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.
Dan Barnett Big Band
Published in The Weekend Australian, December 22, 2018
Recorded in one of Sydney’s famous jazz pubs, the Unity Hall in Balmain, the 13-piece Dan Barnett Big Band is roaring. The music here is how jazz used to be, before it became modern jazz, to be listened to in hushed silence. There’s a lively atmosphere in the venue, packed with enthusiasts, and the jugs of beer are flowing. When a musician stands up to solo, everyone is listening, with the soloist on the line, giving of his best. This is music of the swing era, but played purposefully by today’s modernist musicians. The horn section work is faultless. The 14 tracks include only four vocals from Barnett, and mostly little-known, catchy instrumental hits of the 40s and 50s. Many works of Freddie Slack, a now forgotten American swing and boogie-woogie pianist/bandleader are featured. Tunes associated with him, Boogie Blues, Small Batch O’ Nod, The House Of Blue Lights, Southpaw Serenade, and A Cat’s Ninth Life enable pianist Peter Locke to show his hitherto hidden boogie-woogie expertise. Locke is part of a swinging rhythm section with bassist Ashley Turner and the redoubtable drummer Andrew Dickeson. The latter brilliantly controls the band’s dynamics, whether cruising subtly on the hi-hat, cracking out an off-beat on the rim of the snare, or bringing the volume down when necessary. The solos are generally short, with the splendid improvisations of tenor saxophonist David Theak dominant. A memorable highlight in the Ellington tune Main Stem is an inspired saxophone battle between Theak and tenorist Tim Clarkson. Think Paul Gonsalves’ famous 27-chorus tenor solo with the Ellington band at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. That’s the sort of high standard which this fine band approximates.
Bridge of Dreams
Sandy Evans, Sirens Big Band & Indian Musicians
Published in The Weekend Australian, December 29, 2018
This ambitious album, the culmination of Sydney saxophonist Sandy Evans’s musical career so far, is a dignified and satisfying melding of Indian music and Western jazz. It’s a complicated collaborative project brought to fruition over several years. The music is original, the compositions shared by Evans and two Indian artists, Hindustani classical music singer Shubha Mudgal and her husband Aneesh Pradhan. The album is dominated by Mudgal’s haunting vocals. Her lyrics are in a number of non-English languages, but non-Indian listeners will hear them simply as wordless vocals. Other soloists are Pradhan (tabla), Sydney’s Bobby Singh (tabla), Sudhir Nayak (harmonium) and Evans herself (saxophones). Evans’s solos are a highlight, particularly on soprano saxophone, with a sensitivity reminiscent of Wayne Shorter. The Indian musicians were recorded in Mumbai in June 2017. A year later in Sydney the Sirens Big Band and Evans overdubbed their contributions. Evans’s arrangements are a real work of the imagination, pure jazz-oriented writing which is highly sympathetic and respectful towards the Indian contributions, enhancing and commenting on their music. Evans’s charts are played beautifully by the largely female Sirens Big Band. Indian music, without the harmonic changes found in Western music, can often sound drone-like and repetitive. On Bridge of Dreams that tendency is leavened by the jazz sensibility in operation, giving the music welcome variety. Also, the great strength of Indian music - rhythmic subtlety - survives here, never smothered by the Western drum-kit. Future musicologists will no doubt deconstruct the complicated scales and rhythmic patterns explored on this album. For the moment I hear it simply as splendid art music at a high level of achievement, and also it is accessible and very moving.
The Prophet Speaks
Published in The Weekend Australian, January 5, 2019
The Northern Irishman Van Morrison, 73, is a rich man, apparently worth $90 million. This is an extraordinary achievement for a musician with such modest abilities. As a singer, he does not have the flexibility of phrasing, nor the voice quality of the great jazz vocalists (Sarah Vaughan, Kurt Elling). Compared to the famous blues shouters of the past (Joe Williams, Big Joe Turner) Morrison is patently not in their league. He has found a lucrative home however in pop music, a status that Morrison has always loathed. Since Brown-Eyed Girl (1967), Moondance (1970), and various R & B hits in the 1970s, Morrison has been a big name, particularly in the US. Here is a singer whose declamatory style sends him out of tune, particularly in his voice’s high register, or when required to sustain a long note. His capabilities on the harmonica and the alto saxophone are passable. Yet books have been written analysing Morrison’s mystique, and his lyrics have been compared to the poetry of Federico García Lorca. What is his secret? Morrison’s 40th album The Prophet Speaks provides some clues. It is hugely enjoyable, dominated by a highly swinging jazz groove, courtesy of a splendid quartet led by the American virtuosic keyboardist Joey DeFrancesco. Jazz was once characterised by the rhythmic simplicity found here but increasingly lost it, in allowing the genre to evolve into a more expressive, high art form. Many jazz buffs will luxuriate in the swing feel here; it’s clap-along stuff. Eight of the 14 tracks are cover versions of classic hits by past African American soul, blues or pop artists, and there are six compositions by Morrison, half of them swinging 12-bar blues. Thanks to today’s technology, the originals are on YouTube, and comparisons are interesting. Three examples suffice: John Lee Hooker’s Dimples (1946), Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson’s Gonna Send You Back To Where I Got You From (1947), and Sam Cooke’s Laughin And Clownin (1963). Morrison’s tributes to the masters are all inferior, but not vastly so, owing to the expertise of DeFrancesco and his colleagues. DeFrancesco primarily plays Hammond organ, and sometimes electric piano, and provides trumpet solos on four tracks. Other sidemen are Dan Wilson (guitar), Michael Ode (drums), and the splendid young Australian tenor saxophonist Troy Roberts, whose pithy solos suit these conventional blues-drenched settings. The horn or keyboard lines which answer Morrison’s vocal calls are comfortably familiar. Where DeFrancesco is not playing the bass lines on his foot-pedals, Roberts plays acoustic bass. Morrison also plays harmonica on seven tracks, and alto saxophone on two tracks. The blues, as a genre, grew out of the dysfunctional lives in African American communities, producing a music that was powerfully redemptive in its celebration of life’s miseries. Despite his limitations, Morrison’s ability to take the listener into this world is infectious, and the messages in his music invariably lift the spirit.