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.
Four and a half stars
Published in the Weekend Australian February 3, 2018
When one of Australia’s finest double bassists issues a new album under his leadership, containing eight of his original compositions, some might expect a showcase of his technical skills on the instrument. In the case of Sydney’s Jonathan Zwartz those skills are on display on Animarum, but they are found, not in solo virtuosity, but in deeply considered bass lines as part of the overall ensemble. In fact, Zwartz features himself only once, in the title track, and that is a modest effort, subsumed into the surrounding soundscape. The focus here is on the collaborative skills of nine superb musicians, a contrast to the rather empty virtuosity that characterises much contemporary jazz. The compositions that dominate the album are slow-moving but hypnotic. They are so spacious, with many sustained notes, underpinned by lovely harmonic progressions, that Zwartz seems to be asking the listener to pause and reflect, before he moves on to another musical idea. It would be misleading to say that the writing is sparse, but it is the opposite of busy. The reflective mood is established in the opening track Someday, with Barney McAll’s gospel-tinged solo piano introduction, before the entry of Zwartz, Steve Magnusson (guitar), Hamish Stuart (drums) and Fabian Hevia (percussion). The members of this brilliant rhythm section, playing gently and always within themselves, are completely at home with each other. When the four-piece horn section enters, this inspired piece, with majestic chord changes, builds into a stirring anthem culminating in a ruminative solo from Magnusson. This is music that makes you feel glad you’re alive. While Animarum is not about machismo-style virtuosity, there is a deeper, more meaningful virtuosity in the instrumental solos liberated by Zwartz’s disarmingly pleasant writing. Julien Wilson shows, in his solos throughout, a mastery of the expressive possibilities of the tenor saxophone: choked or fluttered notes, and glissandos, at the top of the instrument’s range; breathy, full-rounded notes in the bottom register; and a mellifluous capacity to create solos of melodic beauty. In the tune Zwartz has entitled Julien Wilson’s Sound Of Love Wilson simply plays one of the great tenor solos. The trombonist James Greening, playing softly and close to the microphone in Milton and Seahorse, has rarely sounded more intimate and mellow. Phil Slater’s improvisations on Milton and Emily are so perfectly formed that one can appreciate why Paul Grabowsky considers Slater one of the most important trumpeters in the world today. The remaining front-line player Richard Maegraith (saxophones, bass clarinet) does not solo. Other than Wilson, the key performer on the album, however, is the extraordinary McAll, in many ways the power behind the throne. His bright, creative piano fills and solos enliven Zwartz’s compositions throughout. There is something deeper than usual happening here. This beautiful album seems to me to be the musical expression of a life worth living.
John Scurry’s Reverse Swing
Four and a half stars
Published in the Weekend Australian February 17, 2018
This delightful album from the Melbourne guitarist John Scurry should be enjoyed by all genuine jazz fans no matter what their stylistic preference. Some of the music sounds like traditional jazz, as when the two main front-line players Eugene Ball (trumpet) and Michael McQuaid (clarinet, tenor saxophone) are joined by the outstanding trombonist James Macaulay for half of the 17 tracks. Of these three musicians only McQuaid is unequivocally a traditionalist. Ball and Macaulay are so technically fluent, and bursting with ideas, that they easily transcend the conventions of so-called “trad jazz”. It’s easy to imagine their being at home in more modern settings. Sometimes Scurry’s music sounds like swing, or mainstream, or even modern jazz. In reality it is Ellingtonian, defying categorisation. Outside of Count Basie, I have rarely heard a more driving swing feel than that provided by Scurry’s rhythm guitar and Howard Cairns’s propulsive bass lines. Usually considered a modernist, the drummer Danny Fischer is an apt partner-in-crime, whether using brushes, sticks or mallets, or energising various tunes with the rarely heard sound of the sizzle cymbal. Eugene Ball emerged in the late 90s with the irreverent trad/punk group The Hoodangers, and has since morphed into an eclectic figure, active in many stylistic settings such as groups led by the modernist pianist/composer Andrea Keller. Here, as producer and arranger along with Scurry, Ball’s expertise dominates the album. All 17 compositions are by Scurry. Four are love songs featuring the elegant singer Shelley Scown, who floats over the rhythm section like a dream. Lyrics for Your Face and How Calm is the Sea Tonight are from Scurry and, although it is not credited in the liner notes, the lyrics of By Practised Skill and Yes are unpublished poems by the American author Dashiell Hammett, dating from the 1920s. The witty, perceptive lyrics in the four vocals will resonate with any man who has been in the orbit of a beautiful woman, and pondered on the perplexities involved. Other musicians include Matt Boden (piano) and Phil Noy (alto saxophone). Appearing in several combinations, nine fine musicians provide endless variety, and it’s a revelation to hear Scurry’s judicious guitar solos. I’m no expert on Melbourne jazz, but I think I’m hearing the outcome of a very vibrant jazz culture. Scurry, now 70, a veteran of the legendary Red Onion Jazz Band, has brought together a group of talented musicians from various (hitherto) sectarian jazz camps in a seamless collaboration. Also a renowned visual artist, Scurry illustrates the album cover with his mysterious 2016 oil painting Landscape, and expertly describes his own album: “I can liken [Post Matinée] to having an exhibition of paintings wherein there is no articulated concept or theme at play; rather a gathering of works that hopefully co-habit together and make sense musically.” Scurry’s considerable modesty cannot disguise what he has given us: a beautiful and deeply satisfying album.
I Hold The Lion’s Paw
Earshift Music EAR020
Published in the Weekend Australian March 3, 2018
Abstract Playgrounds is an entertaining album of “free jazz”, played by an 8-piece group I Hold The Lion’s Paw (IHTLP), also known as the Melbourne Psychedelic Jazz Collective. A free jazz purist might consider the music conservative, but ironically this is the key to the album’s success. IHTLP is a “freely improvising ensemble”, says leader/trumpeter Reuben Lewis, but the musicians’ freedom is tempered by collective discipline and considerable empathy. The album has two sections derived from five hours of recording: one containing 22 minutes of improvisation without editing; and the other containing seven tracks re-mixed and spliced together by Mark Shepherd (one of three bassists on the album). Rather than dispense with the conventional rules underpinning four key areas of music - rhythm, harmony, melody and structure - IHTLP’s approach in performance is primarily to bend them. Take rhythm for example. On several occasions the two drummers (Ronny Ferella and Christian Windfield) lay down a groove whereby the group sounds like a tightly-knit funk band. The music is danceable, infectious, and the inevitable deconstructions are subtle. Apparently rehearsed melodies appear spontaneously, suggesting predetermined compositions. Like other successful free improvisers (think The Necks, Keith Jarrett) IHTLP provides familiar musical signposts which counterbalance more inaccessible sections of ruminative doodling or noise. Such a comforting signpost in one track is Lewis’s use of the Harmon mute, recalling Miles Davis’s 1970s period. There are many others. Distinguished jazz stalwarts in the group include Jordan Murray (trombone), Geoff Hughes (guitar) and Ronny Ferella. Note Lewis’s clear agenda: “an organic cross-over of afro-beat, jazz and outré electronics, electro-acoustic noise, slowly evolving sound tracks, afro-beat inspired grooves and psychedelic free jazz.” It’s a mouthful, but it’s deadly accurate.