Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival, including 2013 APRA Composer Commission Concert, Sunday 5 May, 2-8pm at Northcote Town Hall
The Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival runs on a shoestring, but that doesn’t prevent it running like clockwork. There was a little “bracket creep” during the afternoon, but generally performances started pretty much on time. So, when I arrived about 15 minutes late — mainly because I set out later than planned — Steve Grant was already well into his allocated half hour at the grand piano.
Armed with a coffee generously given to me on the way in by Ronny Ferella — he had bought too many — I quietly moved to a seat closer to the front, then settled into listening mode. With Marc Hannaford playing next, this was a chance to indulge in my recent practice of trying to focus on the individual approaches of pianists and gain some clues as to why they sound so different or similar. I can definitely hear similarities and differences, but I lack the know-how to attempt a technical explanation.
This brief excerpt of Steve Grant’s performance seemed to provide welcome space, a sense of reflection or reverie, and great fluidity.
Marc Hannaford also left plenty of space between his carefully selected notes, which were delivered with great precision. His improvisation gradually evolved, building in intensity as patterns emerged of immensely pleasing complexity. It became more percussive, with bold, emphatic statements, before slowing to take on a feel of solemnity. I had a sense of Hannaford listening intently, hearing pitches or tones or sounds and either repeating them or adjusting slightly.
I could not help but wonder what it would be like to be in Marc Hannaford’s brain — would there be joy, a sense of wonder at the discovery of what happened when he played these notes, or would it be delight in complexities or mathematically appealing combinations?
The piece became faster, with an insistent right hand, before a busy period. Then it was all over, too quickly for my liking, because I was really enjoying this as a journey of discovery. What a privilege we have, as audience members, to be able to share in these journeys when musicians of calibre (that one’s for Tony Abbott) are improvising.
Next up in this afternoon on the fringe was drummer Ronny Ferella’s band IshIsh, which has a fondness for the music of Ornette Coleman. That’s a big plus in my book.
The line-up varies, but on this occasion it was Jordan Murray trombone, Julien Wilson saxophone, Mark Shepherd bass and special guest Stephen Magnusson (recently a recipient of an Australian Jazz Bell Award for his Magnet album) on guitar.
IshIsh played four pieces, including Ferella’s What Should Be (the title track from the band’s 2000 album) and “a tribute to Joe Lovano’s tribute to Ornette Coleman”. I really liked the organic feel of this group and the absence of the cycle of solos.
The music changes gradually within each piece, evolving rather than being more compartmental. To me IshIsh has a European feel that escapes regimentation, with the musicians seeming to lose themselves in ebbs and flows as the pieces develop. The guitar, sax and ‘bone provided a rich array of textures and timbres.
Shepherd’s bass was more evident in the Lovano-Coleman tribute, which opened as a sharper, faster piece before evolving to a slower resolution with great resonance and depth. Magnusson produced some lovely high “scribblings” in this.
IshIsh was definitely a welcome inclusion in the day’s outings.
The next set was to be a trio, but saxophonist Scott McConnachie was too ill to join Erkki Veltheim on viola and Ren Walters on guitar. Before the final duet Ren Walters said that he and Eki would “dedicate the healing energy from our music to our friend Scott, who is going through a terrible time”. I’m sure the audience shared the hope that Scott’s health would improve.
In this totally improvised exchange, I was struck first by the extraordinary flexibility and fluidity of Veltheim’s playing, as well as his dexterity and the rapidity of his movements. He is amazingly virtuosic, though there is absolutely no hint of showmanship accompanying his ability. He is totally focused on the interaction with Walters.
Next I noticed the attentiveness of Walters, which is hardly surprising given that the nature of this exchange is utterly based on each player listening and responding. I don’t believe I was imagining it when I saw Walters’ face display signs of delight as he puzzled out responses to Veltheim.
This absorbing work was full of contrasts, switches of direction, sharp and edgy attacks followed by passages of great fluidity. Veltheim seemed to be plucking strings while bowing, and at other times he dragged his bow abrasively across the strings. For a while Walters was changing the tunings constantly as he played.
The rapidity, lightness and almost spindly nature of the sounds in the final piece were striking. At one point I visualised mice on a skating rink. In the whole outing I greatly appreciated the beauty and clarity of notes played, the occasional gentleness and the abundant space.
Again it struck me how privileged we are to hear this music being created. The other day I heard Kavisha Mazzella on ABC 774 telling how she was attracted to Melbourne because of the city’s vibrant music (or words similar). We are indeed lucky to have many hard-working musicians, but their work too often slips by unnoticed.
Now we come to the big event of the festival, the APRA Composer Commission, which this year was awarded to pianist composer Darrin Archer. He chose to focus on Allen Ginsberg‘s poem Howl, using modern composition and improvisation to explore the sex, drugs and spirituality of the beatnik as a sonic landscape.
The work was titled Drunken Taxicabs of Absolute Reality: Howl to music.
I was not familiar with Ginsberg’s epic poem, so probably ought to have done my homework before this performance by reading it with care and attention in order to be properly prepared. As it was, during the longish sound check I called up the text on my phone and scanned through it, wondering whether we would hear excerpts or the whole poem. It also seemed highly likely, given the blasts from the band during the check, that I may not be able to hear the words, so I was taking belated precautions.
When the music began, and Maxine Beneba Clarke began to read from her long paper roll containing the text, I realised my fears were well founded. It may have been different in other parts of the auditorium, but I could only hear the words clearly when the volume dropped at various points in the piece. So I followed the text on the phone screen while listening to the musical drama unfold.
Archer’s composition certainly had the appropriate dramatic force and complexity to match Ginsberg’s words, which were articulated clearly and with feeling by Beneba Clarke. This was dark music to match dark imagery.
The poem opens thus:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
It does not shrink from bleakness or harshness. Archer’s music undeniably had to be robust, strident at times.
My issue with this work is that I felt torn between wanting to hear the poem being read (or at least read the words as they were delivered) and on the other hand giving up on Ginsberg’s imagery so that I could concentrate on the musical imagery unfolding under Archer’s direction. It seemed that, with the exception of some quieter passages, that was impossible. The spoken word and music were too often competing.
Beneba Clarke’s delivery was excellent, particularly in the oft-repeated “Moloch”, which was audible and effective as a way to communicate all the evil that Ginsberg meant by this name. Repetition of “Rockland” towards the end of the poem was also a chance for the voice to come to fore and achieve more of a balance with the ensemble.
I hope that this work is revisited, as have been other works commissioned for the Melbourne Jazz Fringe Festival. But I think either the words of the poem need to be audible over the music, or they should be projected somehow so that the audience can ponder and appreciate them at the same time as the music. It also would not hurt to remind patrons to be familiar with the poem before the performance. Drunken Taxicabs of Absolute Reality has the potential to be a powerful interpretation of Howl, but in this debut outing it did not quite succeed.
After the commissioned work, in Chris Port’s Mixer at about 7pm, Port on drums and laptop joined James Gilligan on bass/tape machine/effects and Marty Hicks on piano and Nintendo DS to explore Beat and hip-hop culture through improvisation.
I was only able to hear the very beginning of this outing before having to leave.
In terms of bums on seats, the MJFF did not score spectacularly, which is a great pity. A lot of creativity and inventiveness was on display at an excellent venue. I’d definitely rate the afternoon as a success, but in an ideal world more people would be there to share.