so it was a great way to go out.”

On recovering, Browne found he wanted to play more and more music.

“There was a spiritual difference too. Facing death and being given another chance is really an incredible way of becoming deeper spiritually — a way of helping you understand yourself.”

Browne’s love of Kenneth Slessor’s poetry was the inspiration for the Australian Jazz Band 2006 album Five Bells, and with his quintet in 2007 he released The Drunken Boat, inspired by the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud.

Now the quintet, comprising composers Eugene Ball (trumpet) and Geoff Hughes (guitar) along with Browne, Nick Haywood on bass and Philip Noy on alto and bass saxophones, has released A Season in Hell, inspired by Rimbaud’s prose poem.

“It’s a very dark record. It’s not violent, but it’s dark,” Browne says. “It’s Rimbaud’s response to his time with poet Paul Verlaine, who ran away from his wife to become Rimbaud’s lover. It’s the pages of the diary of a damned soul.”

Such dark subject matter has produced deeply moving music. “The harmonies are pretty modern,” Browne says. “Phil Noy is one of the stars — he just plays so beautifully. And we recorded it in a big room, as Miles Davis did with Kind of Blue. We were trying to get an acoustic vibe.”

Browne brings a love of melody and equality to the ensemble.

“I’m coming from a melodic place because my whole background was learning melodies. I can tell the introduction to any Billie Holiday song, I can tell you what song it is. Or any Louis Armstrong Hot Five or King Oliver, practically, or Jelly Roll Morton. That’s always in me and it makes me play differently.”

“The only reason I liked the George Lewis band back in 1960 was that in the whole six-piece ensemble everyone was playing together. That’s what I like about jazz. Now when I play with Marc (Hannaford) or Sam (Anning) or the quintet we are all playing together, we are not backing each other.”

Browne, who celebrates 50 years in jazz at Stonnington Jazz this afternoon (Sunday), will perform A Season in Hell with the quintet as well as a set of New Orleans trio music from the twenties with his wife, Margie Lou Dyer, on piano and vocals, and Jo Stevenson on clarinet.

He could easily become emotional.

“Honestly, you go to another plane psychologically. It’s a spiritual thing really, it’s that important,” Browne says of his most moving gigs.

“There are times when I just cry on stage. I think, ‘This is just amazing. This is what I did all that practice for this week and why I put up with not earning any money and not having any superannuation. This is worth it. This is something that other people don’t know’.”

Allan Browne Celebrates 50 Years in Jazz at 2pm today, Chapel Off Chapel

Ausjazz blog will cover many of the gigs at this festival, which runs until May 30. For details of concerts, visit the festival website.

A condensed version of this article was published in the Play section of the Sunday Herald Sun on May 23, 2010