JAZZ ALBUM REVIEWS IN THE AUSTRALIAN
In September, 2017 Eric Myers commenced reviewing jazz albums in the Review supplement of The Weekend Australian. All reviews in this folder are written by Myers.
Gratitude and Grief
Elixir featuring Katie Noonan with Michael Leunig
Published in the Weekend Australian, September 29, 2018
Long ago, when I was young and courting, it was always a pleasure to meet a woman with a Leunig calendar in her kitchen. The cartoonist was still to become a National Living Treasure but, even then, he posited an idyllic parallel universe, where one might get off the train that was hurtling along from birth to death, and wander around smelling the roses. He encouraged an ascetic state where we might ponder on our true priorities, had we not repressed them: peace, love, innocence, dreaming for example, and other things good for the soul. Gratitude and Grief captures this spirit. Also, it’s a reminder of the old Baudelaire truism: that genius is childhood recaptured at will. Michael Leunig and Katie Noonan perform here with infectious simplicity: he writes like a child; she sings like a little girl. Unaccompanied, Leunig reads ten of his poems, each followed by Noonan’s vocal interpretation of the words. Seven compositions are by Noonan and the two jazz musicians who dominate the backing group, Zac Hurren (alto and soprano saxophones), and Stephen Magnusson (electric, steel string and nylon string guitars). Three compositions are by Noonan alone. A string quartet provides backings arranged by several writers, and there are two additional musicians - a double bassist on two tracks, and a percussionist on one. The instrumental sections are an unmitigated pleasure, courtesy of the beautiful playing of Hurren. His solos on soprano saxophone, understated and thoughtful, have a glorious sound throughout. They reinforce the laid-back intimacy that pervades the album. The album’s highlights are Magpie and The Path To Your Door, where Phil Stack’s double bass is a welcome inclusion on both tracks. The band establishes a groove, and Hurren is flying. The warmth and feel of the bass here make the other tracks sound rather astringent. Her past recordings with Australian and American jazz musicians, performances at prestigious venues, and a swag of awards over many years, suggest that Noonan has promotional clout behind her, and many fans who will applaud this album. Her unique, rather meandering vocal style, however, invites controversy. She prefers to locate her singing in a very high register, where her voice has an uncommon purity. The compositions therefore feature unexpected leaps into the stratosphere which showcase her vocal strengths. The plaintive element in her style does not disguise her strong musical personality, and her ability to dominate the music. Her diction is occasionally problematic though, so it’s good that the listener is able to follow Leunig’s words on the album sleeve. The last track is a somewhat quirky version of The Rainbow Connection, dedicated to the LGBTQI community. In an era when an Australian prime minister can describe the goings-on in the Liberal Party as a Muppet Show, it is perhaps timely that this thought-provoking album should close with a song made famous 40 years ago by Kermit the Frog.
Through Her Eyes
Published in the Weekend Australian, October 6, 2018
Jazz standards such as Come Rain Or Come Shine, You Don’t Know What Love Is and Here’s That Rainy Day are normally treated as slow, sensitive ballads. On trombonist/vocalist Dan Barnett’s eighth album, the versions are big, bold and swinging. Barnett, who sings on 12 of the 14 tracks, has a devil-may-care approach that sweeps everything before him, and he is well supported by an octet including the cream of Sydney’s mainstream jazz musicians. Two octogenarians, drummer Cyril Bevan 87, and trumpeter Billy Burton 83, are still playing beautifully. The splendid guitarist Chuck Morgan who died recently is featured. Craig Scott excels in several double bass solos which are articulated with uncommon clarity. In Just Squeeze Me and Just You Just Me George Washingmachine adds rich vocal harmonies to Barnett’s vocals, and gets off the ground with spirited violin solos. The dialogues between Barnett’s trombone and other musicians provide most of the album’s variety. In the boppish tune Sultry Serenade, for instance, the improvisations begin unusually with Barnett’s trombone trading four-bar breaks with Paul Furniss on alto saxophone. Furniss, a master in the traditional and swing idioms, knows all the licks, but he can also be relied upon to play unusual lines which have not been heard before. In I’ve Found a New Baby and Bourbon Street Parade, he switches to clarinet, and with the addition of Burton’s trumpet, New Orleans jazz is given a solid workout. Peter Locke’s tasteful piano solos and fills are a delight throughout. The one original song on the album, a ballad When You Lose The One You Love, is composed by Burton, who plays a lovely flugelhorn solo over attractive chord changes.
With Whom You Can Be Who You Are
Tim Stevens Double Trio
Published in the Weekend Australian, October 27, 2018
This impressive album from Melbourne’s Tim Stevens is inspired by friendship. Seven compositions are named by the initials of “dear friends”, most of whom are scattered around the world. The jazz trio, including Stevens (piano), Marty Holoubek (bass), and Tony Floyd (drums), is augmented by a trio of string players: Madeleine Jevons (violin, voice), Phoebe Green (viola) and Naomi Wileman (cello). The music here underlines Stevens’s main quality as a pianist/composer, which has been evident since he emerged as a fledgling performer over 20 years ago: the gift of melodic beauty. The string trio, playing scored parts, provides throughout a refreshing contrast to the improvisatory talents of the three jazz musicians. I do not hear in Stevens’ music the freewheeling spirit of the blues, nor bebop, nor the romanticism of Bill Evans. Rather I hear a disciplined refinement, redolent of classical music, with extraordinary attention to detail. The album is a flight of the imagination certainly, but it appears to be on the wings of Johann Sebastian Bach. At times I felt I was experiencing the ambience of the famous trio led by French pianist Jacques Loussier, who built a career on converting Bach compositions to jazz vehicles. The influence in jazz of Bach, a prolific keyboard improviser of the early 18th century, is of course no bad thing. In Stevens’s music I sense a private, reflective musical personality, rather than a gregarious one. Overall the mood is pensive if not melancholic, with a yearning spirit in the music that is moving and life-affirming. When his improvisations wind up, Stevens can really make the piano sing, and the fugue-like writing for strings, while clearly experimental, is full of interest.