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.
Point In Time
Published in the Weekend Australian, March 16, 2019
I’m in two minds about this album. On the surface it is an immaculate example of small-group modern jazz, recorded in New York. Nic Vardanega is a talented Australian guitarist who in 2015 was nominated for a Bell Award for young Australian jazz artist of the year. He’s been living in NY for over two years, and has completed a masters of music in jazz studies from New York University. This is his second album, the first Inverno released in 2014. The music on Point In Time ticks many boxes: seven well-written Vardanega compositions with interesting harmonic structures, and a variety of rhythmic time-feels; a dynamic New York rhythm section (Jakob Dreyer, acoustic bass and Josh Roberts, drums); and American Michael Rodriguez on trumpet & flugelhorn, a brilliant, fluent improviser. (Think Chet Baker in terms of sound and lyricism, but with a more advanced technique). Yet, at the same time, there is a context surrounding this album. For many years the bar for Australian modern jazz guitarists has been set very high by James Muller, known for his formidable technique. Compared to Muller, Vardanega’s playing sounds somewhat sedate. Many listeners will warm to Vardanega’s more introverted style but my feeling is that a more risk-taking, devil-may-care, approach from this talented guitarist, might have considerably increased the album’s appeal. Closing track Club Soda is a spirited, somewhat dirty, funk/soul number without the benefit of Rodriguez’s participation. Here Vardanega leaves behind his exquisite Jim Hall-like sound, and flirts with Jimi Hendrix territory. It’s a full-blooded indication of what he might be capable of, if he was more able to let his hair down, and move into overdrive.
In The Key Of The Universe
Published in the Weekend Australian, March 23, 2019
This powerful album is built on the unremitting virtuosity of American multi-instrumentalist Joey DeFrancesco, perhaps the most exciting Hammond organist since the late Jimmy Smith. His fine trumpet work — with an intimate style not unlike that of Miles Davis — appears on three tracks, and he’s also an impressive writer: nine out of the 10 compositions are his. Present is the accomplished Perth saxophonist Troy Roberts, who has been a permanent member of DeFrancesco’s ensemble since 2016. With a good contemporary sound and brilliant technique, Roberts can effortlessly mix it with the best American players and is the perfect foil for DeFrancesco. If the latter prefers not to play the bass line on his foot pedals, or relocates to the piano, Roberts can double on acoustic bass, as he does here on two tracks. Two venerable 78-year-olds are at this session: one of the great drummers in jazz history, Billy Hart, who plays on all tracks; and guest saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, who plays on three tracks, and demonstrates one of the most distinctive sounds in jazz. Sanders is a master of the biting, guttural tenor sax style which is so reminiscent of the 1960s avant-garde, when John Coltrane was the jazz world’s spiritual leader. Here, a cameo version of Sanders’ famous composition The Creator Has A Master Plan is presented, with Sanders singing selected lyrics, and also contributing a tongue-twisting wordless vocal. With the ambience of Coltrane’s anthem A Love Supreme, this is a heartwarming reminder of the spirituality that was in the air in 1969 when Sanders wrote the piece. The album also has the brilliant American percussionist Sammy Figueroa on all tracks.
Standards & Sudden Death
ATM15 Big Band
Published in the Weekend Australian, March 30, 2019
Even with the flowering of Australian jazz across the last decade, and the release of an unprecedented number of outstanding albums, every now and then a special release comes along that prompts the thought: this is the real thing. This double album from the 13-piece ATM15 Big Band features the inspired arrangements of Melbourne composer/arranger/director Andrew Murray, performed live at Moreland City Band Hall. I loved this album from the first note. We are not hearing run-of-the-mill big band arrangements here, but something more profound: the art of big band jazz itself. With three previous albums over the last decade (in particular 2018’s New Works) Murray has already shown he is a composer with an exceptional vision as to how the jazz big band will sound into the future. But at the same time he respects and retains the essentials of the big band tradition, especially the precious swing-feel. On this album he redefines — with symphonic flair — 14 well-known standards, and, for good measure, adds three of his own excellent compositions. Georgie Darvidis, whose personality shines through the speakers, is one of two extraordinary vocalists on the album. With more than a hint of decadence, she polishes off well-known standards such as Someone To Watch Over Me, The Nearness of You, and All Night Long (no, not that one — this was written by Charles Singleton and Teddy McRae in 1951). A pleasingly nonchalant approach to lyrics and phrasing enables her to make the songs her own, a quality one associates with a singer such as Billie Holiday. Other vocalist Joshua Kyle has the occasional intonation problem — this is a live performance after all — but when he’s on, he’s on. His faultless versions of Good Morning Heartache and We’ll Be Together Again are a tonic. Aside from their vocal work, several factors underlie the success of this album: Murray’s ability to deploy judiciously the armoury of colours at his disposal rather than overburden the listener with sound; an unusually creative use of dissonance; an immaculate rhythm section in Darrin Archer (piano), Tamara Murphy (double bass) and Hugh Harvey (drums) which has the time unmistakably in the air, and gives the band superb dynamics; the crispness and precision of the section work; and the exceedingly high level of solo improvisations. Murray’s brilliant version of the Ray Noble classic Cherokee is a tour de force for the outstanding alto saxophonist Tim Wilson; Murray’s composition Gisbert’s Ideal is played beautifully on flugelhorn by Andrew Gioia; and two players — Ed Fairlie and Gioia again — enjoy a spirited trumpet battle in a traditional jazz-oriented Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out. Even tunes which otherwise might be considered corny, such as Pennies From Heaven and You Are My Sunshine are, in Murray’s capable hands, transformed into major works of the imagination. An album to savour.